COLUMBUS, Ohio — The memory of a somber Sunday at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center is still fresh in Joshua Perry’s mind, even three years later.
Ohio State filed upstairs for a team lunch, largely sitting in silence and still trying to come to terms with the upset loss the night before against Virginia Tech. Perry, already a respected leader for the Buckeyes and a starting linebacker, caught a glimpse of an exhausted Urban Meyer enter the room looking like he didn’t want to talk to anybody.
Then Meyer opened his mouth and the course of the season may have changed in that moment.
“He looks like he didn’t get a wink of sleep, like somebody had kicked him in the gut,” Perry said. “But the first thing he said when he sat down was, ‘I’m just glad to be back with my players.’ He said he liked to be around his leaders, liked to be around his guys and that we were going to get this thing figured out.
“The first thing he talked about from then on is what more he could do as a coach. If he asks that question, coming from the top, it makes it so much easier. If the coach is critical of himself, we have to be just as critical of what we’re doing, if not more critical.”
Ohio State is once again in need of critiques inside the program, and Perry obviously can relate to the mood at the Woody this week after the loss on Saturday to Oklahoma.
Like 2014, the Buckeyes dropped their home opener. It was the second game of the season, on the heels of an up-and-down victory on the road to start the year. It came on the heels of a difficult offseason full of questions, with the coincidences even including a bowl loss to Clemson.
So, can Ohio State duplicate the ensuing run to the national championship this season? If nothing else, the Buckeyes already have the blueprint.
Narrow the focus
The margin for error is gone, make no mistake about that.
Ohio State hasn’t lost a conference game, so it obviously still has that championship potential within its grasp. Another loss could knock the Buckeyes out of the College Football Playoff race, though, which enhances the value of every game on the schedule.
That includes nonconference opponents that on paper seemingly would have no shot at pulling off a surprise.
“Every week we came back and went extremely hard, played extremely hard,” senior defensive end Tyquan Lewis said. “We knew that our hopes and dreams were still alive no matter what.
“I wouldn’t say we have to remind [anybody of that]. It’s just now you have to move forward from the loss because it’s a long year. I think the main focus is just on beating Army. That’s our main focus right now. Beat Army, get back to what we do and plug away.”
There will certainly be tougher tests for the Buckeyes down the road.
But even with the schedule softening up for about five games, the next month or so is more about how Ohio State approaches its own business, its own issues and its own work ethic that ultimately will decide how successful this season can be.
“For us, it was definitely a punch in the gut,” Perry said. “Nobody thought we were going to lose to Virginia Tech. We weren’t supposed to, and it wasn’t supposed to even be close if you’re really looking at it. Reflecting on our thoughts immediately after the game, we realized we were nowhere close to where we need to be.
“What it basically boiled down to for us is you’ve got to take a hard look in the mirror, players and coaches, and ask, ‘What more can you do?’ In general, it’s not we need to have better players, we need to do this, that and the other. It’s more about focusing on game prep, learn how to detail up what we’re really doing, needing to go into every game really focused and really prepared. Because when we play our best, teams aren’t going to beat us.”
Having been a starter on that title team alongside Perry, senior captain Billy Price has seen the energy deflate in the Woody before in his career.
The pain of a loss doesn’t disappear just by reporting back to the facility and getting back to work on the practice field. But that’s a necessity before there’s a chance to a win another game at the Horseshoe, no matter how difficult lacing up the cleats to take those first steps might be.
“I think the day after is kind of that shell-shocked [feeling], just like any other program would be,” Price said. “There’s that huge shell-shock. There’s remnants, and it’s not a funny reference — it’s like a funeral. It’s quiet, the music [is down], you don’t have that same live feeling, that pop, that kick in your step. It’s been one of those things where it’s like a Corporate Monday where you really have to push yourself through sometimes.
“You don’t want to be there after the weekend or whatever, but you have to really continue to push yourself through those things. Get back to the way we play football, get back to the way this offense runs, get back to the winning tradition here at Ohio State and continue to represent this program and ourselves the best way we can.”
By the end of the week, the opportunity to go claim another win will be there.
The Buckeyes like to call it “pay day,” but the figurative checks have to be earned. And they can be cashed for the same amount regardless of the opponent.
“I mean, our main focus is beating Army,” Lewis said. “2014 was 2014, and right now my focus is on beating Army.”
Own up to the issues
After Meyer set the tone during that 2014 lunch, Perry’s defensive coordinator and position coach Luke Fickell had his turn to follow suit.
That meeting turned out to be every bit as memorable for the linebackers because it clearly established what was wrong without any need for fire and brimstone.
“We were watching film in the linebacker room, and Coach Fick wasn’t fussing at us, he wasn’t yelling, he wasn’t cussing,” Perry said. “He was just talking to us, coach to player, about what we need to get done. I think that demeanor he had where it didn’t seem like he was really angry or bitter or panicked about anything, players feed off that.
“Now it’s done, there’s a lot of ball ahead of us and we can get it fixed.”
The Buckeyes have problems to address, no doubt about it.
They aren’t denying that the passing attack needs to improve. The coaches have taken blame for breakdowns on both sides of the ball, with offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson taking ownership of the play calling and defensive coordinator Greg Schiano publicly shouldering blame for the pile of yardage Ohio State has given up through two games. And, maybe the most important: The players haven’t been pointing any fingers at each other or looking for excuses.
“Every team is different,” Price said. “The 2014 team, I was 19, 20 years old at the time, same thing for J.T.[Barrett]. There are seven fifth-year seniors. We actually have that experience. We know what it was like. We’ve been here before, we’ve been here after losses and it’s not fun at all.
“There’s a high expectation here set by our fans, set by the coaches and, even more so, set by the players. We have to make sure that we continue to get better and continue to take care of the little things and have the trust in the coaching staff to put the 11 best players on the field at all times”
Don’t stress about the playoff
The four-team playoff was new in 2014, and nobody was entirely sure exactly how the committee would handle a team like Ohio State that suffered an upset loss at home in September even as it roared to a Big Ten title.
That created some confusion and uncertainty when the topic came up in the locker room. It was clear, though, that it didn’t matter if the Buckeyes didn’t keep winning.
“I think for us, there were still a lot of questions because the playoff was new and we didn’t know how that was going to affect our chances,” Perry said. “In our case, I think guys were very optimistic because we knew we had a good team, we knew we had stuff to fix and we knew could fix it.
“Now, this year’s team, they know. Even last year, all four teams in the playoff had a loss, so you know you can get in. Losing early sometimes is the best thing. First off, losing late is just bad timing, but losing early makes you re-evaluate your path.”
Back in 2014, the detour wound up leading the Buckeyes exactly back to where they always intended to go.
Here in 2017, this version of the Buckeyes appears to be working with an almost identical map.
“I talked about the template, and that comes up,” Meyer said. “It’s kind of nonsense because we’re so early in the season, but when you have such extremely high expectations, you’ve got to give them a nugget now and then. So I made the decision, we brought that up. We didn’t spend much time on it, but there’s a template that worked very well.
“But within that template, there were some real rugged players and some real rugged coaches that got the job done.”
The climb can get a little rugged, too. But nobody knows any better than the Buckeyes how to get back to the top after an early setback.