COLUMBUS, Ohio – It sounds cliche, I know, but maybe Ohio State needed something basic. After all, for a team that had risen to No. 2 in the national polls in September, it seemed things had — as Urban Meyer put in on Monday — plateaued.
“We were climbing very good early in the season,” Meyer said Monday morning at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. “We plateaued and you gotta somehow jump-start it and get the climb started again. … I felt like obviously we plateaued.”
If we’re being honest with ourselves — and we are — it’s easy to recognize that the normally sharp-tongued Meyer was being overtly euphemistic. Ohio State didn’t plateau after a nearly perfect September, it waned. It slowed down. Regressed.
Call it what you will, but the bottom line here is that the one thing you fear the most with an inexperienced team — complacency — actually happened.
Sure, the Buckeyes played better teams in October than they did in September, but it was more than that. We watched a team that left September riding high on confidence become uncertain and timid. We saw a handful of players that were relative strangers to the national scene at the start of the season turn into early NFL draft picks, and with that, it’s possible focus changed. Did they change away from this year and to the future, individually? Did they stop thinking about “how can I help the team” and instead shift to “how can I help myself?”
Maybe. Following the Buckeyes’ inexplicable loss to Penn State on Oct. 22, something had to change. When the team returned to Columbus, just hours after that defeat, the leaders stood up with a plan.
It was simple. Get in, or get out.
“After that loss, man. It was just about everybody refocusing,” linebacker Raekwon McMillan shared with the media on Monday. “Everybody getting back to the basics, like I always talk about. We had our team meeting, and the captains stood up. We talked about how, you know, everybody needs to be fully into this program. Nobody needs to be half in, half out. If you’re here, then put all your time and effort into being here, and the other things will come.”
The ”other things” McMillan spoke of were simple: the NFL, the national title, etc. Beating Michigan. The focus was not where it needed to be. Yes, Ohio State is very talented but this isn’t — and wasn’t — a team that could afford to take its eyes off the prize. That seems to be exactly what they did. Mock drafts showed no names becoming first-round draft picks and playoff projections showed the country’s youngest team playing for a national title.
You’ve got to avoid those distractions to avoid “plateauing.” Every single game is the most important game, every year, and five losses in 60 games doesn’t change that. In fact, it exacerbates it, because now, when you lose? You’re potentially losing a shot at something big.
“Some of it is the NFL,” McMillan told Land of 10. “But I’m talking more about stuff like, we’ve got play in the Big Ten championship, we’ve got to beat Michigan, this that and the other thing. We’re not really worrying Penn State and stuff like that. Last year, (worrying about the NFL) was a problem. It’s kind of a thing between players that we have, we have to talk to each other and have the clear understanding that we’re here at Ohio State and it needs to be that way and stay that way.
“Once you take a loss like that, you start focusing more on having fun with each other, being around each other. Really building that camaraderie again and really focusing on the time you have here, because it’s limited. We’re focused back on us. Not on being around the country. Not being ‘No. 2.’ We’re happy to be here, and happy to be in the situation that we’re in.”
Ohio State has three games left in its regular season. Three games to win out to have a chance to win the Big Ten. Three games to earn a shot at a college football playoff berth. While Saturday’s game at Maryland matters the most right now, there’s a new challenge for Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes.
How do you – with the national media once again telling you that you’re great – avoid another pratfall at Maryland or Michigan State? Forget Michigan on Nov. 26. That may as well be light years away. Meyer shed a little light on the message he’s sending his team this week.
“I’ll share a little bit of it with you,” the Buckeyes head coach said when asked how to keep his team focused after a 59-point win. “A group of players made a decision to play very well (against Nebraska). You can throw that one away if you don’t follow up with another good week of practice and preparation, and that’s been the message.”