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Ohio State seniors with chance to fulfill promises of yesteryear

Cody Cousino / Multimedia editor

Urban Meyer’s eyes are glassy and it looks like he’s about to cry.

But the thin wrinkles that gently line the 48-year-old’s face are unwavering and his face won’t crinkle up into a ball of emotion.

Not today, at least.

With the exception of a polite smile here and there, the crevices on either corner of his mouth don’t crack.

His face is stern and looks to be as focused as it seems it’s ever been.

Like his expression, the Ohio State football coach’s voice doesn’t change much, either. It stays level, steady, unwavering amid the frenzy of reporters in the team’s meeting room at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center during his weekly press conference Monday.

“Right here is the team meeting room,” Meyer told the reporters, “and it’s electric in here when you start talking about this game – where we’re at right now.

“Will we be defined by this one game? You usually are.”

It’s Michigan week – or, as Meyer has instructed his players to say, it’s “That Team Up North” week. And it’s his first taste as a head coach in a rivalry that’s as bitter as any other in the country.

For his seniors, though – 21 of them to be exact – it’s their last punch at the Wolverines – one that comes a year after suffering the program’s first loss to Michigan since 2003.

In every way imaginable, it’s their last hurrah. The last game they’ll ever play in the confines of Ohio Stadium. The last time they’ll ever take the field as Buckeyes.

NCAA violations and their subsequent consequences have ensured that Saturday’s game against Michigan is the end of a road that began with hopes of national titles.

Such aspirations will never come to fruition – but the 109th edition of The Game presents a chance at OSU’s first perfect campaign since 2002.

Win or lose, four and five-year-long careers clad in the Scarlet and Gray will end when the clock on the Horseshoe’s massive jumbotron strikes zero. And Meyer, who was hired as the program’s orchestrator last year, is well aware of it.

Great Expectations 

In what have been called the glory years of OSU football, expectations in Columbus might have never been higher than during former Buckeye coach Jim Tressel’s 10-year tenure as the figurehead of what was arguably one of the most consistent college football programs in the country.

Meyer’s 21 seniors – including those redshirt seniors who started their career in 2008 – were brought to Columbus to not only guarantee that kind of success continue, but to take it a step further.

The 2002 season had given the Buckeye faithful a national title and 14-0 perfect season.

Prior to the launch of the 2008 campaign, Tressel had amassed his way to a 73-16 mark, four Big Ten championships and five top-five finishes in the Associated Press’ top-25 poll.

And only once, in 2003, did the Wolverines get the best of him. That year, though, still gave OSU fans a BCS Fiesta Bowl trophy. So did 2005.

The 2006 and 2007 seasons gave them back-to-back national title appearances – but no hardware, no rings.The 2006 team – arguably Tressel’s most dominant crew, was stomped, 41-14, by Meyer’s Florida Gators. A similar fate awaited the Buckeyes’ 2007 squad when LSU handled them a 38-24 loss in New Orleans’ Superdome (known today as the Mercedez-Benz Superdome).

What’s now viewed as remarkably unprecedented success still fell short of what might’ve been unrealistic expectations in Columbus. None of it ever seemed to be quite good enough for a fan base wanting to flex its alpha male muscles for the rest of the nation to see. But they were expectations that defensive back Zach Domicone knew came with the territory-expectations that needed to be met.

“The expectation was that we were gonna come in and win championships,” the redshirt senior said. “We were gonna win Big Ten championships, we were gonna beat Michigan every year and we were gonna win national championships.”

The subsequent rings, gold-pants charms from beating Michigan and wins likely speak for themselves.

For Domicone and other fifth-year seniors, 2008 lived up to the team’s status quo of at least winning a conference championship.

But the weight of Big Ten titles and BCS bowl wins in 2009 and 2010 were almost convincing enough to suggest that this group of seniors had lived up to the lofty heights set before them.

Almost.

Even an impressive Jan. 1, 2010 Rose Bowl victory before a Pasadena, Calif., backdrop wasn’t a national championship.

A year later, the Buckeyes almost survived the summit for perfection save for a 31-18 shellacking at the hands of Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.

At 11-1 with yet another BCS Bowl berth – the program’s fifth straight – set against Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, a final championship run in the 2011 season seemed inevitable and, at the time, quite realistic.

With returning starters quarterback Terrelle Pryor, wide receiver DeVier Posey, running back Daniel “Boom” Herron amid a squad stockpiled full of talent at what seemed to be every position, if there was ever a year to make such a title run, then was the time to do it.

For the Buckeyes, it was just all part of the plan.

Winning Big Ten titles and beating Michigan was all they’d ever known.

The 2011 season was supposed to be the next logical leap, the last push toward the pinnacle of what their legacy would hopefully be.

