Chris Olave sat on a padded folding chair in the near-silence of the Ohio State locker room, surrounded by reporters. Keenan Bailey, an OSU quality control assistant, sat next to him occasionally putting his hand on Olave’s arm.
After the Big Ten championship, a similar room had been filled with loud music and boisterous yelling. Those were gone, replaced with the quiet sounds of equipment being removed for the final time and a handful of muffled conversations.
The room was already more than half-empty. Many players had departed for the team bus during the 20-minute “cooling off” period before the media was allowed to enter the room.
But Olave had stayed to provide answers to the questions that most of the state of Ohio was asking. The wide receiver’s voice, never particularly loud even in good times, was barely above a whisper as he explained what happened on the final offensive snap of Ohio State’s 2019 season.
That answer is now a familiar one. Olave thought quarterback Justin Fields was scrambling out of the pocket, so the receiver broke off his route. When Fields threw the ball to where he expected Olave to be, Clemson safety Nolan Turner was there instead. Game over. Season over.
It was a simple mistake, in a game filled with both physical and mental errors from players on both teams. There were dropped passes, missed reads, incorrect run fits, bad footing on slippery turf, and blown assignments. But Olave’s mistake stood out to many people – not because it was the most egregious, but simply because it was the last.
“I’m not sure he ate solid food for about three or four days after that game; he was crushed,” said Ryan Day.
Olave is known within the OSU program as a player who does everything the right way. Coaches and teammates talk about how he works hard, pays attention to detail, learns from the veterans ahead of him, and serves as a model for those behind him.
He exploded onto the scene as a true freshman in 2018, arriving as a relatively unheralded recruit and then scoring a pair of first-half touchdowns and blocking a punt in an upset win over Michigan. He led the 2019 Buckeyes with 849 yards receiving, and 12 touchdown catches.
In a season filled with milestones, the moment at the end of the Fiesta Bowl could become a millstone. One play can become a turning point in a player’s career.
Some players never overcome it and end up defined by it. Others, instead, use it to fuel them on their journey.
Former OSU right tackle Isaiah Prince was singled out by many for his struggles in a loss at Penn State in 2016. He was vilified on social media, to the point where his teammates physically took his phone away to shelter him.
The following year, Prince’s play up front helped key a dramatic comeback from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit in one of the biggest wins of the season.
After the game, Prince sobbed on the field and embraced teammates, who all knew exactly how much it meant to him.
Isaiah Prince, who had a nightmare of a game against PSU last year, celebrates the win with Jamarco Jones. pic.twitter.com/xJWKJFBZqC
— Ozone Communications (@theOzonedotnet) October 28, 2017
Within the walls of the Ohio State practice facility, that loss to Clemson is already serving as fuel for offseason workouts.
Strength coach Mickey Marotti said they have a sign with the final score of the Fiesta Bowl hanging on the wall, a motivational tool that he has found worthwhile in the past.
“Throw it right at them. It’s real,” Marotti said. “They can be as effective as you want them to be. Based on what kind of team you have.”
Day thinks he knows what kind of team he has, and more specifically, what kind of player he has in Olave.
“Nobody cares more than Chris and I know he’s going to come back even more hungry,” Day said.
Three of the top six receivers on the 2019 Buckeye team are now off to the NFL. Olave is now the leader in the wide receiver room.
He’s projected as one of the top wide receivers in the 2021 NFL Draft class.
Olave hasn’t spoken to the media since the immediate aftermath of the Fiesta Bowl, and has only tweeted a handful of times. But the message from those has been clear.
Not good enough. Back to work. https://t.co/8lKhC0oS0M
— Chris Olave (@chrisolave_) January 15, 2020
On a mission. Just getting started… pic.twitter.com/UZlLgnYXBW
— Chris Olave (@chrisolave_) January 21, 2020
Two years into his college career, Olave has made some of the biggest and most memorable plays in a pair of championship seasons.
One moment in Glendale can’t erase that, but Olave’s response could help define his third season.
Day is confident that the receiver known for doing everything the right way will do it again in 2020.
“Chris is the ultimate competitor. I love Chris Olave.”