GLENDALE, Arizona – Sitting at his locker following Ohio State’s 29-23 Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson, Thayer Munford didn’t want to talk about the specifics of what just happened in the game.
Asked whether the loss would motivate him and his teammates for next season, though, Munford – a junior left tackle who already confirmed earlier in the week that he will be back for his senior year – had a message he wanted to share.
“Just know, just know, that it’s going to be a different mindset,” Munford said. “It’s going to be the same, kind of like this, what we had this past year, but it’s going to be really different.”
What had been a spectacular season for the Buckeyes came to a bitter end on Saturday night, as they suffered what was not only their first loss of the season but their last, as Clemson eliminated them from the College Football Playoff for the second time in four years.
On an Ohio State roster that no longer included anyone who won the national championship in 2014, that was a tough pill to swallow, especially for the Buckeyes’ seniors.
“It hurts,” said fifth-year senior wide receiver K.J. Hill. “I just feel like I ripped my chest open, gave Ohio State everything I got in me. I wanted it bad. One of my goals was to play in the national championship and win a national championship. I fell short of that. I feel like I left it all on the field.”
That won’t break the close-knit bonds that this year’s Buckeyes built with each other or erase the memories they made in winning their first 13 games of the season, including their eighth straight win over Michigan and third straight Big Ten championship. As the Buckeyes – even those whose careers just came to an end – come to terms with what happened on Saturday night, they’ll have plenty of reasons to remember the 2019 season fondly.
“The biggest thing I think about … is just the group of guys I’ve been around,” fifth-year senior right tackle Branden Bowen said after the game. “I couldn’t have asked for a better senior year from them, especially the O-line. These are my four best friends now in my life and I would do anything for them, so definitely going to miss them.”
Knowing that they were just two games away from winning the national championship that Hill and his teammates had dreamed about, though, leaves a wound that will likely fester for all of them for quite some time.
“Either you get there or you don’t. And we didn’t get there,” said fifth-year senior defensive tackle Robert Landers. “We were so close to achieving the overall goal, and we just came up a step short off of little mistakes. Little things that we had been hitting on in practice. So it’s not even so much as my career that I’m upset is coming to an end, it’s just moreso that we could have played a lot better, we could have executed a lot better going forward, and we didn’t.”
For the Buckeyes who will be back next season, the loss will add yet another level of incentive – for a team that already seemed extremely hungry to win a national championship this season – to win a title in 2019.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, wide receiver Garrett Wilson and defensive end Jonathon Cooper were among the returning players who took to Twitter in the hours following the game to express their resolve and optimism that the Buckeyes would be back on the national stage competing for a championship again in 2020.
I thank God for an amazing year as a Buckeye. Thank you Buckeye nation for your support. Well be back!— Justin Fields (@justnfields) December 29, 2019
Eph 1:11 His will! pic.twitter.com/ZUadVXJk8R
With that said. Next year everybodys in trouble.. well be back.— Garrett Wilson (@GarrettWilson_V) December 29, 2019
Carrying this on my shoulders never letting my brothers down again— Jonathon Cooper (@JonathonCooper7) December 29, 2019
Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave said he believes the Buckeyes still have momentum that will carry them into next season with a chance to be a title contender again.
“We definitely have a lot of momentum, and a lot of respect from others now,” Olave said. “Coach Day has a lot of momentum, and we all love him as a team, and as players, we all love him.”
Even the Buckeyes who won’t be back next season will be doing their part to motivate their younger teammates to build upon both their success and failure from this season and push even harder to achieve even more next season.
“We're going to have a bad taste in our mouths going into next year. I still say we,” said senior safety Jordan Fuller. “But they're going to have a bad taste in their mouths, and I think they'll use it as fuel.”
Hill offered a similar message in the locker room after the game.
“They can take that fuel and the motivation into the offseason,” Hill said. “They know how it felt now. They got to this level, they know how it feels and they lost at the highest level on the big stage. And now your offseason should have nothing but motivation. Mat drills, summer runs, all that. That nasty taste’s going to be in your mouth from this loss.”
“We were so close to achieving the overall goal, and we just came up a step short off of little mistakes.”– Ohio State senior defensive tackle Robert Landers on the Buckeyes' loss to Clemson
The toughest part for the returning Buckeyes: Waiting more than eight months for their 2020 season opener, against Bowling Green at Ohio Stadium on Sept. 5, to have a chance to start washing that bad taste away.
“It’s just so far away,” Olave said. “I know this will hurt me the next couple days and next couple weeks, but it’s just tough thinking that far.”