SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Ask Billy Price about the play that sent Ohio State to the College Football Playoff and you might get a dirty look.
“I don’t like that question, to be honest with you,” Price said. “Your season doesn’t come down to a spot.”
For the Buckeyes, becoming the first non-conference champion team to crash college football’s final four came down to several.
It started on Oct. 15 with a double-overtime win in Madison, Wis. It endured a loss a week later against Penn State. Close calls against Northwestern and Michigan State followed in between, but no play this season embodied Ohio State’s path to the playoff like Quarterback J.T. Barrett’s fourth-and-one run in the second overtime of the Buckeyes’ 30-27 victory over rival Michigan.
By now, you’re probably well aware of the most controversial play of the 2016 college football season. It even produced the new sports version of the Zapruder Film. But in case you’ve since gotten wrapped up in No. 3 Ohio State’s New Year’s Eve Fiesta Bowl semifinal showdown with second-ranked Clemson, here’s a quick refresher:
As the Buckeyes trailed the Wolverines by a field goal and needed a touchdown to win in double-overtime, Curtis Samuel took a third-down swing pass eight yards to the Michigan 16-yard-line. The only problem was that Ohio State needed nine yards.
Rather than attempt a field goal and potentially force another overtime period, Urban Meyer opted to try to keep his team’s drive alive. Barrett dove forward and the referees gave the Buckeyes the first down a fraction of an inch.
And while an ensuing review would confirm the referee’s spot, Michigan fans remained unconvinced. One play later, Samuel darted 15-yards into the end zone, punching Ohio State’s ticket to the College Football Playoff in the process.
By its nature, the play — or “The Spot,” as the Wolverines faithful call it — was controversial. Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh even spent his postgame press conference ripping the officials for that call, and others.
But even as the play would help keep the Buckeyes — sans conference championship and all — in the hunt for a national title, Ohio State hasn’t taken as much heat for being on the right side of the spot as some might have thought. In fact, in the days leading up to the Fiesta Bowl, it was seldom mentioned to the Buckeyes players and coaches during media availability.
“What spot?” Samuel asked, seriously, when I asked him if he or his teammates had independently reviewed the play after the game. “We didn’t really pinpoint that play.”
One theory on the importance of the play, however, did come from Samuel, who suggested the highly-disputed, fourth-down spot — and its subsequent review —helped set up Ohio State’s game-winning score in more ways than one.
“(The refs) were over there reviewing the spot. We weren’t really paying attention to that. We felt like we had it,” Samuel said. “We were more preparing for the play that was about to be next. I think (Michigan) was more worried about the spot.”
Like Price said, however, that inch was just one of many that went into Ohio State’s now-historic playoff run.
What if the Buckeyes never came back from a double-digit deficit to force overtime against Wisconsin? Or what if linebacker Chris Worley hadn’t intercepted Michigan State’s fourth-quarter two-point try? Ohio State wouldn’t have even been in a position to convert on fourth down against the Wolverines had Samuel not taken the previous play eight yards or if the Buckeyes hadn’t made a fourth-quarter comeback.
“You have to take every little moment and be able to execute and dominate,” Price said this week. “I don’t look back and say, ‘I wish we would have done this’ or ‘I wish we would have done this.’ Everything happens for a reason.”
Save for a blocked kick return against Penn State, those moments have each seemed to have broken the Buckeyes’ way.
According to Samuel, that’s far from a coincidence. Dispute the Ohio State’s spot in the College Football Playoff at your own risk. The Buckeyes know they’ve earned their spot in the playoff.
Football is, after all, a game of inches.
“A bunch of different things could have happened in those games,” Samuel said. “But we were able to pull through.”