Whether it was after spring practice on a dreary, cold afternoon in March or in between scorching two-a-day sessions in August, Ohio State talked about how it couldn’t wait to show the rest of the world a team that had been forged out of last year’s illy-timed heartbreak and humiliation. Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech was supposed to be a climax of sorts.
The scene of a bigger Ohio Stadium was set with a new swanky tunnel for the team to run out of and newly-installed permanent lights that beamed from above. Even NBA mega star LeBron James roamed the sidelines.
Instead, the grand spectacle was lost on a 35-21 loss to the Hokies and head coach Urban Meyer’s first loss inside the Horseshoe which swelled with a record crown north of 107,000 people.
“A little bit surprised. I thought our skilled guys would perform better. I thought we'd protect a little better. A little bit disappointed. I don't know, coaches don't get surprised, (they) get disappointed,” Meyer said.
“Obviously we just gotta work a little harder, and I still have confidence: we have enough skill on this football team to get by people. It didn't look like it, but we have to get by people or you're going to see what you saw today you'll see every week.”
That’s a good way to describe Ohio State right now and a better way for how we should've projected the team’s outlook all along.
With an offense littered with new faces and a defense that was so bad last season that it needed an offseason overhaul, what did you really expect?
Maybe this all shouldn’t be that surprising.
The Buckeyes fell into a 21-7 hole at halftime before rallying for 14 unanswered points to tie the game early in the fourth quarter. But against a defense that simply mauled an inexperienced offensive line for seven sacks and a Hokie offense that converted 9-of-17 third downs, Ohio State crumbled late.
Quarterback J.T. Barrett, young, flustered and desperate by the situation, threw an errant pass that turned into his third interception that turned into a Virginia Tech touchdown with minutes to play.
Of course, the loss hardly falls on only the youngster, who finished the day with 289 total yards (219 through the air, 70 on the ground) but completed just nine-of-29 throws. Redshirt freshman quarterbacks make mistakes.
“It was certainly not a one position, one thing that you can say this was the reason,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said.
Because a lot of things went wrong Saturday.
If you want to buy stock in recruiting rankings and how Meyer and his staff have hauled in some of the nations’ finest classes lately, the Buckeyes are brimming with talent. Young talent, sure. But talent nonetheless.
Ohio State said potential was supposed to turn into production this season.
Then the Buckeyes lost star quarterback Braxton Miller, but Barrett – the “Guiton-ish” calm, cool, collected kid waiting in the wings – would be OK with a supposed cache of weapons around him.
Like one of the team's favorite sayings goes: "Next man up." Right?
Guys like Dontre Wilson, Corey Smith, Michael Thomas, Ezekiel Elliott, Jalin Marshall, Curtis Samuel, were supposed to burgeon even without Miller, the back-to-back Big Ten Player of the Year and a Heisman contender. Veterans like Jeff Heuerman and Devin Smith already knew the drill. Next man up.
Sure, Miller's absence is profound, but the Buckeyes said they remained confident in Barrett, who lit up Navy in Baltimore last weekend. Next man up.
Elliott, Samuel, Rod Smith and Bri'onte Dunn are no Carlos Hyde, but they’d find a way to split carries and shoulder the load at running back. Next man up.
The offensive line? Ed Warinner, who’s regarded as one of the best in the business by football circles, would shape up a group trying to replace four multi-year starters. Next man up.
The defense, the one that finished 112th against the pass last season? That was supposed to be better and faster, too, with new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash and without first-round NFL Draft picks Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby. Next man up.
Saturday's jaunt against the Hokies didn't do much to help Ohio State back up the last six months worth of promises, vows, Tweets and mottos about a completing unfinished business after falling short of a national championship last season.
Next man up is a nice buzzword, but it's not good enough when you're trying to replace superstars like Miller and Hyde or other integral cogs of the Buckeyes' success under Meyer.
The defects you saw Saturday were there before Braxton Miller got hurt and will be there when it plays Kent State Saturday.
“We don't blame people,” Meyer said. “We just gotta get a lot better. And that starts tomorrow. We had a good meeting as a team. You really find out about people. And I have a lot of confidence that some of these young people, now they're veteran guys, that are going to get better and better each week.
“We just have to do a better job. I know that sounds redundant or coach speak, but I'm not sure what else you say.”
Ohio State looked like a team playing without its star quarterback, star running back and an offensive line that some regard as one of the best in school history. It looked like a team still learning a new defensive scheme.
There were bright spots: like Barrett's poise in the first half, the entire defensive line, monster catches by Wilson and Thomas and interceptions by Eli Apple and Vonn Bell.
But mostly, the Buckeyes looked young and rattled by the moment when it mattered most. The offensive line was pitiful. Would-be playmakers make are non-factors. And so a spot in the first-ever college football playoff seems like a pipe dream.
"But it’s a long season, anything can happen," junior linebacker Joshua Perry said. "There’s a lot of games to be played across America and we just gotta wait and see. We gotta go out there and play Buckeye football and if we do that, we’ll put ourselves in a situation where something – we don’t know what it is yet – but we’re hoping."
Added Perry: "We’re gonna go to work every day. Ohio State’s Ohio State. We’re a highly ranked team all the time, we get good guys so we just gotta put in the work."
But that's part of the problem, because it's not that simple – not even for a blue blood like the Buckeyes.
They're not immune to the pitfalls of youth, inexperience and when talent doesn't come to fruition when you need it the most.