INDIANAPOLIS — It ended, of all places, on a golf cart.
A few minutes before 1 a.m. on Sunday morning, Urban Meyer sat shotgun in in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium, surrounded by four security guards. His face flush and his voice low, Meyer rubbed his graying temples with his middle and index fingers and nibbled at a slice of Papa John’s pizza.
A few hours earlier, everything had all been spread out before Ohio State: a Big Ten title, a 24-game winning streak and a spot in the BCS championship game. The Buckeyes had erased Michigan State’s 17-point first-half lead with a dramatic flourish, and after linebacker Ryan Shazier blocked a punt in the fourth quarter, Ohio State appeared poised to score the go-ahead touchdown and secure a date with Florida State in the national title game.
But with one play call — one that Meyer later admitted to SI.com would haunt him more than any in his career — it all disappeared.
One play flipped momentum and allowed Michigan State to race to a 34-24 victory. One play foiled the Buckeyes’ chances for their first national championship in 11 years. One play sent Meyer to his first loss in 1,106 days, back to the empty feeling he’d avoided since falling to Florida State on Nov. 27, 2010.
“That fourth-and-two,” Meyer said in a quiet moment, “is going to bother me.”
With 5:46 remaining in the game, the ball at the Spartans’ 39-yard line and Ohio State trailing 27-24, Meyer called a timeout. He took over play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Tom Herman and decided on a lead run for quarterback Braxton Miller to the short side of the field. The Buckeyes had scored on the same play in the third quarter, and Meyer recalled how they had used it to run out the clock in a 17-16 victory over Michigan State last year. But with the season, their winning streak and a spot in Pasadena on the line, Miller couldn’t turn the corner.
Michigan State Will linebacker Denicos Allen shed tight end Jeff Heuerman’s block and hauled Miller to the turf a yard shy of the first down. With the stop, Allen extinguished Ohio State’s national title hopes and sent the Spartans to their first Rose Bowl since 1988.
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“It was my call,” Meyer said. “I wanted to put the ball in the hands of the best player.”
The play spotlighted the game’s most enticing matchup, Michigan State’s top-ranked defense against Miller and the Buckeyes’ rushing attack. Miller, who ran for 142 yards in the game, had previously pulled off plenty of what Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald referred to as “Houdini plays,” turning perilous scrambles into long gains.
On the pivotal play on Saturday night, both teams knew what was coming.
“We anticipated that blitz,” Herman said. “We practiced against that blitz. We just didn’t execute it.”
Meyer’s call was predicated on the belief that if Ohio State could convert, then the Buckeyes could potentially go on to score the winning touchdown. He called a play that could counter the Spartans’ inevitable blitz. “That’s one of those ones, if we hit it right it might come out the other end,” Meyer said, meaning a potential touchdown. “They sold out on the edge.”
However, Allen easily shed Heuerman and wrapped up Miller with a textbook tackle. Yet again, Michigan State’s vaunted defense had come up with a signature moment in a season that has been full of them. “We knew that on fourth down they were going to put it in Braxton Miller’s hands and give him a run-pass option, or sweep it right or left with him,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. “That’s what they did.”
Meyer has always had a flair for the dramatic, from Utah’s undefeated 2004 season to his spurning of Notre Dame for Florida to the two furious finishes with the Gators that helped that program secure berths in the BCS title game in ’07 and ’09. Both of Meyer’s exits from Florida — the first one temporary in ’09 and the second one permanent in ’10 — captivated the sports world. Along the way, Meyer has become one of college football’s most successful and divisive coaches.
Now, he must deal with a loss, and it’s only fitting that it came at arguably the most dramatic moment of his Buckeyes’ tenure. The stakes couldn’t have been higher; Ohio State had gone undefeated in back-to-back regular seasons, and Meyer had transformed Columbus from a place of NCAA dysfunction into a Big Ten juggernaut.
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The higher the climb, the harder the fall. After Michigan State sealed the game on tailback Jeremy Langford’s 26-yard touchdown scamper with 2:16 left to play, the question soon turned to how Meyer would handle losing for the first time in three years.
“I kept saying to him all along, ‘What’s it going to be like when we lose?’” Meyer’s wife, Shelley, said outside Ohio State’s locker room. “This what I’ve been looking for. Now I want to see how he reacts.”
Shelley said she’s seen changes in her husband.
“I’m confident that he’s got things in perspective as opposed to two years ago,” she said. “He’s got perspective now. It’s not life or death. It’s just not.”
Meyer has the Buckeyes charging forward, the only direction he knows. Meanwhile, Miller told SI.com that he plans to return for his senior season, but wouldn’t guarantee it 100 percent, saying that he needed time to mull over the decision. There’s also a strong expectation within the Ohio State program that Miller will be back, although Meyer said he hasn’t broached the topic with his quarterback yet. “I love Braxton Miller,” Meyer said.
Eventually, Meyer got up from the golf cart and walked slowly out into the night, with his eyes cast down toward the ground, and the regret of one fateful play stinging him like a bitter wind.