When a team wins 12 games in a season, it is generally going to have to nitpick to figure out how to get better.
That was not necessarily the case for Ohio State this past offseason, though, as the Buckeye wide receivers came to the conclusion they were more the reason for Ohio State losing two games than winning 12.
"I feel like when it all changed was when we lost last year in the Big Ten Championship and we lost last year in the bowl game," Mike Thomas said Tuesday as the Buckeyes took a break from preparing to face Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to talk to reporters at media day. "That was a feeling guys had never felt because we went undefeated the first two regular seasons then we were humbled when we played Michigan State. They had a great secondary and that game motivated our whole offseason because we knew we were going to see them again in Big Ten football. Then we played against Clemson and these type of stages, the bowl game and the Big Ten championship, those games came on us last year when we lost, so we realized this offseason we were going to have to improve and grind so we'd never be in that situation again."
Ohio State's formula for success last season was no secret. With the Big Ten's best quarterback, running back and offensive line, the Buckeyes won their first 12 games of the season for the second year in a row.
In game 13, Braxton Miller (the aforementioned quarterback) and Carlos Hyde (the running back) both ran for over 100 yards with the line doing its usual bang-up job, but the Buckeyes still came out on the wrong end of a 34-24 final score. While defensive breakdowns surely played a role in that outcome, the receivers also took some of the blame after Miller completed only 8 of 21 passes, a line that included a couple of drops and at least three more 50/50 balls that went as pass breakups for Michigan State's talented secondary. They were not easy plays for the OSU wideouts, but they were needed and could have been made.
In game 14, Miller threw for 234 yards but Clemson prevailed 40-35. His top targets in that game were Philly Brown, a senior receiver playing his last game, and Jeff Heuerman, the Buckeyes' tight end. That meant that group of receivers coming back knew they had a lot to prove as far as how valuable they could be the next time Ohio State found itself on a big stage.
Thirteen games into 2014, they have answered the call as Thomas, Devin Smith, Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson have been among those to turn in standout performances in some of the biggest games of the season.
It started with Smith's 94 yards and a touchdown against Navy and continued a week later when Thomas caught six passes for 98 yards and a score against Virginia Tech. There was a no-show in the close call at Penn State, but Smith and Thomas both torched the rebuilt Michigan State secondary in the rematch with the Spartans. Marshall went off on Minnesota, and Smith saved his best for last, lambasting Wisconsin for 137 yards and three long touchdowns in the Big Ten Championship Game.
"We felt last year like we were there every now and then and when (Meyer and his staff) got here it was kind of me and Philly and last year Evan mixed in but we did rely too much on Carlos and Braxton," Smith said. "They got the ball more -- obviously because of the plays they made -- and coming into this year we wanted to be the difference for this football team and I think we've done a good job of that."
Next up is the biggest stage yet, a Sugar Bowl date with Alabama. While the Crimson Tide are annually one of the best defenses in the country, they have been vulnerable to giving up chunk passing plays -- and the Buckeye receivers are aware they have another chance to show how far they have come since last season.
"We grinded all offseason," Thomas said. "We knew if anything happened it wasn't going to come on us and people just took accountability and leadership and just trusted in the program. We set a goal at the beginning of this season with 'The Chase' and we knew there would be a four-team playoff and we knew if we kept grinding we could get in there so that's what we did."
While Smith has gone over 600 yards receiving for the third straight season, Thomas has been a revelation as a sophomore starting opposite him. At 6-3, 209, Thomas provides a more physical presence than Ohio State has had at receiver in a while, and he has proven to be a big-play threat, too, while averaging 15.8 yards per catch.
Though he came to Ohio State via California, he's aware of the tradition of excellence the Buckeyes built at wide receiver in the 1990s and early 2000s, and he is happy to help restore it under the guidance of Meyer, offensive coordinator Tom Herman and receivers coach Zach Smith.
"Yeah that's definitely what we're trying to get back going and I feel like we're heading in the right direction," Thomas said. "Those guys know a lot about the game and I feel like when they first came in they were new. When coaches are new you don't know exactly who to trust so we're kind of just young. After I feel like we started buying in, stuff started working that coach was telling us to do. Things start opening up, people start making the plays they want to make so everyone starts buying in and investing and just trusting everything that's going on and we had a lot of success."
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