COLUMBUS, Ohio — J.T. Barrett wrapped both arms around the Illibuck, and in the driving rain, the senior quarterback lifted it high above his head in front of Ohio State’s student section.
Welcome to Trophy Season. The Buckeyes have already claimed their first piece of hardware, and they are officially cleared to start hunting bigger game than a wooden turtle.
At some point, there also will be an East Division championship for Ohio State to raise, though it wasn’t on the field as part of the sloppy, soaking celebration at the Horseshoe after the title was officially clinched with a 52-14 drubbing of Illinois on Saturday. And between the two, the Buckeyes certainly would have been more inclined to show off that trophy than the Illibuck, no offense to the historical significance of that historical artifact.
“Yeah, the Illibuck is a huge thing, it’s part of this little rivalry we have with Illinois,” Barrett said. “It was a great moment to share that with the guys.
“But coach [Urban] Meyer talks about as warriors of this football game, we have a mission, you complete the mission, you celebrate and then you wait for your next directive. Tomorrow we’re going to be back at work.”
The work isn’t done, of course, even though winning the division is the goal at the top of the checklist for the Buckeyes coming into every season. It’s the mission every year to “Get to Indy,” a message plastered in the weight room during summer conditioning drills that can’t be achieved without navigating the treacherous waters in arguably the most brutal division in all of college football.
But that’s only really Step One in a process of chasing down bigger prizes. And after crushing Michigan State and cruising past Illinois to lock up a matchup with Wisconsin in Indianapolis and put that puzzling loss to Iowa in the rearview mirror, another major trophy is in reach that the Buckeyes will almost certainly be favored to claim.
And if Ohio State can win that, odds are the champion of the conference the College Football Playoff selection committee has evaluated to be the best in the nation is probably going to earn a crack at a national title.
“I love our focus,” Meyer said. “I love the way we’re practicing and the intent focus. That’s the mantra right now, and I like where we’re at.
“That [East Division title] is very important. However, we did celebrate for a quick minute, and then it’s over. Now it’s time to put our laser lights on our rival.”
Oh, yeah. There is that minor detail of the greatest rivalry in all of sports standing between Ohio State and adding to the trophy case in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
Bragging rights don’t go in there, of course. But there are some Gold Pants on the line if the Buckeyes can knock off Michigan for the sixth year in a row, again putting something material on the line in a game that doesn’t have any other implications in the Big Ten race.
It’s still a bit odd to think the stakes in The Game will have nothing to do with the conference as a whole, which is as much a reflection of how dominant Ohio State has been in the East as it is Michigan’s inability to mount much of a threat this season. And in some ways, clinching that spot in Indy with a week to spare might provide a different sort of challenge for the renewed focus Ohio State has put on display the past couple weeks.
On the other hand? The Buckeyes don’t need the promise of a trophy to get motivated for the Wolverines in the first place. And if the Big Ten title is at the top of the list of goals, Michigan is essentially off to the side in a column all its own.
“We have meetings throughout the whole year, throughout the summer about ‘Beat the Team Up North,’” linebacker Chris Worley said. “That’s the No. 1 thing, but then you start talking about goals, our goal is always basically to go to the Big Ten championship. That’s also our goal. But to beat the Team Up North, that’s something that had just better happen. That’s like a law, and you don’t break that law.
“This isn’t our first rodeo. Every year there’s Big Ten championship talk, College Football Playoff, we’re right in the mix of it, so for us it’s kind of easy to focus. We know if we just take care of our job, come out with a win and play Buckeye football, no matter what happens, we’ve put ourselves in a good position.”
That approach had them ready when Trophy Season officially opened for business Saturday.
At the rate they’re going now, it looks like the haul is about to get a whole lot better than just a turtle.