INDIANAPOLIS – If you want to know how badly the Big Ten championship loss wounded Ohio State, consider this:
After Michigan State had finished harmin' Ohio, the Buckeyes bagged "Carmen Ohio."
At a school that takes its traditions seriously, that will be considered sacrilege by some fans. Under former coach Jim Tressel, the ritual was non-negotiable: Win or lose, the team would gather postgame before the marching band and sing the song, written more than a century ago by an Ohio State student.
For 24 games under Urban Meyer, that continued. Game ended, players gathered, song was sung. Meyer, a self-proclaimed lover of Buckeye lore, was always front and center, flanked by players on either side.
Made for a nice photo op, at the very least.
Of course, for 24 games there was never a loss, never a chance to test the commitment to tradition in a time of adversity.
Saturday night, that changed. Saturday night, Meyer's Buckeyes finally lost – and did so in shocking fashion. They fell behind the Spartans 17-0, roared back for a 24-17 lead, then were hit with another 17-0 flurry in a devastating 34-24 loss.
National title aspirations vanished. The program that had dominated a diminished Big Ten finally played an opponent of consequence – and was exposed as a cut below championship mettle.
So there were no Ohio State players singing, no Urban Meyer photo op. The Buckeyes exited quickly to the locker room and left the song to the band and the cheerleaders and some of their crestfallen fans.
Yeah, this one hurt. As much as any Ohio State loss has hurt since back-to-back BCS championship losses in 2007-08. It hurt a faltering league and its flagship program. And it hurt the designated savior who was brought to Columbus to win championships.
"It's going to haunt all of us, I imagine, for a little while," Meyer said. "But that's part of the game."
This game reinforced what many of us suspected: Ohio State's winning streak was a house of cards, built on soft competition. The non-conference schedule was awful, and the conference has been at a low ebb. For this team to have skated into the BCS championship game would have been a disservice to college football.
The Buckeyes hadn't played a single top-10 opponent since Tressel's last game as coach, the 2011 Sugar Bowl. Their victories shouldn't have impressed anyone, but poll voters are seduced by brand-name programs with perfect records.
And so, after scraping past a hugely disappointing Michigan team by one point last week, a team ranked second by the polls and BCS computers came to Indy with everything within its grasp. Just win this game – in front of a crowd that was 70 percent scarlet-and-gray – and the Buckeyes would go to Pasadena and play for the national title.
It was all right there for the taking. And they blew their chance, ceding a spot in the title game to Auburn – and giving the Southeastern Conference a shot at a great eight straight championships.
"It kind of sucks," said linebacker Ryan Shazier. "You go on such a long streak, and not being able to finish it off."
Ohio State ran into the cold slap of reality on both sides of the ball. This wasn't Purdue or Illinois out there. This was a tough, confident, well-coached team that seemed to dial up the right call at the right time, over and over.
The Buckeyes defense, clearly the team's weak link, was gashed for 438 yards and more than six yards per play. The Spartans threw for 304 yards, a season high.
"Disappointed with our pass defense," Meyer said. "We have to get this fixed."
But even Ohio State's vaunted offense struggled for large stretches against Michigan State's excellent defense – especially when it came to sustaining drives. The Buckeyes were 1 for 10 on third-down conversions and 0 for 2 on fourth-down conversions. Late in the game, they repeatedly tried to pick up first downs on runs by quarterback Braxton Miller, and every time were rejected.
But as bad as the breakdowns were after taking the lead, they were worse at the start of the game. Ohio State's lack of seasoning against quality opponents was evident early. The Buckeyes committed a trio of silly 15-yard penalties, and they did not cross midfield until the score was 17-0.
"When we came out, we hyped them up a little too much," center Corey Linsley said. "I mean, obviously they're a good team, but it was like we were playing the Bears or something."
Compared to most of the Big Ten, the Spartans probably did look like the Bears.
While Michigan State is a worthy league champion and probably one of the five or six best teams in America, this game pointed out that the best of the Big Ten still reside outside the top four – which is what will matter most as we enter the College Football Playoff Era in 2014. The league still has a lot of work to do to compete for national titles, and that includes Ohio State.
After a long time inside the loser's locker room, Meyer finally emerged well after midnight. He did a quick hallway interview with Fox's Erin Andrews, then proceeded solemnly to the main press interview room.
Ahead of him was Ohio State media relations director Jerry Emig and a uniformed policeman. Next to him was his son, Nate, wearing a No. 5 Miller jersey. Behind him was another cop and athletic director Gene Smith.
In the back pocket of Meyer's khaki pants was a manila folder covered in writing. It was a doomed gameplan, one that will be second-guessed for months to come by the Ohio State fan base.
Meyer made one call that should make the Buckeye faithful proud – he benched starting offensive guard Marcus Hall for his disgraceful tirade at Michigan last week after being ejected for fighting. The Big Ten office cravenly passed on suspending Hall for this game, but Meyer silently made up his mind to do the right thing. There was no public announcement; Hall simply never left the sideline and entered the game.
"I just feel it wasn't right to play him," Meyer said.
On the flip side, it probably wasn't right to blow off "Carmen Ohio" after the game. But the very fact that the Buckeyes walked out on their postgame tradition tells you how badly this loss stung them.
And how much it will hurt for months to come.