Weekly Sports Rapp: Searching for a Carrot

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Established October 31, 1996
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Last updated: 08/09/2012 3:57 AM
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Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: Searching For A Carrot
By Jeff Rapp

The preseason grunt work has begun at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, and that means crackling pads, sore bodies, late-summer sweat and purposeful barks emanating from a new coaching staff.

Urban Meyer
Photo by Jim Davidson
Urban Meyer

Urban Meyer is pushing his players and assistants, challenging them to find an intensity level they weren’t even sure they had. But the ever-directed Ohio State coach has also spent some of his time during the initial practices of August “looking into helmets” to see which players simply won’t accept mediocrity and appear most able to hold up through what promises to be an intriguing and trying season.

Sure, the Sept. 1 opener with the Miami RedHawks is just weeks away, but a season-long head game is about to begin as well. Can the Buckeyes – and their fans, for that matter – maintain their focus knowing the unusual circumstances afoot?

A turmoil-filled 2011 season began with the inglorious exit of Jim Tressel and quarterback Terrelle Pryor. It dragged on with spotty play from a team ravaged by suspensions, and the eventual shortcomings that were pinned on one-year head coach Luke Fickell. It also led to NCAA sanctions, which included a postseason ban that is attached to the upcoming season.

There is no toy surprise in the box, no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, no Renoir hidden in the back of the $300 shed on “Storage Wars.”

There is just a 12-game regular season, eight of those contests at Ohio Stadium.

It’s uncharted territory for followers of the program like me, who have seen Ohio State play in a bowl game 37 times in the last 40 years. It’s also a foreign concept to Meyer, who turned Bowling Green into a MAC contender in 2001 and ’02 and led Utah and Florida to bowl games in his subsequent eight years as a head coach.

“We’ve never not played for a championship in November,” Meyer said Monday. “In my 10 years as a head coach, every November we were playing for a championship. So do we have to create our own championship? I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes.

“I’m hoping once again I’ve got an angry football team that wants to go try to win every game they play. If not, then we’ll just go play that game. If we have to motivate them in some way, we’ll certainly do that.”

In late July, at the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, Meyer also addressed the issue.

Urban Meyer
Photo by Dan Harker
Urban Meyer

“My biggest concern, without a so-called target at the end of the season, is how they are going to react when we hit a speed bump,” he said. “I’m still trying to measure this team. From day one, everything we’ve done has been competitive. That’s to teach, but also to evaluate through competitiveness. If they’re competitive, I don’t worry about that.

“If we start showing signs of being a non-competitive team, we’ll have to do something motivational.”

Meyer can threaten more strenuous workouts and tighten his glare, but this team, his first at OSU, eventually will define itself by how it plays as the reality of the November stop sign approaches.

No one knows that outcome yet, including the players who likely are in denial of their abbreviated fate.

For decades, of course, making it to the postseason meant trying to win the Big Ten Conference and advance to the Rose Bowl. Pasadena was “The Destination,” especially while Hayes was patrolling the sideline.

Players from that era have told me over the years their coaches drove them on execution and toughness but often brought up the allure of playing in the Rose Bowl. That carrot went away in seasons after the Buckeyes actually reached their goal. According to an agreement made by the Big Ten and Pac-8, teams could not make a repeat appearance in the Rose Bowl following the seasons from 1946 to ’71.

This made for some interesting scenarios for Ohio State.

The 1949 Buckeyes won the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2, 1950 with a 17-14 victory over California. They traversed through the next season knowing there would be no trip out West. OSU, of course still wanted to dump Michigan in the ’50 finale, but it wasn’t meant to be. The Buckeyes lost, 9-3, in the infamous Snow Bowl—a defeat that cost Wes Fesler his job and set up the arrival of Hayes.

Woody’s boys won national titles following the 1954 and ’57 seasons, thanks to clutch victories over the Maize and Blue and follow-up wins in the Rose Bowl. They also showed their mettle in subsequent seasons with glorious wins over UM even knowing there would be no bowl game.

The 1955 team, in fact, may have logged the most impressive win over Michigan in the history of the famed series. The Buckeyes headed up to Ann Arbor and absolutely flushed their top-10 foe, 17-0, holding the Wolverines to five first downs and allowing them to cross midfield on just one drive. Hayes also had reason to smile about his offense, which controlled the clock and churned out 333 yards on the ground.

