A 2011 season that held so much promise this time last year ended on a sour note as mistake-prone Ohio State dropped a 24-17 decision Monday to Southeastern Conference rival Florida at the 66th annual Gator Bowl.
The loss was the final ignominy to a dismal 12-month span that included the forced retirement of 10-year head coach Jim Tressel, multiple player suspensions and NCAA sanctions that include scholarship losses and a postseason ban for next season. It also dropped the Buckeyes’ record to 6-7 for the season, the program’s first losing season since 1988 and its first seven-loss campaign in more than a century. The 1897 team went 1-7-1.
“Our guys feel bad,” Ohio State head coach Luke Fickell told reporters after the game. “This is the tough side of athletics. This feeling is not something that ever goes away. But I think that could be a motivational thing. It hurts but you should remember that hurt and motivate yourself to get better. That’s the message we’ll try to get across.”
Fickell, of course, took over following the May 30 retirement of Tressel and will stay on as co-defensive coordinator under new head coach Urban Meyer. Meyer, who took a hands-off approach toward bowl preparation, did not attend the game. He is scheduled to formally take rein of the team when it returns to Columbus.
In the end, the Buckeyes simply made too many mistakes to get the victory. They lost a pair of fumbles, gave up six sacks and had 11 offensive plays go for minus yardage. But it was two special teams breakdowns that hurt the most. The first resulted in a 99-yard kickoff return for a second-quarter touchdown and the second was a blocked punt the Gators converted into another TD.
Ohio State won most of the statistical battles, holding a 299-263 advantage in yardage and churning out 20 first downs to only 14 for Florida. But the Gators were more efficient, especially in important situations. Florida converted 6 of 13 third-down situations while OSU was only 2 for 10 on third downs.
Florida QB John Brantley completed 12 of 16 passes for 132 yards, one touchdown and one interception, while senior running back Chris Rainey carried 16 times for a team-high 71 yards.
For Ohio State, freshman quarterback Braxton Miller connected on 18 of 23 attempts for 162 yards and two touchdowns. That included a 6-for-6 performance for 81 yards on the team’s final touchdown drive in the waning minutes.
Miller completed passes to eight different receivers, including senior wideout DeVier Posey, who led the Buckeyes with five catches for 38 yards and a touchdown. That total could have been even higher – Miller overthrew Posey on at least three occasions, included one wide-open attempt that would have gone for an easy touchdown.
Posey also fumbled away one of his receptions, a costly miscue late in the third quarter that occurred while the Buckeyes were driving.
Senior tailback Boom Herron was the game’s leading rusher with 82 yards on 12 carries, and he added four receptions for 11 yards. But like Posey, Herron also had a fumble that contributed to early offensive struggles for the Buckeyes.
The first scoring threat of the game belonged to Florida, which was lined up to attempt a 44-yard field goal early in the opening quarter. But the Gators never got to try the three-pointer when replay overturned what had originally been called a Brantley incomplete pass, giving Ohio State a fumble recovery at its own 27.
The Gators came back on their next possession, however, to draw first blood. Brantley marched his team 80 yards in 14 plays, culminating in a 17-yard touchdown pass to receiver Deonte Thompson.
During the drive, Brantley appeared to hurt his throwing hand when hit hard by OSU defensive lineman John Simon, but the Florida QB still managed to complete 6 of his 7 attempts on the drive for 65 yards. UF also converted all four of its third-down plays during the march, including the third-and-5 touchdown play to Thompson.
Kicker Caleb Sturgis added the PAT to give Florida a 7-0 lead with 0:56 left in the first quarter.
Herron fumbled on the opening play of the Buckeyes’ next possession, but Ohio State got the ball back two plays after that when Brantley botched a center exchange to create a fumble that was pounced on by Simon.
That gave OSU the ball at its own 28 and the Buckeyes put together their best drive of the first half, moving 72 yards in eight plays for the tying touchdown. Miller completed all three of his pass attempts during the drive, including a 25-yarder on a throwback screen to tight end Jeff Heuerman and a pair of tosses to Posey – an 11-yard strike on a rollout pass and a 5-yard touchdown throw on a slant pattern.
OSU kicker Drew Basil added the extra point and the game was tied at 7 with 11:25 to go until halftime.
The Gators took only 12 seconds to take back the lead, however, when return man Andre Debose took the ensuing kickoff at the 1-yard line and motored up the sideline untouched for a Gator Bowl-record 99-yard touchdown return.
Sturgis added the extra point to push his team’s lead back to seven points at 14-7 with 11:13 to go until the half.
It was a deficit from which Ohio State could never quite recover.
The Buckeyes had a chance to tie things going to the break, advancing as far as the Florida 19-yard line with 1:06 remaining. But the Gators overwhelmed the OSU offensive line on a third-and-6 blitz call and sacked Miller for an 11-yard loss. Basil still managed to hit a 47-yard field goal, however, and Ohio State went to intermission down by four at 14-10.
OSU had a lopsided edge in first-half time of possession, holding the ball for nearly six more minutes than the Gators, who ran only five plays from scrimmage in the second quarter. But the possession time didn’t translate into much of a yardage advantage. The Buckeyes had 139 yards in the opening 30 minutes while Florida had 129. Part of the problem was four sacks of Miller, accounting for 26 yards worth of losses.
That problem carried over into the early second half when Miller was sacked again, this time on a third-and-10 during OSU’s opening possession. On the next play, Ben Buchanan’s punt was blocked by Rainey and returned 14 yards for a touchdown by Florida teammate Graham Stewart.
Strugis’ PAT made it 21-10 at the 11:14 mark of the third period.
Ohio State had a chance to cut into that deficit late in the third quarter when senior Tyler Moeller grabbed a tipped pass out of the air and made the interception at the Florida 47-yard line. Three plays later, Miller hit Posey over the middle for a first down inside the 35, but UF defender Loucheiz Purifoy knocked the ball out of the OSU receiver’s grasp and teammate Josh Evans recovered the fumble to end the Buckeyes’ threat.
Florida threatened to blow things open early in the fourth quarter, but Ohio State linebacker Etienne Sabino stopped running back Mike Gillislee just short of the goal line on third down and the Gators opted to take a 17-yard field goal from Sturgis to made it 24-10 with 14:09 remaining in the game.
That was the way it stayed until Miller engineered a desperation drive that covered 88 yards in only seven plays, culminated in an 11-yard touchdown pass to tailback Jordan Hall, who dodged six would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone.
But the drive, which began at the 3:05 mark, ate up more than two minutes, and when Basil kicked the extra point to draw the Buckeyes within seven at 24-17, there were only 57 seconds remaining in the game.
That meant Ohio State had no choice but to try an onside kick, which was fielded cleanly by Florida receiver Stephen Alli. Three straight kneel-downs by Brantley ran out the clock.
The game was played before decidedly less-than-capacity crowd of 61,312 fans in wind-swept EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla. The stadium, home to the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, normally seats 67,164 but is expandable up to 80,000. Last year, a crowd of 77,497 watched Mississippi State roll to a 52-14 win over Michigan.
The contest also marked Ohio State’s first postseason appearance in Florida since a 31-18 loss to South Carolina in the 2002 Outback Bowl, and the Buckeyes’ second-ever trip to the Gator Bowl. OSU dropped a 17-15 decision to Clemson in the 1978 game, the final contest for Woody Hayes as Ohio State head coach.