Learning to Love the Spotlight

By Joe Beale on January 8, 2014 at 1:30 pm

Ohio State football suffered through a postseason ban in 2012, much to the chagrin of Buckeye Nation, which was livid that the university had not self-imposed such a ban in 2011, when the team lost four straight to end the regular season and ended up playing in the not-very-exciting Gator Bowl. Now those same fans are probably wishing the ban had been imposed for 2013 as well. 

To say that the 2013 OSU football team did not hold up well under the glare of the postseason spotlight is an understatement.

On the one hand, you could defend the team by saying that they were competitive and that they showed character by roaring back to life after being down double-digits in the first half of both games. But on the other hand, after doing so they failed to finish. The much-hyped OSU offensive juggernaut went out with a whimper in both games, not even coming close to scoring on their last two drives in either game.

It's basketball season now, and it's time to leave all of that bitterness behind and start paying attention to a very good OSU hoops squad. But let's keep one eye on the gridiron while we shift to the court, because there's something that the football team can learn from their colleagues over at the Schott: how to rise up and make the big play when the moment of opportunity arrives. They need to learn how to love the pressure and feed off it.  

What's that you say? We just lost to Michigan State in basketball last night? True enough, and there are lessons to take away from that as well. But losses happen in the world of college basketball and so we can all be thankful that in this sport at least there is no real penalty in losing in overtime on the road to a top-5 opponent, one that was previously ranked #1 and might be so again in less than two weeks time.

No, it's actually another loss to Michigan State that comes to mind, one that took place almost two years ago. Playing at home and with the nation watching, the Buckeye hoopsters laid an egg big time, losing 58-48 on a night in which they shot only 26% from the field. Why do I bring that one up? Because only three weeks later, playing again on national television and this time on the road with the Big Ten regular season title on the line, the team overcame the odds and won, 72-70.

Reversals in the Big Ten season happen all the time with the round-robin schedule the way it is, but this one was significant. For much of the season, senior guard William Buford had struggled to make big shots when the team needed them. This time, with the two teams tied at 70, Buford got the ball knowing he had to make the shot and he nailed it with one second remaining to shock the Spartan crowd and lift his team to victory. Asked about it afterwards, Buford said "I just came in with a different mindset...During that last play, I wasn't going to miss."

That OSU team made the most of their postseason opportunity, going to the Final Four before falling to a very good Kansas squad. The takeaway from this is the mindset: this is the reason you come to a place like Ohio State, the opportunity to perform in front of the entire country with the highest prize at stake.

This season, the Ohio State football team had that opportunity, going into the B1G championship game with the opportunity to reach the BCS championship game with a victory. But when the spotlight rolled around, they looked like a team that was not ready for prime time, both on the field (players) and on the sideline (coaches).

Next season, the football team will have to rebuild the offensive line and will have to replace 1000-yard rusher Carlos Hyde and leading tackler Ryan Shazier. Many pundits will say that they shouldn't be considered a national title contender. But even here, the football team can learn something from that other OSU team. 

Last season, Ohio State was faced with the prospect of replacing both Buford and star center Jared Sullinger. Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams were not exactly the force inside that Sullinger was, and the only reliable scorer returning was Deshaun Thomas. This OSU team stumbled early on the road against Duke and at home against Kansas. In the latter game, they struggled mightily from the field, hitting only 31% for the game and 25% in the second half. It looked like this would be a middling B1G team, one that would not achieve much in the postseason.

Winner!Will Buford's game-winner against Michigan State in 2012.

That turned out to be premature. Again learning much from failure, the team regrouped and found something deep inside them that spurred them on to better efforts. Those efforts yielded fruit when they humiliated the heavily-favored Indiana Hoosiers in their home arena as that team was trying to wrap up a regular season conference title. But it was in the postseason when they really shined, capturing the Big Ten Tournament title and then turning back Iowa State and Arizona in dramatic fashion to make the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament.

What is more remarkable is not that they won those last two games, but how they won them. In crunch time, when the team needed defensive stops, multiple players came through. And then, when someone needed to step up and make last-second shots to win both games, two players responded — and neither of them was Deshaun Thomas. First Aaron Craft against Iowa State, and then Laquinton Ross against Arizona, nailed three-pointers to send the two opponents down to defeat.

Where was this kind of high-pressure performance from the football team this season?

In the biggest moments, both the players and the coaches seemed to freeze up when the spotlight was brightest. Stage fright is hardly something you would expect from a coach that has won two BCS championships, but perhaps two years without the postseason glare of expectations has dulled his sense of the moment.

Because there are no second chances in college football, the way you have them in basketball, we will have to wait until next season to see if the Ohio State program can rise from the shame of expectations not met and big opportunities not seized. It is possible that next year's team, devoid of several key players and perhaps not expected to achieve as much, will find that certain something within themselves that propels them to heights not thought possible previously.

Perhaps they will learn to love the big moments, to live for those situations in which the pressure is most felt and the chance to be a hero or a goat is the greatest. And perhaps then they will shine this time, and win the glorious prize that their hard work has earned. 

I look forward to seeing it.

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