With four games likely left in their Ohio State careers, the 16 seniors on the 2013 squad still have plenty of time left to author a storybook ending to their careers. There remains, in that span, a division title to be clinched, a chance to beat Michigan, a Big Ten crown to play for and – barring any losses – a trip to Pasadena to play in either the Rose Bowl or the BCS Championship.
There is no shortage of fine memories for those who will run out of the Ohio Stadium tunnel for the final time on Saturday. A victory against Indiana – on Senior Day, no less – would give the Buckeyes the longest winning streak in program history at 23 games, as well as send OSU to its first-ever Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes remain on course for a BCS berth of some kind, the second or third of their careers for seniors, depending on the year they arrived.
While the finest moment for this class may not have even happened yet, everyone remembers the lowest point of their time in Columbus. The 2009 and 2010 seasons ended with victories in the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, respectively, but NCAA violations wiped out the 2010 season and ended with the ouster of head coach Jim Tressel.
Luke Fickell took over on an interim basis, and losses to Michigan in the regular-season finale and to Florida in the Gator Bowl clinched Ohio State’s first losing season since 1988, before anyone currently on the team was born. Excluding the vacated win from the 2010 season, it was the first time Ohio State lost to Michigan since 2003.
“Probably losing to That Team Up North,” said senior center Corey Linsley, when asked about the lowest point of his time at Ohio State. “After that game, everyone was just like, ‘Man, we haven’t lost to these guys in forever.’ There were classes that went through and never lost. I don’t think anyone wanted to be at the Gator Bowl, and obviously that wasn’t our expectation going into the season back in January of 2011, but regardless, that was the darkest moment of that season.”
The perceived indignity of playing in a lower-tier bowl – albeit one on New Year’s Day – was a far cry from the success of the program under Tressel, the coach who recruited them to Ohio State.
“I’m not trying to down the Gator Bowl or anything, but it’s not the Rose Bowl or the Sugar Bowl,” senior quarterback Kenny Guiton said. “We kind of got spoiled from the start, and then once it got done, I’m glad we got to pick it back up for one last go-round.”
Enter Urban Meyer, who had been hired in the weeks between the Michigan loss and Gator Bowl defeat with an eye on picking up where Tressel left off. Players have admitted that they didn’t always trust Meyer, but they eventually came to recognize that his methods had a purpose behind them.
“He’s a guy that came in here, and it wasn’t the most pleasant meetings we had,” senior wide receiver Corey “Philly” Brown said earlier this season. “Him coming in here the way he did, I guess everyone looked at him like, ‘Who are you to just come in here and change this and change that?’ At the time, we didn’t know that he knew what he was doing. Now, everybody trusts him.”
They’ve yet to taste defeat since Meyer’s arrival, since the loss in a game nobody wanted to play in a city nobody wanted to be. That renewed success came largely due to the work put in by these seniors, a group that hadn’t taken on any sort of leadership role in their early years within the program.
“I think we did a lot of growing up, as far as maturity goes,” senior left tackle Jack Mewhort said. “I think when Coach Meyer got here, we kind of realized we were the older guys now, and we had to assume some responsibility and not just take a backseat and watch other guys do it.”
The seniors who will be honored on Saturday, along with last year’s seniors, have gone through three head coaches in their tenure, something that hadn’t been done by a class at Ohio State since the 1940s, when the program saw three coaches in seven years in between Paul Brown and Woody Hayes. The up-and-down nature of their time in Columbus adds a unique quality to their legacy, but Linsley hopes the past two years has solidified the group’s reputation.
“It fluctuated over time, but I think it will end up being that we were a bunch of hard workers, guys who care,” he said. “That’s for everybody else to determine and for the coaching staff to determine how we’ll be remembered. We only control that by how we work, how the season ends up. However the season ends up, that’s going to be reflective of how hard we worked and how much we prepared. I don’t think it’s set in stone yet, but in the weeks to come, I hope we’ll be remembered as hard-working guys who really cared.”
Almost every senior who spoke this week said they’ve tried to keep away thoughts about playing their last game in The Shoe. The final introduction, though, in front of 105,000 Buckeye fans, will certainly be savored.
“Right now I’m trying not to think about it because I know when I run out of that tunnel for the last time it’s going to be a pretty emotional thing,” Mewhort said. “It’s been a great ride, and I owe everything… I owe who I am to this university and this program. It’s going to mean a lot to me running out for the last time. I know I’m going to take it all in, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Make no mistake – the Buckeyes have designs on bigger accomplishments than the record-breaking win streak. However, even getting back to this level has justified the work they’ve put in over the past two years. The defeat to Michigan, the lowest of lows for this class, is a distant memory as they chase a national championship.
“For the guys that made it through and the guys who stuck it out through everything, through the ups and downs, it’s absolutely been worth it,” Linsley said. “Coming from that moment, we’re a whole ‘nother world away.”