In beating arch rival Michigan, Saturday afternoon was supposed to be a celebration and a culmination of a journey that’s watched sixth-ranked Ohio State grow from the team that flatlined against Virginia Tech to one who will head to the Big Ten Championship next weekend as part of a final playoff push.
First, it needed to overcome the devastating loss of its star quarterback.
Three months later, it will have to do so again after a broken ankle will end the storybook season of J.T. Barrett, who unexpectedly blossomed into one of the nation’s best players this season after being hurled into the spotlight in the absence of Braxton Miller.
“We lost a Heisman candidate today,” head coach Urban Meyer said.
It’s not the first time we’ve heard that this year.
The Buckeyes overcame a tepid first half to best the Wolverines, 42-28, but clouds, the same kinds that hovered over Ohio State in late August, have been cast over Columbus.
Yet without Miller — who had been the team’s centerpiece and life force for the last three seasons — the Buckeyes have won without him.
And, of course, that’s what makes the sudden and gutting loss of Barrett all the more painful for Ohio State’s coaches, players and fans.
Whether it was State College or East Lansing or Minneapolis, Barrett, a redshirt freshman who hadn’t taken a snap since midway through his senior year of high school, guided Ohio State back into a national conversation that was once figured to be a lost cause after a stunning loss to the Hokies in September.
Instead, behind what coaches and players refer to as a calm and steady and exceptionally-mature manner, he helped the Buckeyes rally toward a chance to ascend to college football’s first-ever playoff. He became a star in his own right. He became a cause.
While fans shrieked and roared and bellowed “We Don’t Give a Damn for the Whole State of Michigan,” the postgame spectacle of a triumph in one of the sport’s greatest rivalries was unfulfilling.
“It’s your senior day, you just beat the team up north, you’re going to the Big Ten Championship Game and you feel like something’s missing, senior tight end Jeff Heuerman said.
“And really something is missing — your starting quarterback that you’ve rallied around all season is done.”
When the Buckeyes head to Indianapolis next weekend with a year's worth of ambitions riding on a contest against Wisconsin or Minnesota, they will do so with third-string quarterback Cardale Jones, whose ability in meaningful action remains relatively unknown.
“We have a lot of confidence in the guy that's going to be doing it … He's been here I think for 120 years. He's been here for a while,” said Meyer, who was unusually upbeat considering the events that had unfolded during the course of the afternoon.
“A quarterback is a product of those around him.”
It's a line Meyer reiterated over and over again while he and his staff worked furiously to prepare Barrett in August. And as the Buckeyes slowly ascended back into the big picture, it resonated more each week.
"I don’t think any one player really makes a whole team," Heuerman said.
It's a familiar sentiment and familiar situation for an Ohio State team that's already had to reckon with losing its most important player.