Season Short Of Expectations Can End On High

A Columbus native, Ohio State interim head coach Luke Fickell knows the standard of excellence expected at the Buckeye State's flagship institution, which is one reason why this year's season was a disappointment for the former OSU nose guard. The good news is that the year can end on somewhat of a high note with the upcoming Gator Bowl.

Luke Fickell has said all season he's not particularly interested in praise.

That must go doubly, then, for those who say the coach deserves a debt of gratitude for keeping the Ohio State football team together this year.

Down deep, Fickell must surely be appreciative of those words, but on the whole, the 2011 season can be boiled down to two numbers – 6 and 6.

That, of course, is the record Ohio State fashioned in Fickell's interim campaign, one that he knows falls short of the lofty expectations of Buckeye fans – and his own.

"We had expectations and they were very high," Fickell said. "It doesn't matter what we said in the media. What we really felt in that room, in that team meeting room, in that locker room, was that our expectations were not different. We didn't get the job done the way we wanted to get it done."

Particularly galling had to be the way the Buckeyes ended the campaign after putting together a 6-3 start, capped off by an amazing last-minute victory against eventual Big Ten champion Wisconsin when Braxton Miller hit Devin Smith with a long touchdown pass.

That game essentially put Ohio State's Big Ten Leaders Division destiny in the Buckeyes' own hands, but what followed was a heartbreaking series of losses. Ohio State had a blocked extra point cost it a game at Purdue, couldn't fashion a late rally against Penn State thanks to turnover issues and then fell just short at Michigan despite a great effort and being gifted a last-gasp drive.

Those games joined losses vs. Michigan State and Nebraska as games in which Ohio State fell by a touchdown or less. Team members were aware that things could have been very different for the Buckeyes if one play or another had gone the other way.

"Of course, you look back and always say, ‘I could have done this, could have done that,'" senior running back and team MVP Dan Herron said. "Watching film, sometimes you wish you could have a play back, but that's why you have to take advantage of the plays that you get and take advantage of playing every game.

"When you look back, you wish you could have done some stuff, but you have to take advantage of it."

The end result was Ohio State's first six-loss season since John Cooper's squad put together an equal 6-6 record in 1999. Team members admitted to having trouble with the sudden losing, especially after the program put together six consecutive Big Ten championships.

"It's definitely hard," junior fullback Zach Boren said. "Being Ohio State, you're usually on the other side of those, being victorious in those close games. I think the last three games a lot of guys on the team weren't having fun. When you're losing games, it's not fun."

Fickell and players also refused to use the program upheaval as an excuse. By now, everyone knows the story of Jim Tressel's May 30 dismissal and the quick elevation of Fickell into the head job. Add in numerous suspensions and the graduation of a solid senior class from 2010, and the challenge would have been a tough one for even the most seasoned of coaches.

The Buckeye boss said that shouldn't be taken into account, though.

"We understand that there is going to be change, but we're not looking for any pity," Fickell said. "That's for sure. It's Ohio State. Our expectations weren't different. We were holding ourselves accountable every bit as much of whatever the situation was. So I guess that's how you feel after a season. If you don't have the season that you want, that's the way you're going to feel."

The talk at the start of bowl season was that the time off before practice started – perhaps coupled with the hiring of Urban Meyer to bring some certainty to a program that had anything but for months – had brought the fun back into the game for the Buckeyes.

What effect the recent announcement that the team would be forced to forgo a bowl in 2012 has had on the team is unknown as no players have been made available for interviews since the Dec. 20 announcement.

However, that's a story for another day. Right now, the team's seniors are just focused on going out with a victory against Florida in the Gator Bowl after what has been a tough season, and another notch on the left side of the ledger would be much appreciated.

"Anytime you play in your last game, you definitely want to take it out as a win," Herron said. "We definitely want to go out there and give it our all and try to get a win."

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