Who knew what 2012 would hold? Pryor, Posey, Herron and a handful of others would be gone. Most of that class – save for the likes of redshirted players like Domicone – which came to Columbus in 2008, would be playing in the NFL by then.

The march to a national championship seemed like it started against the Razorbacks.

“It’s like surreal it feels like you’ve bee living a dream for the last five years,” said redshirt senior linebacker Etienne Sabino.

Dark Days

But if the Buckeyes’ last four or five years have indeed been a dream, then it might be fair to suggest that part of it’s been nothing short of nightmare.

For a program that seemed to pride itself as a beacon of stability and morality, the Buckeyes came crashing back to reality in the weeks before OSU’s Sugar Bowl contest against Arkansas.

The now-infamous 2010 “Tattoo-Gate” scandal and its aftermath left Tressel’s regime tattered and torn.

The
likes of key returners like Pryor, Posey and Herron were suspended for the first five games of 2011 in December 2010 for trading autographs and school memorabilia for tattoos.

They weren’t, however, held out of the Sugar Bowl as OSU managed to top the Razorbacks to finish the 2010 season 12-1 and No. 5 in the country.

The path to a national championship was mired, but it was still there.

Then, it seemed like the sky started to fall in Columbus.

OSU slapped Tressel with a two-game suspension of his own after failing to notify his superiors that he had knowledge of the exchange of improper benefits.

The penalty would later increase to five games, further blurring the vision of yet another successful season, let alone a national championship.

In May 2011, Tressel resigned as allegations of misdoings continued to unfold.

Weeks later, Pryor opted to forfeit his senior season and enter the NFL’s supplemental draft.

Linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, who had been selected by Tressel as the team’s intern coach in his absence, now found himself as the head of a program in as much disorder is it had ever been.

The season unfolded in a similar, chaotic fashion as the Buckeyes stumbled their way to a 6-7 finish, the program’s worst since 1988 – a far cry from the dominance it wielded throughout the past decade.

Maybe most painfully for Buckeye Nation, OSU lost just its the second game in a decade to Michigan in 2011, a 40-34 setback that might’ve been more deflating than the cumulative disappointment of the other 12 games.

Dublin, Ohio native and redshirt senior special teams standout Taylor Rice said he didn’t know what it felt like falling to the Wolverines.

“It felt like the rivalry was dying down,” Rice said. “Honestly, I think that reality check helped us. It let people know that this is a rivalry and there’s nothing like it.”

What It All Means

Saturday, likely, will mean a lot of things to a lot of different people.

For one, it’s Michigan – the Buckeyes’ most storied rival, and a contest whose value is often equated to the entire season itself.

For the Buckeye faithful, it’s a chance at an undefeated season with only their rivals standing in the way. It’s a chance at bragging rights until next November and likely a chance at revenge for all of last year’s ailments. 

Perhaps even fiction couldn’t have told this story better.

But maybe most importantly, for the seniors and their families in attendance, Saturday almost certainly will be nothing short of an emotional finale to what has been four or five years filled with points of wild success juxtaposed with the program’s darkest days juxtaposed to its first shot at perfection since 2002.

It’s another chapter in a book filled with so already so many.

And Meyer knows it. 

“Great memories. I can tell you everything,” Meyer said regarding his last experience against the Wolverines as an assistant under former OSU coach Earle Bruce in 1987.

Meyer didn’t know it, but the coming moments would become some of the most memorable in Buckeye history.

He was walking into Bruce’s office-which happens to be Meyer’s current domain-before former OSU athletic director Rick Bay approached him.

“Rick Bay was leaned up against the wall and looked at me and said, ‘Close the door. Are you the last one?’ I said, ‘Yes, yes, sir.’ And I sat down,” Meyer recounted Monday in the team’s meeting room-a place literally footsteps away from where these memories had happened decades before.

“I saw a bunch of coaches with their arms on the table, with their face in their arms, and tears and the whole deal. I was like the last guy to walk in, and he said that Coach Bruce will no longer be the coach after this game, and I have resigned as athletic director.”

The Buckeyes would win their last game under Bruce in Ann Arbor, Mich., against the Wolverines and would carry their coach off Michigan Stadium’s tundra.

The importance of the game might be impossible for Meyer to forget.

“An 82 year old-I think he’s 82 now-Coach Bruce reminds me. I get one of these almost every day when I see him,” Meyer said imitating a trademark of Bruce, flexing his arm and clenching his fist in front of his face.

“I got one yesterday, and it almost hit me. It’s good. It’s a reminder.”

A reminder of what this game’s meant to so many people for so many years.

For the Buckeyes, particularly the seniors, it might mean everything – their legacy directly correlated with it. 

“This is the Super Bowl, this is the bowl game, this is the national championship, this is everything,” Sabino said.

“It’s almost like a movie you have the good parts and the bad parts.”

All that’s left now is to see if it’s a happy ending. 

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