GLENDALE, Ariz. — When Urban Meyer loses a game, he descends into a deep abyss. He enters a zombie-like state, so consumed with failure and what could have gone differently that he can look like he’s awake yet comatose for days. Meyer joked this week about doctors finding different Buckeyes losses inside of him during an autopsy after he passes away.
And as the final seconds ticked away from No. 2 Clemson’s 31–0 evisceration of Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday night, Meyer stood on the sidelines with his arms crossed and his gaze hollow, staring at an off-season suddenly filled with uncertainty.
The blowout loss did so much more than eliminate the Buckeyes from the College Football Playoff. It rocked a proud program to the core, exposing an overmatched offensive line, a pedestrian passing game and play calling so out of synch former Buckeyes linebacker Darron Lee called it “trash” on Twitter. Meyer entered the Fiesta Bowl with a 61–5 overall record at Ohio State and a 45–3 record with more than a week to prepare in his career. He’s leaving it having endured the first shutout and most lopsided loss of his 15-season, 194-game career. “Ohio State is not used to this,” Meyer said afterwards. “I’m not used to this, and we will not get used to this. That’s not going to happen again. So we’ll get things worked out.”
After time expired Ohio State’s players, trudged over to lock arms and sing the school’s fight song in front of their fans. The walk of shame left Clemson’s celebratory confetti wedged in their cleats, and they swayed solemnly in front of the Buckeyes cheering section while the neon reality of their night—Clemson 31, Ohio State 0—taunted them from a scoreboard above. It was the program’s first shutout since 1993, when a John Cooper coached team lost to Michigan 28–0. It was the first time the Buckeyes got shut out in a bowl since 1920.
Amid the indignities came a reality: Imminent change is inevitable at Ohio State. “I’m going to take a hard look at some things when we get back,” Meyer said, “and obviously there were some great things this year, some great things.”
But he added: “Anytime you struggle a little bit, you always take a hard look.”
For the second consecutive season, in the biggest game and biggest stage of the campaign, Ohio State’s offense delivered a searing no-show. Flat performances on big stages are first-world problems, as this Ohio State squad replaced 16 starters and still managed to lead the Big Ten in offense and reach the national semifinals. But it’s hard to imagine how Meyer will reconcile an offensive performance that was a complete study in impotence and incompetence. Ohio State got overwhelmed at the line of scrimmage, neutralized on the perimeter and self-destructed with drops, penalties and turnovers the few times it cobbled together momentum. “This was unexpected, didn’t see that coming by any means,” said Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, who finished the game 19 for 33 for 127 yards with two interceptions. “We expected to win the game, and that wasn’t what happened.”
There were hints, however, that a Buckeyes offensive implosion was coming. The relentless drama of Ohio State’s double-overtime victory over Michigan to end the regular season obscured the team’s obvious offensive issues, as the Buckeyes failed to score on eight consecutive drives in that game. Ohio State entered the Fiesta Bowl ranked 78th nationally in passing offense this season.
Late Saturday night, amid the punched lockers, teary eye black and blank stares in the Ohio State locker room came dribs of insight. The most telling comments may have come from the chorus of players and coaches insisting they weren’t physically overmatched. One could quibble that was inaccurate on the offensive line, as Clemson manhandled, ragdolled and snowplowed the Buckeyes offensive line the entire night. But the general feel from opposing coaches heading into this game was that the talent on both sidelines was generally equal.
Clemson has a great team with a great chance to upset Alabama, but the Tigers are far from infallible. They gave up more than 30 points four times this season. Heck, even Troy scored 24 points. Ohio State’s goose egg included season lows for rushing yards (88) and total offense (215). And it also revealed some telling quotes.
When asked about the offense passing the ball 21 of the first 27 plays, Meyer answered: “I didn’t realize that until you said it. That was not the game plan. I think we kind of got taken out of the game plan a little bit. But no, that was our plan, to be balanced. We didn’t follow the plan.”
Ohio State co-offensive coordinator Tim Beck was asked about what he’d like to see from the Buckeyes next season, and his answer ended up as an indictment of this one. “I think we have to create an identity,” Beck said, “of what we want to be.”
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, the final identity of this team will be one of utter dysfunction in its biggest game. The ineptitude started with the offensive line, which yielded 11 tackles for loss. That really wasn’t a surprise though, as Penn State also pummeled Ohio State 11 times in the backfield and Michigan compiled 13.
There were plenty of play calls to second-guess, as Ohio State seemed so intent to force-feed the ball to Curtis Samuel on the perimeter that it ignored the quarterback run game. The Buckeyes offense spent so much of the night flowing east to west, it never really gained any traction moving forward. Receivers struggled to gain separation, and as the Buckeyes lack a deep threat the Clemson safeties spent the night crowding the line of scrimmage. As the offensive line faltered and execution mistakes piled up, the end result was embarrassing inertia.
Looking at this Ohio State season holistically, it’s laughable to cast it as a failure. A young team grew up fast, a constellation of unknown stars emerged and an unexpected playoff bid resulted. But this ending proved so sudden, so garish and so lopsided that it’s hard to imagine change not arriving in some form. The most fascinating part may be that the entire offense, other than senior center Pat Elflein, should return. (Barrett seems set to come back, as he said postgame: “It will be really hard for me to walk away, when we just lost 31–0.”) Despite the personnel continuity, Meyer made it clear he’ll take a long look at the offense so that a much different result comes from the same players.
Whether that’s scheme or philosophy or staff is uncertain. But as Meyer left University of Phoenix Stadium and entered the misty night, his empty glare focused on how things could be different in 2017.
“That’s not going to happen again,” he said. “So go to work.”