Fourth and two.
That’s what separated Ohio State from an opportunity to play for a national championship. Twenty-four consecutive wins quickly became irrelevant. Eight months later, fourth and two is a number that’s evolved into a rallying cry.
“It’s one of those things you have to move on from,” senior tight end and soon-to-be-captain Jeff Heuerman said. “But it’s another one of those things that you’re not going to move on from. So you just kind of harness it and try to take some positives out of it.”
As the 2014 Buckeyes begin fall camp Monday, the focus remains on unfinished business. There are two goals yet to be attained during the Urban Meyer era: a Big Ten championship and a national title.
“When we went 12-0 in the regular season last year, that felt great,” senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett said. ‘But those are all steps to get to what you really want. So we took steps to the door and got kicked off the porch. We need to finish that now. We need to go through that door.
“I think that's the whole goal now this year. We know it takes each and every game. But when it finally matters to get to what we worked for, it's time to win.”
Meyer’s been through that door twice in a career where wins have flown by like tumbleweed in the southwestern United States. At first glance, it’s easy to define Meyer’s two-year tenure at Ohio State as yet another smashing success. Upon closer examination, though, wins over Michigan are all that’s there.
Ohio State hasn’t won a conference championship or bowl game since the 2010 season. This year is the final chance for seniors to leave a lasting legacy in Columbus, marking a renewal of met expectations. Losing consecutive games did not appear in the blueprint.
When asked if he’d ever experienced such lowlights – two straight losses – Meyer was dumbfounded. He couldn’t speak because he didn’t know the answer. It’s a yes, most recently in 2010 when Florida lost three in a row. The Buckeyes shouldn’t face a similar streak of futility again this season; not with an offense, defense and special teams intent on setting records.
It’s all about finishing the chase that began in August 2013.
“This group of seniors doesn’t have that Big Ten championship and we don't have a bowl win,” Heuerman said. “Those are two things we need to accomplish this year, and we're going to do everything we can to do that.”
The expectations don’t change with the flip of a calendar, and they aren’t altered because offensive linemen were lost or a former running back gained 1,500 yards. It’s business as usual at Ohio State. Coaches, players and fans are all thinking Big Ten championship, with an eye on an even bigger prize.
But the “F” word – failure – will not be uttered if all objectives aren’t reached. Michigan head coach Brady Hoke has made it a point to show his dissatisfaction with the Wolverines’ lack of a Big Ten championship during his tenure, referring to each season as a failure. Meyer won’t wade into that territory.
“Failure? I think that's a strong word,” he said. “There’s injuries, there’s issues. You’ll never see it anywhere in our facilities that the national championship is our goal. Our goal is to win the Big Ten championship. The national championship is something we’re chasing, but there are so many variables. I don’t want our players feeling like they're a failure. Some people did some magical things in that 24-game run. So I don’t use that word.”
Instead of failure when talking about his football team, Meyer opts for the word hungry. He anticipates a group of hyenas will make up the Buckeye roster. There will be no need for motivation. And if the team develops on schedule, there will be no shortage of talent.
Offensive line, skill positions and the secondary all have question marks as camp commences. Priority No. 1 is always the O-line, and Meyer believes growth at the position would bode well for Ohio State’s ambitions.
“If our offensive line develops, we’ll be very good,” he said. “I’m confident, but I have a little apprehension because spring ball was not good.”
The confidence level with the running backs, receivers and secondary is higher. All are unproven, but talented. The defensive backs and safeties will have a new look, which is a welcome sight for Meyer and anxious fans who ran out of patience in 2013.
“We completely blew it up,” Meyer said. “Anything associated with that is completely changed, and it had to change.”
However, images of a fourth-and-two gone wrong will not fade.
“You’re obviously not going to wake up and forget about it,” Heuerman said. “That’s not realistic.”