Season-ending injures to two Heisman Trophy caliber quarterbacks, a week-two loss to an unranked opponent and the death of a teammate.
That’s the string of adversity the Ohio State football team had to overcome on its way to a 59-0 drubbing of Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game and an eventual berth in the first-ever College Football Playoff.
“We can say we did that and it just shows how truly special this group is and how we can come together, coaching staff, support staff, players, everyone,” senior tight end Jeff Heuerman said after OSU’s title-game win. “We just all came together and it was truly special.”
Senior cornerback Doran Grant echoed Heuerman, and added the team’s attitude helped it fight through difficult times.
“The thing is, I know we have a resilient team,” Grant said Sunday. “We’re fighters, and we overcame a whole lot of adversity.”
The Buckeyes (12-1, 8-0) topped the Badgers on Saturday in Indianapolis, and then found out they were ranked No. 4 in the final edition of the College Football Playoff standings Sunday afternoon. That ranking meant OSU had moved into the final playoff spot, setting the Buckeyes up for a matchup with No. 1 Alabama on New Year’s Day.
The game pits Buckeye coach Urban Meyer against Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban for the fourth time in their coaching careers. Meyer is 1-2 against Saban in the three previous matchups.
Even after locking up their 35th Big Ten title, Grant said the Buckeyes weren’t positive they had done enough to convince to the playoff selection committee. But at the end of the day, they did.
“We weren’t quite sure we were gonna get in or not, depending on what the committee put down, but (we) got in,” he said. “(I’m) excited. Chance to make history.”
Going into the weekend, the Buckeyes needed at least a win — if not a blowout victory — in order to stake their claim on a playoff spot.
But the matchup with Wisconsin came just more than a week after redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett — who was putting up Heisman-caliber numbers — fractured his ankle, and just under a week since the Buckeyes learned of the death of walk-on defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge.
Barrett had already replaced another Heisman candidate in senior Braxton Miller, who was ruled out for the season after tearing the labrum in his throwing shoulder during fall camp. So when OSU took the field at Lucas Oil Stadium, it was down to former third-string redshirt-sophomore Cardale Jones at quarterback, playing with the memory of Karageorge in mind.
“A lot of things happened this past week,” Meyer said after the game. “There’s a family grieving that was a big part of our family. Kosta, we had a prayer and a moment of silence for him in our locker room for him and his family. We’ll never forget our teammate.”
Senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett — who wore Karageorge’s No. 53 against Wisconsin in honor of his late teammate — said the player’s death brought the Buckeyes closer together.
“Maybe he gave me strength, because I’ve never played like that before,” Bennett said. “I think he gave the guys strength and we were able to rally around together because we realized how special it is to do what we do with each other.”
Bennett finished the game with a career-high four tackles for loss and two sacks, while also forcing a fumble that was returned by sophomore defensive lineman Joey Bosa for a touchdown.
Bennett and the rest of the defense’s play was coupled with unprecedented offensive success for OSU, considering Wisconsin came into the game with the No. 2 defense in the nation.
Jones racked up 257 yards and three touchdowns through the air while sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott piled on 220 yards and two more scores on the ground.
On top of the adversity suffered in recent days, junior linebacker Joshua Perry said he and other non-seniors wanted to send the Buckeye veterans out with their first Big Ten Championship.
“There was a lot of talk about that,” Perry said after the game. “They’ve been here, done a lot of great things. They’ve won a lot of games and really didn’t have too much to show for it, so we wanted to send them out right.”
As the team banded together for the seniors — including Karageorge — and injured teammates, Meyer said the Buckeyes are the most improved team he’s coached. But he added they still have room to grow with the playoff looming.
“We’re not a finished product,” he said Sunday. “There’s too many young players out there … the future’s very bright, though.”
Grant said the team recognizes it has room to grow, and added that has helped the Buckeyes on their path to the playoff and a matchup with the top team in the nation.
“That makes us better,” he said of playing through adversity. “Having to fight, having to be together, having to depend on one another even more knowing that we already had one loss early in the year.”
And now after overcoming that loss on the field — and losses off of it — Grant said OSU will take on the Crimson Tide with the same attitude it had against the Badgers.
“Play with a chip on our shoulders, and that’s what we did last night, too,” Grant said Sunday. “Gotta play angry, because we need that respect, we want that respect for Ohio State. Because that’s what Ohio State deserves.”
Meyer said he didn’t initially expect the Buckeyes to be in the position they are before the season started. He added that he feels the team has proven what it can do, but he didn’t realize that until the blowout of the Badgers.
“I started seeing it but I didn’t believe it completely until the experience we had on Saturday night,” Meyer said.
While his coach said he realized how far the Buckeyes had come while still in Indianapolis, Grant said it took until Sunday to fully grasp what the team has accomplished, and to turn its attention to what lies ahead.
“Last night was kinda like, ‘Man, what just happened?’” Grant said Sunday. “But then now, it’s all coming. We see it on TV, we’re in the four spot, we see our name by that four. So now it’s real, it’s legit and we’re ready to take on this challenge.”
OSU and Alabama are scheduled to play on Jan. 1 in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Kickoff is set for 8:30 p.m.