Early in his coaching career, Mark Dantonio spent two seasons working under Earle Bruce. He spent five seasons as Jim Tressel’s defensive coordinator in the late 1980s before working in the same position under Tressel for three seasons at Ohio State in the early 2000s.
Both Bruce and Tressel taught him the same lesson about splitting up the season into chunks. Coaches learn about what they have in their team in the first third of the season. In the second third of the season, a team’s identity – either positive or negative – becomes a reality. Down the stretch, in the last month of the regular season, it’s time to focus on trophies.
“I think when you get to November, you're chasing championships and things of that nature, and that comes from my background with coach Tressel and, really, Earle Bruce,” Dantonio said on the Big Ten teleconference on Oct. 2. “Used to always talk about November's going to ultimately define you. But you have to get yourself to November.”
Ohio State got itself to November – barely. Now, though, it has a chance to define the season in a way unlike last year’s team.
The 2017 Ohio State team was defined by the Iowa loss. It was an inescapable, inexplicable loss to a less talented team.
Ohio State didn’t make the playoff because of the perplexing 31-point loss to the middling Hawkeyes in the first week of November, the time when Bruce, Urban Meyer’s mentor, believed teams should chase championships. They beat Michigan, won the Big Ten championship and beat USC in the Cotton Bowl, but that loss still haunted the team.
The same type of loss might have happened again this season in the form of a 29-point loss to Purdue. But this time, there’s a chance Ohio State has enough time to overcome the defeat and chase the Big Ten championship and a berth in the College Football Playoff. It’s not guaranteed, but more than likely if the Buckeyes won out, they’d reach the playoff.
That’s not at the front of Meyer’s mind, though. When Meyer was asked on Monday about whether he felt better or worse about Ohio State’s ability to compete for a championship after a week of practices, he said he and the team has to “stay away from all that.”
But, he noted the understanding of a need to improve and rebound permeating the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
“I think there is urgency,” Meyer said. “I'm not saying it feels bad, but there is a tremendous amount of urgency. We understand November. We understand where we're at. We understand what's at stake, and we understand our shortcomings. So urgency is probably the key word around here. Hard to say I've ever seen a group of staff work as hard as we've worked to try to fix the issues and same with our players.”
Those issues have permeated the team for weeks, now. Some weaknesses were exposed in the season opener against Oregon State.
If Dantonio was right in saying a team’s identity becomes a reality in October, Ohio State is in trouble. The Buckeyes have a high-powered passing attack. But, beyond that? Not much positivity. Issues in the run game and the red zone persist. They’re still penalized much too often and give up too many big plays.
Leading up to the Purdue game, Meyer and the players touted a good week of practice. Again on Monday, Meyer said the players “worked their tails off” in advance of the upset.
“It's frustrating to not see the rewards, and I know it's frustrating for the players, as well,” Meyer said.
Meyer said the team had a meeting on Tuesday to “clear the air” and relieve itself of the “bad taste in your mouth.” He calls this part of the season “the grind,” so there’s only so much that can be done to improve the team. There can’t be any major adjustments or massive overhauls.
Meyer repeated a go-to phrase of his on Monday: “Enhance your strengths and fix your weaknesses. We've got to do a better job of that.”
He knows the stakes. A single loss will, in all likelihood, eliminate all opportunities of any championship, which is why everyone around the team feels such urgency.
Emotions are at a high after the Purdue loss seemed so similar to the Iowa loss. It’s not often that only one loss in eight games leads to fans and media questioning the head coach and his longevity, but that’s what happened. One loss typically doesn’t lead to that head coach getting multiple questions about his health and emotions on the sideline, but because of the loss and the Zach Smith situation the preceded the season, that took place on Monday.
“I’m fine," Meyer said. "I want Ohio State to be successful in the worst way. Working extremely hard to make sure that’s happening. I love Ohio State, I love our players, so the issue, I don’t want people to worry about me. I want to make sure we’re getting some things right around here, and that is what the effort is. That is 100 percent of what my focus is on.”
In order for Ohio State to not allow a midseason loss to a Big Ten opponent define the season, it must put the pieces together and regroup down the stretch with the urgency Meyer spoke about.