The 1958 Buckeyes also went through the year knowing there would be no bowl trip but took down Michigan at home, 20-14, in another example of what great rivalries are all about.

Describing Ohio State’s win that year as thrilling would understate the atmosphere in the Horseshoe. The Buckeyes were clinging to the 20-14 lead when Michigan reached the OSU 1-yard line for one final play. Fullback Gene Sisinyak tried to power in but was met by defensive tackle Dick Schafrath, who blasted Sisinyak and forced him to fumble.

Game over.

OSU did not go back to the Rose Bowl until New Year’s Day of 1969, after destroying Michigan 50-14 on the strength of 29 unanswered second-half points. The win over USC in Pasadena secured another national championship but also set up perhaps the biggest disappointment of all in “The Game.”

Ohio State again couldn’t go to the Rose Bowl – or any bowl, for that matter – in 1969, but Hayes believed he had his best team and certainly didn’t want a perfect season to be clipped at Michigan; especially against his good friend Bo Schembechler. But that’s exactly what happened. Rex Kern was picked off repeatedly, and the Buckeyes squandered several scoring opportunities in a painful 24-12 defeat at Michigan Stadium.

Ohio State dealt Michigan a 20-9 loss the next year, as the Super Sophs were now super seniors, and the Buckeyes returned to the Rose Bowl, albeit with a loss to Stanford. In 1971, OSU fell at Michigan again and returned to Columbus with a 6-4 mark and another abrupt end to the campaign.

So to what season does this current quandary compare? Well, none of them, actually.

Ohio State isn’t coming off a national championship or even a season filled with Big Ten success. Instead, the Buckeyes are dealing with the grief of a 6-7 mark—their worst showing since 1999.

And none of those teams from the ‘50s or ‘60s (or ‘71) were also denied a chance to play in the Big Ten Championship Game, which debuted with great success last year as Wisconsin nipped Michigan State. Oh, by the way, the Badgers also clinched a return trip to the Rose Bowl with that thrilling 42-39 win at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Badgers would not have been eligible for that trip to Pasadena under the old rules in place from 1946-71.

What is the same, though, is the Buckeyes know their season is going to end in late November when they walk off the field having just tussled with “That School Up North.” The Wolverines could be playing for a lot, but the Buckeyes will be fueled by pride and, Meyer hopes, anger.

Meyer can hope the Michigan game brings out the best in the Buckeyes
Photo by Dan Harker
OSU vs. Michigan

Tressel made sure to downplay mouth-frothing motivations and rarely, if ever, used the word “revenge.” Of course, when it came to Michigan he almost never had to approach the concept. His OSU teams went an amazing 9-1 in the rivalry and did avenge the lone blemish by upsetting Michigan at home in 2004.

Meyer, though, isn’t against tapping into anger. He said it was what drove his 2006 squad that advanced to the BCS title game and thumped Tressel’s Buckeyes to the tune of 41-14 in Glendale.

“That was magical because it was the first one and it was a group of kids who had struggled for a few years,” he said.

“It was an angry team and every coach’s dream is to coach an angry team. You could stoke that fire very easy. It’s the teams that you can’t stoke that you worry about. That’s as much fun as I’ve ever had coaching a team.”

The Buckeyes played Michigan with anger in 1955 and displayed Hoover Dam-like defense. They played with anger in ’58 and hung on for a euphoric victory. They played with anger in 1970 before a rabid crowd that many former players have told me is the best they have ever seen in Ohio Stadium and were not to be denied. They played with anger in 1998, sick of stomach-churning defeats to the Wolverines and a home loss to Michigan State a couple weeks earlier, and blew UM off the field.

And now the table is set for a strange odyssey of a first season under Meyer, one that is accompanied by a black cloud of NCAA constraint and, once again, will end suddenly with a fierce battle with Michigan.

It will be monumentally frustrating for the Buckeyes, but it will also funnel to yet another don’t-take-your-eyes-away battle with Michigan.

Thank you, Jim Delany, for not altering that portion of Big Ten tradition.

*This is the first installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.

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