This was supposed to be the year Ohio State won a national title.
In the fall of 2001, Jim Tressel and his staff began hauling in one of the most ballyhooed recruiting classes in Ohio State history. Quarterback Justin Zwick was proclaimed the best quarterback in the state since Art Schlichter. Tailbacks Maurice Clarett and Drushawn Humphries were freaks of nature who devastated high school defenses. Roy Hall was the next David Boston and Mike D'Andrea was the next great thing at the middle linebacking slot. E.J. Underwood displayed incredible coverage skills, and even after arriving at Ohio State was publicly touted by the coaching staff as having the potential to be one of the most talented corners they had been around. Finally, Derek Morris gave a signing day commitment and the Buckeyes couldn't have been more pleased; he had the potential to be a bona fide NFL star along the offensive line.
"This is the team when we came in, they said 2005 is when they will win the national championship," said Troy Smith. "We kind of had that in the back of our mind."
They were supposed to win the national title in 2005. That was the way it was supposed to turn out, but life has a funny way of turning out different than one plans.
Instead, the Buckeyes won the national title in 2002 and then endured nearly two years of media scrutiny because of Maurice Clarett. Clarett never again played a down in college after the Fiesta Bowl and is now wanted by the Columbus police. Humphries tragically passed away before signing his letter of intent because of a damaged heart. Morris was rejected by the university and never suited up. Underwood threw away his career at OSU and at last check transferred to a lower division and didn't even start.
Who is left?
Those with character are the ones who have gone the distance.
There's less highly considered Nick Mangold – he is now rated as the second best center in this upcoming NFL draft. A.J. Hawk, the linebacker the coaches had to watch extra tape on to be sure he could play at Ohio State, is the best linebacker in the nation and despite being robbed of the Butkus has yet to say something unkind about the voters. Bobby Carpenter and transfer Anthony Schlegel drive the engine for the defense; Carpenter openly wept when he could not play in the Michigan game while Schlegel is a former captain at the Air Force Academy and a devoted family man. Joel Penton isn't starting, but he is still toiling away in the interior of the defensive – at last check he wanted to be a minister. Zwick, D'Andrea, and Hall, expected to be mainstays and starters, instead have adjusted to coming off the bench when needed; they provide a backbone and example for the entire squad. Zwick recently confirmed he won't transfer; he wants to be a Buckeye even if he isn't starting.
There have been others of course. In fact there are a litany of names from the past. JaJa Riley would have been a redshirt senior this year. Louis Irizarry would have been a starter at tight end barring injury, and his NFL future would be bright. Ira Guilford could have been the nickel back or at the very least in line for a starting job in 2006.
Where have they all gone?
Honestly, who knows? They unfortunately never amounted to much of anything at Ohio State. Their failure is not because of talent. They had talent in spades. What they lacked was character, but it was character that saved this team.
A consensus top ten squad when the season opened, the Buckeyes lost two of their first five games.
"Maybe we weren't at our best against Texas, and maybe we weren't at our best at Penn State, but we learned from that and were able to handle some adversity and grow. It got shady for a minute there when you are looking at a 3-2 schedule. You are looking at where do we go? But, we lost to two of the best teams of the country. We played well. It wasn't a situation where we got blown out. We fought those games; we did a lot of good things in those games, but obviously the ball didn't fall our way. We learned a lot about ourselves from those."
They learned if they hadn't learned already – not to quit. It was time for a test drive of that character engine. Would they win the race or would the engine fail along the way?
"Obviously going in our goal was to be in the Rose Bowl," admitted defensive coordinator Jim Heacock earlier this week. "After you lose two games you are pretty certain that's not going to happen, but I thought what our kids did was a great job adjusting after the Penn State loss. What they did after that, that's really a critical time. You have some adversity and lose a couple of games and all your expectations were so high all of a sudden you have two losses. That's what I think (is) a real test of character. That's when these seniors stepped up and pretty much made a decision to regroup and change goals a little bit. They came out and played very well. They played their best football late in the year. I think it is a credit to them.
"Obviously…we were upset we didn't reach those goals, but as a coach I'm very impressed with this group because we faced adversity and lost two games. I've seen teams fall apart in that situation. Things can go haywire when you get two losses like that early in the year when you are expecting great things. To see these guys come together and what is special to me as a coach is to see how they responded – how the seniors responded."
Nor was it just the seniors. Santonio Holmes, a part of the class of 2002 but a redshirt junior according to eligibility, knew this had to stop. There couldn't be any more losses, and it wasn't about him or his own personal goals but his teammates.
He stated emphatically, "Our senior class, we didn't want to let those guys down by losing any more games away or at the ‘Shoe. I think those guys really starting sticking to it and digging down deep inside and trying to finish this season great. We can't have our seniors going out with a losing record. We felt like it was time for us to turn it around."
Turn it around they did. The Buckeyes reeled off six wins in a row including dramatic come from behind victories against Michigan State and Michigan. Against their long time rival Wolverines, they scored two touchdowns in the closing minutes to win the game and pull the hearts from the chest of the Maize and Blue. Ohio State was the bedrock upon which Michigan's sea smashed and failed.
What made the difference? Why did this Ohio State team succeed when other programs in similar situations have simply circled the drain? Who led them from the wilderness to the promised land of a Big Ten Championship and another Fiesta Bowl?
"I think the seniors just in general," said Heacock. "That whole senior group I think is special. They are a tight group. They came in as a tight group. They were highly recruited group. From the time they reported on campus they were a tight group. I don't think you can say one or two – I think it was more them as a unit or a group."
Offensive lineman Rob Sims confirmed his coach's comments; they are close and that made a difference. The question is why. Why is this batch of seniors so willing to fight for one another? Where did this special bond develop?
"I think one reason we are so close is a lot of people are unselfish on our senior class," says senior captain Rob Sims. "A lot of people will go on to play in the league (NFL) Lord willing. That's not what is really important to them right now. That's the business side of things and of course we'll take care of that when the time comes. Right now it is all about each other.
"We've been playing together since…I don't know if you remember but we had the all star game together. I think there were something like 19 of us playing together. That was the summer of our senior year. We were all making a big transition to the next step of playing big time college football. There were all these expectations. We all came together staying in dorm rooms playing this game and that game and coming to work out. A lot of us being from Ohio, we melted together. Everybody was the same kind of people. Then you bring in good people like Nate Salley and Santonio and people like that into it make it that much better because those guys are great."
Tonight these seniors have a chance to do something great; defeat Notre Dame for only the third time in Ohio State history and simultaneously tie the 1998 senior class for the most wins in school history – 43.
Will they do it? Is there enough fire left in their bellies? Does Notre Dame want this game more?
Senior safety Nate Salley is confident.
"Everybody here wants to win," he said. "That is the way we have always been. I believe that is what has made us as successful as we have been. We are staying hungry. This is a huge game. Everyone is going to be watching. Our family is going to be here. This is out last game as seniors. We don't want to go out with a loss by no means. I believe that is enough. Being here and being able to put on the uniform one last time. I believe that is enough to make you hungry."
One last time.
Ohio State's seniors whose characters stood the test of time and change have one last chance. They have one last chance at victory. They have one last chance to play for one another. They have one last chance to accomplish their goals.
If they win, it won't be just about talent; it will be because of character.