The coveted Ohio State football team, who had already endured three losses and the lingering affects of a major NCAA scandal, all but controlled its own destiny in the Big Ten Conference race.
Perhaps a season that most wrote off not more than a month ago was coming around to finish the way fans have always come to expect – with a conference championship ring a trip to a prestigious BCS bowl.
Not this team. Not this year.
With its second upset to Purdue in as many road trips to West Lafayette, Ohio State saw the goals it was seemingly destined to overcome suddenly fall out of reach.
• Luke Fickell's shot gone? — As Fickell approached his postgame press conference it hit me. I wondered if he was thinking at that very moment that he lost his chance at being the long-term head coach of this program. Unfortunately for Fickell, that's likely the case so soon after he was building a strong argument for himself. Had he led this team to the conference title game or maybe even the Rose Bow it would have been impossible to expect a better outcome to a season that seemed destined to be doomed. While there are still two more games remaining in the season and a win over Michigan could go a long way in helping ease the pain of a season considered lost, it's hard to imagine any scenario in which Fickell is still the head coach in 2012.
• It all happened because of lack of concentration on PAT — There are certain plays that are taken for granted in football. The point after try is one of them. After Ohio State got the touchdown with less than a minute remaining in the game, everyone assumed it would add the extra point and escape West Lafayette with a 1-point victory. Players after the game even admitted they weren't watching intently to make sure the win was sealed. Perhaps the assumption that the PAT is just an automatic point was the reason why the Buckeyes didn't execute the call and eventually ended up losing the game. All it took was one poorly executed play that everyone took for granted to significantly alter the fate of Ohio State's season.
• Miller has such a bright future, but he's still a freshman — When it mattered most the freshman quarterback did what special players do. He led Ohio State on a 66-yard touchdown drive capped off with a touchdown pass to Jordan Hall with less than a minute remaining to put the Buckeyes in position to kick the extra point and escape Purdue with the victory. Had Ohio State made the extra point, it's likely that Miller is praised yet again for bailing out the Buckeyes that were out-played for a large portion of the game. There's no denying he's a special player in the making. When he has the ball in his hands things are going to happen, even if it doesn't always look pretty. Having that trait in a youthful player is invaluable and it is scary to think about what things will look like in a few years.
However, Ohio State lost the game despite Miller's miraculous late-game efforts. And because of that, the focus shifts from his amazing comeback to the things he could have done better in the early portions of the game. I counted at least five different routes – three of which were shots down field – that were open and Miller just missed. Finishing 8-for-18 for 132 yards and two touchdowns, Miller's numbers were certainly better. But calling it like it is, Miller is still slow on reads, at times he holds onto the ball too long and he clearly doesn't have the timing down with the receivers (which is the fault of multiple people). While he is an incredible talent in the making, sometimes it is important to step back and remember that he is still a freshman and has an immense amount of growing still to do.
• Purdue made Ohio State throw — The Boilermakers accepted there was a chance they were going to lose to the Buckeyes. But early in the game they made a statement that they weren't going to lose and see less than 100 yards passing on Ohio State's stat sheet. For the first time since the Michigan State loss Ohio State was put in a situation where it was forced to throw the football. Whether it was play calling or lack of execution at times, Ohio State wasn't adequately prepared to make Purdue pay for stacking the box early and often. Ohio State paid the ultimate price for not being up to snuff in the passing game and there is no other way to say it.
• The defense lacks that true playmaker — Ohio State has always had that one player that was in the right place to make a play when the team needed it the most. This team, though young, doesn't have that guy just yet. Not to pick on safety C.J. Barnett, but he dropped a perfect interception that potentially could have gone all the way back for a touchdown. At that point in the game, Ohio State stopped Purdue on its first possession and already scored a touchdown to get within three points. Had Barnett made that play, the entire game probably goes in a different direction.
But this isn't picking on Barnett. How many times did Christian Bryant drop chances at game-winning touchdowns this season? The bottom line is simple – there is not one guy on this defense – aside from potentially John Simon – that the team can feel comfortable relying on to make a play. I think there's really something to that. Good defenses always come up with big plays and great defenses have certain guys that have that "it" factor in making big plays. Ohio State doesn't have the latter. • Ryan Shazier becoming that guy? — With senior Andrew Sweat out with a head injury, Shazier got his first extended time on defense. Despite the fact that he had one error with a roughing the passer charge from being over-aggressive, those are the types of players that make great defenses. He is very fast, he is a big hitter (we've seen it on special teams) and he has that playmaking ability that I mentioned is lacking on this defense. I am not sure what has kept this kid off the field so far this year, but as far as I am concerned he is an emerging star and needs to play in the team's final two games. Players like this need to be on the field.
• Antonio Underwood wasn't ready — I am not sure what Underwood did to get the start at right tackle in place of J.B. Shugarts, but I think it is safe to simply say he wasn't ready. In the second half when the team made adjustments along the offensive line the Buckeyes started moving the football. This isn't a knock on Underwood, but perhaps he just needs a little more time to develop before being thrust into the starting lineup.
• I may be in the minority, but I kick the field goal in OT — It probably wasn't even a yard the Buckeyes needed to get in order to move the chains in overtime in pursuit of a touchdown. The odds are the Buckeyes would have picked it up because they were finding its groove offensively and the power rushing attack is what they do best. But if they don't pick it up for some reason – there is a fumbled snap, someone misses a block or Purdue comes up with a big defensive play – the game is lost. And even if the Buckeyes did pick up the first down, there's no guarantee the team goes on to score a touchdown later on the drive.
So the Buckeyes did exactly what they have always done – they took the points and put it all on the defense. Though hindsight is always 20/20 and the team did end up losing the game, it is hard to blame the Buckeyes for opting to put the pressure on Purdue to come up with a big answer on its possession in the overtime period. People are focusing on the wrong thing. The blocked point after attempt is what lost this game, not the decision to kick a field goal in overtime.
• Beating Michigan is Ohio State's new ultimate goal — Having won three games in a row before entering the Purdue game, it most certainly seemed as if the Buckeyes could be on track to beating the odds and getting to Indianapolis for the inaugural Big Ten title game. After being upset by the Boilermakers, winning a seventh-consecutive conference crown is ruled out and any dreams of playing in the Big Ten title game or even the Rose Bowl instantaneously vanished. While I am not saying overlook Penn State to Michigan, the biggest thing this team has to play for at this point is knocking off Michigan in Ann Arbor. Though the value of the season is certainly in question, the importance of winning that game can never be diminished. Though bowl glory seems all but lost, the Buckeyes can close out their season on the ultimate high note handing Michigan yet another loss in "The Game."