On Saturday morning, Columbus woke up to sheet of ice that coated the city’s highways, sidewalks and parking lots. It was enough to prompt university officials into issuing an alert to those commuting toward the frozen banks of the Olentangy River for Ohio State’s game against Indiana.
As such, Ohio Stadium’s gates opened late because it had neither enough workers nor fans to do so on time. And at kickoff, the stands of the mighty and massive Horseshoe were half empty.
It was cold. It was wet. It made for a tepid scene on a day that where the sixth-ranked Buckeyes could clinch a return to the league’s championship game in Indianapolis and further a case for a spot in the inaugural college football playoff.
Even so, Ohio State and its rolling offense raced out to a 14-0 lead against one of the worst defenses in the nation and ultimately pulled away from the Hoosiers, 42-27, but something was decidedly off from the start.
“We noticed it in warm ups, the atmosphere wasn’t the same,” safety Tyvis Powell said. “It was kind of dead for the football team, so we addressed the issue in the locker room before we went out on the field, but it still seemed like nobody got it.”
That’s what happens when you’re playing a bad team at noon in miserable weather.
“(We) jumped out to 14-0 lead and the stadium was dead and we were dead,” head coach Urban Meyer said.
Then came the turnovers: A fumble by wide receiver Michael Thomas and two rare interceptions by redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. Missed tackles, penalties and an overall untidiness made for an unexpectedly close contest in the first half.
The Buckeyes, who led, 14-13, at intermission, dominated the box score, but an inability to pull away from arguably the conference's worst team cast a spell of uneasiness over those watching. A typically-potent offense punted on six-straight possessions against Indiana’s horrid defense.
When Indiana running back Tevin Coleman’s 90-yard run to take a stunning, 20-14, lead midway through the third quarter, the crowd fell silent. Which — whether it was shock, frustration or anger — got Ohio State talking.
“I feel like us going down, it kind of helped rally and get more people into the game,” Powell said.
On the next defensive series, the Buckeyes found themselves at a critical juncture in a game that had suddenly and unexpectedly slipped away from them. They had Indiana pinned in front of their own end zone and, as if to sense the moment’s urgency, the lifeless crowd — that had filled in over the course of the game — sprung to action. People rose to their feet, they clapped, they shrieked. Feeding off the energy, the defense stonewalled the Hoosiers.
And what happened next changed the game.
On the ensuing punt return, Jalin Marshall — who struggled with fumbles against the Gophers last weekend — hauled in the ball before sprinting 54 yards for a touchdown to take the lead, the momentum and, eventually, the game.
Behind his four touchdowns, the Buckeyes pulled away from Indiana and away from a brief scare.
“We're conference division champions, won a bunch of games in a row. We have some work to do,” Meyer said. “Sometimes in college football, things don't go exactly as scripted.”
Which is why the college football playoff selection committee might not punish Ohio State for a less than impressive win Saturday afternoon — especially after convincing road triumphs against Michigan State and Minnesota.
“We're fine, I guess, whatever the score was, somewhat of a close call. Just have to play better. We still are division champs.”
And still in the thick of the national picture.