There has been a lot written about the Ohio State football team and its winning run of late.
In fact, when covering the team, it’s hard to decide exactly what to write about given how many things are going right for the Buckeyes and how nuanced a game football truly is.
There’s an offense that has taken it to another level in the past few games and is without argument one of the best in program history, and the Buckeyes boast a defense that appears to be maturing into a high-level unit for the second year in a row near the end of the season. Then you’ve got a punter who is a story in his own right, a 21-year-old freshman from Australia who is already one of 10 finalists for the Ray Guy Award given his ability to place the ball perfectly inside the 20 when given the chance.
So there are a lot of reasons the Buckeyes are winning right now, and they all deserve the publicity they are receiving.
But listen a little more closely and, in my opinion, you can hear the sounds of why the Buckeyes really are winning.
Take, for instance, this quote from an Urban Meyer press conference a few weeks ago.
“This team gets it,” Meyer said. “There's no blaming, no arguments on either side of the ball. We've had multiple wins around here where the defense has won the game for us, and the offensive is very appreciative. The other times, the offense carried it a little bit, and other times special teams did something. There's good chemistry on the team right now.”
That quote underlines something that Meyer hinted at when he was hired at Ohio State. Talent will get you a long way in college football, but a team needs a little more than that to truly achieve great things.
Think about the 2002 team at Ohio State. The Buckeyes had a phenomenal defense, yes, and some elite offensive players highlighted by a quarterback who always seemed to get the job done when needed. There was a really good kicker, too.
But what will fans always remember about that squad? The close wins, the plays made when necessary, one unit picking up another – that special bit of leadership, selflessness and clutch nature that can simply be defined as “it.”
Last year’s team eventually had “it” too. The Buckeyes got through a relatively kind nonconference schedule but sure didn’t look good doing it – at least in Meyer’s mind. But the now-famous “championship water” speech at Michigan State elevated the team’s cohesiveness, and by the end of the season, some titanic leaders – the John Simons and Zach Borens of the world – had emerged.
Replacing those two players this season was one of Meyer’s biggest question marks of the offseason. With a quarterback who prefers to let his play do the talking and a young defense coming into the season, Meyer made it clear he didn’t know what to expect.
“I was panicky going into the season because I thought it was poor,” the head coach said about his leadership crew. “It was certainly poor in the spring.”
And then came summer, when a spate of off-field issues over a one-week span that included running back Carlos Hyde and cornerback Bradley Roby – two players who were counted on coming into the season as veterans – led Meyer to further wonder exactly what kind of team he had.
“Obviously when you have issues like we had in the summer, then that questions the leadership of the team,” Meyer said.
Then the season started, and the answers have been provided. The senior offensive line has been a rock both on the field and off. Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller have pushed the team on the field, while Philly Brown has become the kind of inspiring, team-first driving force Meyer clearly loves and respects. On the other side of the ball, players like Michael Bennett, Ryan Shazier and Christian Bryant have stepped up.
“A lot of time was spent on (leadership) through spring, summer, and then we actually did it during training camp,” Meyer said, referencing a leadership course the coaching staff put team veterans through. “So I grade it a very (big) plus right now. There's some purpose driven players that are leaders, and that's what you want on a team. And I see it.
Some of that could be seen with the tight end group before and after the Purdue game. When speaking to reporters the Monday before the game, position coach Tim Hinton was asked about how Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett had not been the pass-catching targets some expected them to be.
His answer was that those players didn’t mind who got the catches as long as the team won, something Hinton could see throughout the team.
“Without each other being happy for Braxton Miller being successful or Chris Fields being successful – because he doesn't play a lot either – unless we're complementing and happy for each other, you have that dissension in a team that doesn't allow you to be as consistent as Ohio State has been because all those things in the locker room will wear you down, and right now there is none of that, with this football team,” Hinton said.
“No one cares who gets the credit; let's get the final result Ohio State’s way, and that's why there has been such consistency in our program and why we're winning at a consistent level is that no one cares. They really don't.”
After the Purdue game, in which Heuerman turned the tight end narrative on its head by piling up the most receiving yards for an Ohio State TE in 30 years, the junior immediately gave credit to his teammates.
“When you have Devin Smith running down and you have me in the flat, who are you going to cover, you know?” Heuerman said.
Spoken like someone on a team that’s all on the same page, something Heuerman had confirmed a few minutes earlier.
“We have a really focused team right now,” Heuerman said. “It's really special. Coach Meyer has been talking about it all week. A team that is playing with a purpose and such focus is a team that's hard to beat. And I think that's where we're at right now."