Urban Meyer's Buckeyes collapse, turn on each other after loss to Michigan State

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Michael Geiger’s winning kick went through the uprights. Michigan State’s celebration began. And Ohio State’s dynasty suddenly became dysfunctional.

Junior running back Ezekiel Elliott turned pro at the podium during the postgame press conference – but not until after ripping the Ohio State play-calling in the Buckeyes’ 17-14 upset loss to the Spartans. Quarterback Cardale Jones – the unexpected hero of 2014 turned ineffective starter in 2015 turned backup again in recent weeks – tweeted that he, too, is apparently going pro.

And Urban Meyer, the guy who looked like he had all the answers, suddenly had an undefeated season careen ingloriously off the tracks on a cold November night. While Michigan State revived its College Football Playoff hopes, the Buckeyes’ bid almost certainly vanished.

Urban Meyer looks on during Ohio State's loss to Michigan State on Saturday. (AP)
Urban Meyer looks on during Ohio State's loss to Michigan State on Saturday. (AP)

The defending national champions had finally lost, snapping a 23-game winning streak. They lost with a talent-laden team that was expected to dominate this season, but never did. They lost to a 13-point underdog playing two backup quarterbacks. They lost for the second time in three years as a heavy favorite against Michigan State.

It was a debacle for the Buckeyes. But it got worse postgame.

“What happened today was like a bad, bad dream,” Elliott said, after a 12-carry, 33-yard performance that snapped a run of 16 straight 100-yard rushing games. “I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed in the play-calling. I’m disappointed in the situation we were put in.

“We weren’t put in the right position to win this game.”

Elliott wasn’t done. He initiated the topic, and he made his point perfectly clear. On a night when his Heisman Trophy candidacy likely died alongside Ohio State’s national title hopes, Elliott emptied the rhetorical chambers on Meyer and his beleaguered co-offensive coordinators, Ed Warinner and Tim Beck.

“I think I do deserve more than (12) carries,” Elliott said. “... I don’t know what was going on.”

Elliott referenced Ohio State’s lone first-half scoring drive – just 32 yards, after a Michigan State fumble – in which he carried the ball eight times.

“Honestly, we didn’t see those plays at all the rest of the game,” Elliott said. “I waited for those plays to be called, and they weren’t. It hurt.”

Elliott said he lobbied on the sideline to get the ball more. When asked whom he specially asked, he said Meyer. On a rainy, windy evening, the passing game was both risky and unsuccessful, and still Elliott got his second-lowest number of carries in the last 17 games.

What he said was highly impolitic, and will undoubtedly earn some backlash from the Ohio State coaching staff. But Zeke wasn't wrong. The Ohio State strategy Saturday was baffling.

Of course, it should be pointed out that Ohio State only ran 45 plays all game – a stunningly low number. Elliott was more than 25 percent of an offense that went nowhere, generating just 132 total yards and zero drives longer than 32 yards.

But Elliott and a dissatisfied Ohio Stadium record crowd of 108,975 weren’t the only ones unhappy. Meyer also was critical of Ohio State’s play-calling.

Ohio State's J.T. Barrett is brought down at the line of scrimmage by a host of Spartans. (Getty)
Ohio State's J.T. Barrett is brought down at the line of scrimmage by a host of Spartans. (Getty)

“I was not content,” he said. “...I call a lot of plays anyways. So finger will be pointed right here. And I have to do better. We didn't – very conservative. Seemed like we were backed up a lot.”

This team has fizzled more often than fired all season offensively. The Buckeyes clearly and dearly miss last year’s offensive coordinator, Tom Herman, now the head coach at Houston. In his absence, Meyer and the Warinner-Beck tag team has badly failed to take advantage of a lavish array of weapons.

The three-man quarterback situation never adequately resolved itself, even after Braxton Miller moved to wide receiver and whittled the crowd down to J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones. Meyer dithered down to the last minute before settling on Jones, who could not replicate his lightning-in-a-bottle postseason run of last year against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon.

Earlier this month, Meyer finally turned the starting job back over to Barrett, who started 11 games in 2014 and was a Heisman contender before breaking his leg and giving Jones his star turn. But Barrett hasn’t performed especially well, either, and was completely ineffective Saturday against the Spartans.

Barrett ran 15 times for 44 yards and was 9 of 16 passing for 46. Ohio State’s longest play of the game was 16 yards.

“For the most part it was tough sledding throwing the ball,” Meyer said. “... And it hasn't been a smooth run, really, most of the year.”

This year bore a resemblance to Meyer’s 2009 season at Florida. Then, as now, he coached the defending national champions and top-heavy favorites to repeat. Then, as now, he lost his talented offensive coordinator to a head-coaching job (Dan Mullen to Mississippi State). Then, as now, the offense rarely, if ever, clicked the way it had before – but the wins kept coming.

And then, as now, there came a crushing upset loss that derailed a dynasty.

The ’09 Gators ran into Nick Saban and Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game and were routed. The ’15 Buckeyes ran into Mark Dantonio and Michigan State, as mentally tough a program as you will find.

Everyone – myself included – gave the Spartans little to no chance without starting quarterback Connor Cook. In a season marked by offensive line injuries and an inconsistent running game, the three-year starter had been Michigan State’s rock, ranking second in the Big Ten in passer rating. Without him, this looked like it could get ugly.

MSU's Michael Geiger celebrates the game-winning field goal against Ohio State. (Getty)
MSU's Michael Geiger celebrates the game-winning field goal against Ohio State. (Getty)

Instead, the Spartans dominated the game statistically – even though they had to win on the final play for the second time this season against a bitter rival. This time, Michigan State didn’t need a gift like it got against Michigan. This time, even though Dantonio’s team again never led until after the clock had expired, the Spartans were clearly the better team.

That’s despite basically abandoning the passing game completely. Credit Dantonio and offensive coordinator Jim Bollman for reconfiguring the offense in a week’s time, going to a run-heavy attack that featured backups Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry in interchangeable roles.

Michigan State ran it 51 times and threw it 16. In the second half, the Spartans pounded away at the Buckeyes, throwing just four passes and completing one for six yards. With everyone in the stadium knowing what was coming, Michigan State still drove for 10 second-half points by pushing the Buckeyes around at the point of attack.

“We lost the line of scrimmage,” Meyer said.

Now, heading into a suddenly anticlimactic game against uber-rival Michigan, Urban Meyer has to wonder whether he’s also lost his locker room. Swiftly and suddenly, his dynasty became dysfunctional Saturday night.

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