The days leading up to the 2011 Michigan game were filled with question marks. The Buckeyes had lost two straight games – a stunning 26-23 overtime defeat at Purdue and a 20-14 loss to Penn State on Senior Day – to fall to 6-5 and 3-4 in Big Ten play. There were rumblings about the future of OSU interim head coach Luke Fickell and the rest of the coaching staff. Ohio State also had a murky bowl picture and the looming specter of the NCAA's final decision on punishments stemming from the football program's rules violations.
It was a difficult time at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
"The situation that we were in last year, everything was just swarming around," senior defensive back Orhian Johnson said. "Honestly, we could listen to it, but we were like, ‘All right, man, we have this game, and then what bowl are we going to go to and how are we going to do this?' We weren't really so much worried about who our coach was. We were worried about the situation we would be in as a football team."
Michigan snapped a seven-game losing streak to the Buckeyes with a 40-34 win in Ann Arbor, setting the stage for Urban Meyer to take over the program and reshape the Buckeyes. Then, in December, the NCAA brought the proverbial hammer down on Ohio State, giving Buckeyes a postseason ban to go with three years of probation and a scholarship reduction.
For the seniors-to-be, it meant they would only get 12 games to finish their collegiate careers. No bowl. No chance at winning the Big Ten championship. The next Michigan game would be their last in scarlet and gray.
Special teams player/safety Zach Domicone was one of several Buckeyes to learn about the punishment while visiting patients at a Columbus area hospital. The Buckeyes were caught off-guard by the news. OSU athletic director Gene Smith had told the players – and everyone else – that a postseason ban was unlikely.
"I don't think anyone saw it coming," Domicone said. "It really was shocking. Everyone was kind of at a loss for words. People were angry.
"We were in the hospital visiting patients and that's when it broke. It was on TVs, on ESPN. People were like, ‘How do you feel that you can't play in a bowl game (next year)?,' and we were like, ‘What are you talking about?' "
Domicone said his classmates were on the same bus returning from the hospital, and that there were "mixed emotions going around." The team was officially told about the NCAA's punishment at a team meeting upon their return. Even so, leaving Ohio State was not something Domicone considered.
"I don't' think it crossed anyone's mind to leave," he said. "We'd been here, the class I came in with – like (Johnson) and (Travis Howard and Etienne Sabino) – we wanted to leave our mark. We wanted to leave a legacy. Last year didn't really go as planned.
"Nobody wanted to go out like that."
That attitude was a prevailing one about Domicone's classmates.
"There were murmurs around the locker room and stuff like that, but really this team is honestly like my brothers," Johnson said. "Those guys really became close to me. The stuff we had to go through with all the coaching changes and with the bowl ban and then the sanctions. You could only get closer through all of that and I really appreciate those guys being there for me and me being there for them."
The group also saw a duty to be there for the younger members of the team, especially those who had yet to taste major success at the collegiate level.
"We knew we had to make a statement this year because a lot of our team are sophomores and they had a losing record last year as their freshman year," fullback-turned-linebacker Zach Boren said. "We knew we had to get Coach Meyer off on the right foot and have a successful season, and I think we've done that so far."
That's a little bit of an understatement. Ohio State brings an 11-0 record into its season finale, scheduled for a noon kickoff on Saturday at Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes have clinched the Big Ten Leaders Division title, though they cannot play in the upcoming league championship game, and still have a chance at earning a national championship by finishing the year atop The Association Press' Top 25 poll. They currently sit fourth behind unbeaten Notre Dame and a pair of one-loss SEC teams in Alabama and Georgia.
While there will be no postseason for the seniors, the annual Michigan game is special enough on its own.
"This is the Super Bowl, this is the bowl game," fifth-year senior linebacker Etienne Sabino said. "This is the national championship. This is everything to us. This is The Game."
The senior class can make history this weekend with a win. That would give Ohio State only its sixth unbeaten season, a fact that would add a nice bookend to the careers of the team's 21 seniors: Boren, Dalton Britt, Ben Buchanan, Domicone, Reid Fragel, Garrett Goebel, Adam Homan, Howard, Johnson, Storm Klein, William McCary, Ross Oltorik, Vincent Petrella, Taylor Rice, Sabino, Justin Siems, John Simon, Stewart Smith, Kharim Stephens, Jake Stoneburner and Nathan Williams.
"It'd mean everything, honestly," Boren said. "When I'm older I'll just look back and think that helping lead this team to an undefeated season is something that not a lot of former Ohio State football players have been able to do.
"We still have a lot of work to do this week and it'd be one of those things after Saturday, if we win, I'll be able to sit back and be happy with how the season went and be proud of this team and the seniors and how we led them."