With the chance at a national title having surely slipped away and a run at a history-making third straight outright Big Ten title on life support, the Buckeyes now must face the facts that they will spend the final three games of their season playing for pride and a better postseason locale.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, that realization will linger through the team's first open week since the 2005 season. They will spend two weeks with the scarring images of the 13-6 loss to No. 3 Penn State Saturday – and the realization of how close they came to winning the game – in their heads before facing Northwestern in Evanston on Nov. 8.
The schedule maker could have been slightly more kind to Ohio State, it appears.
"You want to get at it as soon as you can," left guard Jim Cordle said. "Unfortunately as big as this game was, what we wanted to accomplish this season, we'll look back on this and it'll haunt us forever. It would be nice to get back on the field as soon as possible, which is going to be two weeks."
Instead, the team will spend the next two weeks beating up itself both mentally and physically. At least practices can expect to be a little bit lighter as a number of team members continue to nurse nagging injuries that should improve during the lighter week.
Along the way, Ohio State will use the time off to get back to basics in an effort to make something happen over the final three games.
"We have to go all the way back to fundamentals and try to get better," defensive tackle Nader Abdallah said. "We have to take it one game at a time now, and we'll see how this season ends. We're definitely not putting our heads down."
Such a worry does exist for an Ohio State team that does not control its own destiny in either the national or conference title race for the first time since 2004 – a year in which many of the current starters weren't even yet on the roster. The Buckeyes down the stretch in 2005 played for a share of the Big Ten title and did capture it along with Penn State, while last the last two teams won outright titles.
This year was expected to be no different. Ohio State returned nine starters on each side of the ball and both specialists and was chosen as the favorite in the Big Ten while beginning in the top three of most national polls.
What has happened since is familiar to most Buckeye fans. The team lost to USC in blowout fashion to drop out of the top 10 and then made a quarterback change from senior Todd Boeckman to freshman Terrelle Pryor.
The Buckeyes, who were expected to roll over most teams on the schedule, looked listless in close wins over Ohio, Troy and Purdue, though they were able to pull out wins against ranked teams Wisconsin and Michigan State on the road.
That latter win moved Ohio State to 4-0 in the Big Ten and kept alive thoughts of the Buckeyes' achieving a third consecutive outright title for the first time in league history. Now, such a dream is nearly impossible. The Buckeyes share second place with Michigan State and Minnesota, each of whom has one conference loss, while Penn State would need to drop two of its final three games.
"Anything can happen. It's been a crazy year already," senior captain Brian Robiskie said. "The four captains and the seniors have to take it upon ourselves to make sure these guys know that there are three games and anything can happen. All we can worry about is what we do."
The Buckeyes will close their schedule with Northwestern, Illinois and archrival Michigan. By winning out, Ohio State probably would punch a ticket to a BCS bowl, perhaps the Rose Bowl should Penn State win out and reach the national title game by virtue of a loss by either No. 1 Texas or second-ranked Alabama.
A loss likely would send Ohio State to a bowl out of the BCS such as the Capital One Bowl, a place OSU has not played since after the 1995 season. That bowl in Orlando, Fla., gets the first choice of Big Ten teams who have not been selected for the BCS.
So there clearly is something for which to play, including what would be a fifth straight win over Michigan in the finale. There is also the little matter of self-respect.
"We're playing for pride and to send the seniors out right," Cordle said. "It's a great class of seniors. And there's no better way to go out then with a home win against Michigan."