Mickey Marotti knows what could have been.
Ohio State’s revered strength and conditioning coach has been around greatness for much of his career, and the 2015 Ohio State Buckeyes may have been the most talented ever molded by a man with stops at Notre Dame, Florida and Ohio State on his résumé.
For the third time, Marotti watched the players he developed in the weight room fall short of a repeat national championship. As Urban Meyer’s right-hand man, Marotti has been with OSU’s head coach for the national championships at Florida in 2006 and 2008 and at Ohio State in 2014. None of those teams were able to repeat as champions.
“After practice yesterday, Coach Mick talked to the team real quick,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said Dec. 30. “He said, ‘We know this isn’t what we envisioned. This isn’t what we all wanted, and that’s how life is. Sometimes you don’t always get what you want.’”
What the Buckeyes wanted was a repeat national championship. What they got was The Grind, a year in which a dream season by most standards was instead one game after another in which nothing ever seemed good enough.
The expectations began before Ohio State even hoisted the College Football Playoff trophy to close out the 2014 season. With so many young players on the team, particularly from the recruiting class of 2013 that was ranked No. 1 in the country by Scout.com, 2015 was always targeted as the season in which Meyer’s Buckeyes would fulfill the vision set forth upon his arrival in Columbus.
By the time the Buckeyes beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, the realization was already hitting the rest of the nation: These guys are all coming back.
Ohio State went on to beat Oregon to claim the program’s first national title since 2002, future All-Americans like Taylor Decker and Adolphus Washington shirked the NFL Draft and all three star quarterbacks remained on the roster.
When the Associated Press Top 25 poll made the Buckeyes the first unanimous preseason No. 1 team in its history, the expectations were officially in place – national championship or bust.
The Buckeyes knew what they were walking into because Meyer and his staff had been through it before. Even defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, who wasn’t with Meyer at Florida, had been through a championship repeat attempt at Ohio State following the 2002 title. All the clichés about getting every team’s best shot and dealing with pressure and scrutiny from external sources had proved true in the past and were expected to show up again.
“We had guys like Ryan Stamper (who played linebacker for Meyer at Florida) and Coach Meyer who went through the same thing,” junior quarterback Cardale Jones said. “Coach Fickell went through the same thing. Coach Mick Marotti, he had championship teams who felt the pressure of repeating and couldn’t get it done. We definitely understood the pressure and the pros and cons that came with winning a national championship.”
The Buckeyes opened with an impressive win against Virginia Tech, the only team to beat them in 2014, but at times looked listless during the rest of the non-conference schedule. The Buckeyes beat Hawaii 38-0, Northern Illinois 20-13 and Western Michigan 38-12.
In the first week of Big Ten play, the Buckeyes needed a goal-line stand in the final minute to prevent overtime against Indiana.
“It was definitely tough because every week we felt like it wasn’t really good enough for our expectations,” Sam Hubbard said. “We’d win by 20 and expect to win by 40. It just put a lot of pressure on the team.”
The expectations hit at a personal level, too. All-American defensive end Joey Bosa spent the season dealing with double and triple teams and his production didn’t match the sky-high expectations. Players and coaches said he was executing at an even higher level than he did in 2014, but he occasionally drew complaints about his stat lines from fans on social media and message boards.
“I have to have 10 sacks a game or I suck,” Bosa said.
The nature of the schedule allowed for some wiggle room when it came to figuring things out, however. With the two best opponents – Michigan State and Michigan – set for the last two weeks of the regular season, the Buckeyes only needed to peak at the right time, and they certainly believed they would.
“The way everybody was talking about us, it was, ‘Oh, they’re just the greatest team ever. They’re going to just roll through the schedule.’ We got to the games and we’re not rolling and we ain’t scoring as many points but we’re still winning the game,” junior safety Tyvis Powell said. “There were a couple of complaints about it, like why are these other teams all able to score points against these teams but we can’t? Stuff like that. But at the end of the day we were still winning games so we weren’t down about it. As a defense we knew the offense was going to get it together because we’ve seen them at their best. So we knew all we had to do was keep holding it down.
“We got to Michigan State and we needed both sides of the ball. One day the offense would click and one day the defense would click. That was one game we needed both sides of the ball and it didn’t happen. It was like, ‘Maaaaaaaan.’ I knew it was going to come back to bite us one day, but I didn’t think it would be like this. I didn’t think it would be at the time that we needed it the most. It was a slap to the face.”
Instead of playing in the Dec. 31 playoff semifinals, the Buckeyes will be taking on Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl one day later. It’s not what the Buckeyes wanted, but it’s also not the worst outcome following the loss to Michigan State. A 42-13 throttling of Michigan in the Big House put the Buckeyes back on track and showed everyone what this team and this season could have been.
“We took one right to the chin and then played our best game of the season,” Hubbard said.
It was too late to salvage the playoff dream, but Powell said putting up a similar performance against Notre Dame would remove some of the bitterness from a season that never got on track until it was too late.
“As long as we do it one more time, I won’t be that mad about it,” he said.