Daniel Chi / Asst. photo editor
On a dark November day befitting of The Game, and in a finale befitting of an entire season, tens of thousands of fans bundled in scarlet and gray scarves, coats and gloves poured from the cement stands of Ohio Stadium and onto the field in a way that was perhaps only befitting of champions.
The stream, which started slow, grew greater and greater into a sea of red as fans of the 12-0 Ohio State Buckeyes determined to touch a part of history galloped onto the cold turf of the Horseshoe.
Most found themselves leveled into a solid mass of humanity that stretched from the south end zone to about midfield.
Some ran around and tried to recreate past moments of Buckeye lore that had happened on the very field they stood on.
Some laid down, sprawled out and looked at the gray sky overhead as if to soak up a moment that could really never again be replicated.
All, though, knew what it meant – all knew what had just happened before them.
The Buckeyes, in spite of their imperfections, were perfect.
And its coach – their coach – Urban Meyer was drowning somewhere in all of it.
Meyer, who had committed himself to the university as its football team’s orchestrator last November, found himself realizing a promise to his home he’d made a year earlier.
“This is the state I made a comment on last November, December, whenever it was, that our objective is to make the great state of Ohio proud,” a fulfilled-looking Meyer said. “I imagine tonight there’s a lot of people in this great state very proud of what their football team, no one else’s, this is the state of Ohio’s football team.”
The celebration of the program’s first undefeated season since 2002 was theirs to revel in, too.
So was what the 26-21 triumph against Michigan meant to a state that had watched its – or as Meyer insists, their – football team sink to and mire in previously unfamiliar depths of mediocrity in 2011.
The Buckeyes, which began the season marred by NCAA violations and their subsequent consequences long before the year’s opener against Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 1, danced like conquerors following their very last battle of the 2012 campaign.
Meyer had done it. The 21 seniors had done it.
Redshirt senior safety and special teams standout Zach Domicone said there never was a doubt.
“I think a lot of guys thought that we could do this, I think that’s where it starts,” he said. “Not once since I’ve been here did I ever think, even last year when we had a few losses in a row, that we would ever lose.”
This year, the Buckeyes didn’t. For just the sixth time in school history, No. 4 OSU found itself ending the year a flawless 12-0 – in spite of an already hampered path, injuries, personnel issues and its own defects.
The Buckeyes were perfect, but hardly perfect.
On a day that OSU honored its 2002 national championship team, this year’s squad wasn’t without its shortcomings against Michigan. Rarely was it ever.
After routing the Redhawks in their season-opener, a game that will be remembered as Meyer’s first as a head coach in the Horseshoe, the Buckeyes struggled against the likes of inferior competition in Central Florida, California and Alabama-Birmingham.
Perfection didn’t seem to be a buzzword. Surviving might have been more apt for the moment.
Big Ten play was looming, and a trip to East Lansing, Mich., looked like it might be the end of Meyer and OSU’s honeymoon.
But those who believed that were proven wrong as the Buckeyes pulled out a 17-16 win against Michigan State.
Braxton Miller, OSU’s heralded sophomore quarterback, said it was then that perfection started to become more of a reality than a dream.
“The toughness we showed in that game,” he said, “I thought we could have a chance to take it the whole way.”
Slowly but surely, the Buckeyes started to.
First came a night tilt against a Nebraska team that had gutted them in Lincoln a year prior. Next was a road contest against Indiana.
OSU was undefeated, but not without issues, not without concern, and the national spotlight, which glistened over Alabama, Oregon and other unbeatens at the time, reflected that.
Against the Cornhuskers and the Hoosiers, the Buckeyes had surrendered 87 points – 49 of which came against an Indiana team that some supposed would be an easy win.
Injuries, too, started to mount as the loss of redshirt senior linebacker Etienne Sabino, who broke his right fibula against Nebraska, forced Meyer to throw fullback-turned-linebacker Zach Boren to the other side of the ball.
The fiery criticism hurled at defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell’s defense seemed to become the narrative; the potential of the program’s first undefeated season since 2002 looked blurry and improbable.
Not with a team that gives up 49 points to the Hoosiers, not with a team that had struggled early in pillow fights against non-conference foes.
Perhaps this team had too many issues, too little to play for in a season that would inevitably end against the Wolverines.
While OSU looked to have put such problems behind them since, Michigan and its senior quarterback Denard Robinson gashed the Buckeyes for big play after big play.
Perhaps the defects of this team had come back to haunt them.
Fickell, though, maintained that the Buckeyes’ composure never faltered.
“We couldn’t panic, we couldn’t change up exactly everything we’re doing just because of the fact that they had two big plays,” he said. “So we just went back to the basics and made sure guys knew what they were going to get … We put more pressure on ourselves than anybody in the world, whether the media says something, whether somebody says you’re not very good.
“You know, my kids still think I’m really good. And after that game they still thought I was really good. They said, ‘Did we win?'”
His answer after every week?
And maybe that’s what this OSU team’s season comes down to.
Maybe it’s what the legacy will ultimately be of a Buckeye team barred from competing for a Big Ten or national championship.
Maybe it was that they just simply won. Nothing more, nothing less. And while a strong argument can almost certainly be made for or against a No. 1 finish in the year’s final Associated Press poll, it might not be the point.
“We wish we had more games, but we did all we can do,” Boren said. “We were scheduled to play 12 and that’s it this year and we won all 12.”
None of which seemed to come easy for an OSU team looking to avenge last year’s 6-7 finish under Fickell, who served as the team’s head coach after Jim Tressel resigned amid NCAA violations in May 2011.
Perhaps the Buckeyes’ imperfections prepared them for their last shot at perfection.
“We’ve been in so many close games like this, we know how to come out with a win,” Sabino said. “It’s not always pretty, but that ‘W’ on that column means so much to us.”
And likely, based on the Horseshoe’s jubilation Saturday, it meant just as much to all of Buckeye Nation.