Though Fickell's team had fallen drastically short of the aspirations of the squad long before traveling to Ann Arbor for what the head coach considered the most important game of the year, things were still salvageable with a win over the Wolverines.
The Buckeyes, however, eventually lost to the Wolverines, 40-34, in a game that appropriately personified their season. Despite signs of hope that a win could potentially be attainable, at the end of the game there were just too many obstacles to overcome.
So it makes sense the Buckeyes' regular season ended in heartbreak. Things weren't normal this year. There was no Jim Tressel, integral pieces that led to success in the last three seasons were either gone or suspended, and an ongoing NCAA investigation haunted any progress the Buckeyes made on the field.
Perhaps there is relief the regular season is over. Maybe the Buckeyes won't even play in a bowl game this year, putting what most will remember as a "black eye" season in the permanent past.
Fickell's reign as Ohio State's head coach seems to be just days away from concluding. With reports of the pending hire of Urban Meyer, the majority of the staff that has held its post in Columbus for the past 10 years may no longer be. And memories of the Tressel days may be fading into the rearview mirror.
Left is one final taste of a loss to Michigan – Ohio State's first loss to its bitter rivals in eight years. Before we turn our complete focus to the future and what is sure to come in the next week, we take one final look at the Buckeyes' regular season-ending loss to Michigan Saturday:
Braxton Miller is just a freshman, but he's special — How many times did Miller miss throws that seemingly took points off the board. We all remember the pass attempt to DeVier Posey on the final drive of the game that sailed long. Had he made the proper throw, Posey may have scored the go-ahead 76-yard touchdown with roughly a minute remaining in the game. That wasn't the only time Miller missed Posey – and other receivers – for what looked to be sure-fire touchdown passes. Typically when the plays described above happen as frequently in a game as they did, that's the lasting memory of the quarterback's performance. With Miller, that's not the case.
Statistically Miller was outstanding. He was 14-of-25 for 235 yards with TD passes to Philly Brown and Posey and he ran 16 times for 100 yards and another score. Growing up immensely in just a matter of weeks, Miller was no longer the kid that was a deer in the headlights like he was at Miami (Fla.). Instead, he was the team's leader that kept Ohio State in the game in Michigan Stadium in college football's biggest rivalry. When he runs, he often makes defenders look foolish. When he lines up at the line, his confidence rivals what you'd expect out of a seasoned veteran. And all that came in an offense that is dominated with players that lack experience. Imagine what things may look like in a few years when he and his teammates develop.
Wide receivers were open — Michigan's secondary wasn't all that impressive. And when looking at Posey specifically, he was able to get open the entire game. That's the biggest thing you'll noticed about Miller. He's a freshman and he isn't there as a passer yet, and that was evident in the amount of plays in the passing game he left on the field. Though Miller hooked up on a few big touchdown plays – one to Posey – he wasn't quite at the point Ohio State's coaching staff needed him to be in order to take advantage of those open receivers. But I think it was apparent how good Posey is and how much he was missed this year.
Spike on 3rd down with less than a minute to go in the game — That's the most memorable blunder from the loss. Miller looked like he was on the verge of leading Ohio State on another improbable comeback drive in the fourth quarter when he decided to spike the ball on a crucial third down. Though there is confusion as to who called the spike and why it happened, it seemed like a simple miscommunication between a freshman quarterback in a tense time on the road. Miller said they had a play called and had they executed it instead of wasting a much needed down, it is possible the game turns out differently. Instead, Ohio State went down with its inexperienced signal caller.
Game plan was on the money — Ohio State came out passing on first down in each of its first three drives. They were unpredictable out of the gate and were ready to allow Miller to make plays. The result? Ohio State had its most prolific offensive game of the year. Though Miller's inexperience as a passer showed, which kind of helped us understand why the coaching staff hesitated to employ similar game plans in the past, I think Ohio State's conservative game plans looked even worse after today's game. Had Ohio State come out with game plans like this one – and the Nebraska one – against teams like Purdue and Penn State, would things have been different this season? I think so.
Fickell talks about toughness — But where are those "tough" calls? Where are those gambles that show confidence in your squad? In two fourth down situations in the second half where it was arguably better to go for it Fickell either sent out his punt team or field goal units. I understand Ohio State's decision to kick a field goal to get within three with 13:40 remaining in the game because it was 4th-and-goal from the five, but the most inexcusable call was to punt on 4th-and-4 from Michigans' 36 with 5:30 remaining in the third quarter. That call, to me, was the exact opposite of "toughness." Ohio State's offense was rolling, it was down by six, and the coaching staff needed to make a statement. Instead, Fickell sends out the punt team instead of trying to complete a game-changing drive. Toughness? I don't think so.
Defense was atrocious — The point total, the yardage total and just the complete overall inability to slow down Michigan's offense was apparent. That said, there needs to be something said about how many playmakers this team lost throughout the year on defense. Add in the injuries of Orhian Johnson and Ryan Shazier against the Wolverines and the OSU defense was practically playing its third string. That's not an excuse because any pulse of a defensive effort would have likely resulted in an Ohio State win. I just think it is worth pointing out that the personnel on the field was only a shell of what it was supposed to be Saturday.
Dan Herron didn't make impact — Coming into the game I thought it was going to be Herron's time to continue to be a Michigan killer. Though he scored a touchdown, making it his fourth game against the Wolverines in which he found the end zone, Herron carried the ball 15 times for 36 yards. The inability to get Boom going was really the only tragedy of the day for Ohio State's offense. But perhaps the squad paid the ultimate price by not getting the running game going with its primary back like it has in years past against Michigan.
You have to feel for Fickell — In what seemed to be his final game as this team's head coach, the emotions of a trying year caught up to Fickell in the postgame press conference. Holding back tears and sometimes anger because of persistent questions about his future, you got a sense that Fickell finally felt the weight of the world he's been carrying on his shoulders come crashing down on him. Though I expect Fickell to remain on the OSU staff, you have to feel for the guy.
This shot at his dream job wasn't supposed to happen like this. He was supposed to get his shot after paying his dues for more years. He was supposed to be offered a multi-year deal to take over the program with the freedom of hiring his staff. He was supposed to not have to be a legend's replacement while facing turmoil off the field with the NCAA. Instead, he led the Buckeyes to a 6-6 record in perhaps the hardest situation he could have ever been thrust into. For his sake, I hope this isn't his only shot at holding down his dream job. All things considering, for a guy who didn't have any experience before starting this year, he did a pretty good job.
Tressel still matters — Though it seemed all season like Ohio State was trying to distance itself from Tressel, they brought in the former head coach in at a time where the team needed him the most. That showed that the team still cares immensely for Tressel and he's still there for the program. I think that was a touching side-story and shows that he's still on the program's mind. It is the perfect action by Fickell and his staff to reach out to their former mentor and it could open the door for Tressel to continue to be there for the Buckeyes.