Imagine the lynchpin of Ohio State's plan to win being knocked out of a marquee game.
Yeah, think really hard about how that might go. It’s no ordinary affair; a prime time banger following a solid month of hype, strategy and preparation, absent of any other opponents or distractions.
Then suddenly: The Big Mismatch, The Huge Problem - that guy - has to leave the game, and the team is forced to respond with a something other than the original plan. Now imagine that happening twice in the same season.
It’s not much of a hypothetical. For those readers suffering from memory loss, the 2022 Buckeyes lost Jaxon Smith-Njigba in the home opener against Notre Dame, and then lost Marvin Harrison Jr. in what turned out to be the season closer in Atlanta.
They went 1-1 in those games. The Fighting Irish hadn't learned the just throw it deep hack against the Ohio State defense yet; that outcome may have flipped later in the season.
Stroud had piled up 319 passing yards on Georgia with his top weapon available. Adversity struck, and the Buckeyes were toppled by it.
By that time the Buckeyes were better known and banged up, but the latter is no excuse - injuries and tackle football go together like ointment and suppositories. Failing to prepare for in-game attrition is the same thing preparing to lose.
Ohio State's offense sputtered in both games without its difference maker. C.J. Stroud was held to 149 passing yards by Notre Dame after JSN's hamstring injury in the 2nd quarter. He had only 29 passing yards following Harrison's concussion, which closed the Peach Bowl's 3rd quarter.
Stroud had piled up 319 passing yards on Georgia with his top weapon available. Adversity struck, and the Buckeyes were toppled by it. You can place officiating that doesn’t go your team’s way where you stuck the ointment and suppositories. It is to be expected.
Unfortunately - and this is the world Ohio State created for itself - the 2022 Buckeyes will be remembered for what they did not deliver, which means it's difficult to remember and fully appreciate they had far and away the deepest wide receiver room in the sport, along with the highest ceiling.
Harrison and Emeka Egbuka both tallied over 1,000 receiving yards in 2022, giving the Buckeyes two 1,000-yard receivers on the same team for the only second time ever. The first time one season earlier when JSN and Garrett Wilson both did it.
Prior to 2021, five Buckeyes crossed the 1,000-yard threshold in 131 years of football. They nearly doubled that in two seasons. The depth is unlike anything the program has ever seen.
And yet after Harrison went down in Atlanta, the Buckeyes could not find the end zone.
This is not entirely on the wide receivers or that room's immense depth; Stroud was forced to adjust to not having his top target. And above the physical competition and strategic elements required to win, sports are psychological tests - especially when college kids are involved.
Defenses are invigorated when The Big Mismatch or The Huge Problem leaves a game. Ohio State didn't just lose its juice when Harrison was sidelined by a vicious hit while he was defenseless. The juice was transferred across the field to the opposite sideline.
And the Bulldogs savored it. He was still on their minds a week later while beating TCU into oblivion.
Yelling coming from the Georgia sideline after the fumble They aint got no Marvin Harrison.— Carson (@cmacrae13) January 10, 2023
If there's a program that should be able to weather the loss of one star player from the deepest of the team's nine units, it's Ohio State. They had in-season experience in losing their biggest playmaker. They lost the majority of their running back room as well. Adverse events were the usual.
This is the program that lost Ted Ginn Jr. in the BCS championship before Troy Smith took a single snap before the retractable dome caved in. It's the one that lost Trey Sermon after his first play of the CFP title game.
Nick Bosa before the Iowa Massacre, Shawn Wade in Glendale to send The Night of 100 Things That All Had to Go Clemson's Way for Ohio State to Lose - we have a running list of terrible Jenga moments which sent great Ohio State teams hurtling toward impossibly bad outcomes. It’s odd, but true - bad luck and trouble are stitched into the fabric of one of the sport’s richest programs.
IF OHIO STATE is going to return to IndY and the Playoff - and win - it WILL have to prove it can RETURN to issuing bigger responses than any event it faces.
Except there's one glitch in the Buckeyes' bad luck over the past couple of decades. They have a resistant position which coincided with an era that seemed to self-inoculate when its best player went out. Kenny Guiton, Cardale Jones and the late Dwayne Haskins etched themselves in program lore far more through how they performed in consequential, abrupt and adverse conditions than anything they contributed statistically.
And they all played for Urban Meyer's teams. The Bosas did too, but they were on the other side of the ball playing in a unit with depth rivaling Ohio State's current-era receiver room. The quarterbacks led an era where E+R=O became the cornerstone of program culture:
It's all about making your response bigger than any event you face.
That’s from 2014, when Ohio State lost reigning B1G QB of the Year and responded by creating another one en route to winning the division - before securing the conference and CFP titles with a third quarterback. In an eerie parallel, the 2022 Buckeyes lost WR1 right as the season started and WR2 as it came to a climax.
Unfortunately, Cardale Jones did not show up in the 4th quarter of the Peach Bowl.
As we all know, Ohio State’s third-best playmaker at receiver would be the guy in most other programs, but talent has as little to do with managing the response to that event as it did back in 2014. It was a mindset that allowed Ohio State to hang a banner in the north end zone by way of three quarterbacks with drastically different skill sets.
The 2023 Buckeye offense will grow into every bit of the video game version all of Ryan Day’s teams feature. On paper, it’s a team that has too many weapons and options to be contained by any defense it will face - similar to, well, just about every Ohio State team we’ve seen recently.
But if this one is going to return to Indianapolis and the Playoff - and win - it’s going to have to prove it can get back to issuing bigger responses than any event it faces.
And that is a drought which aligns with the big prize the Buckeyes are always chasing.