|ESPN.com: Big Ten||[Print without images]|
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- They have dominated a league that many no longer respect. They have dominated a rival that no longer carries mystique.
They have won national awards, made their mark in the classroom and generally stayed out of trouble, which was a problem for some of their predecessors. They own a 43-7 record, four Big Ten championships, four BCS bowl appearances, four wins against Michigan and two trips to the national title game.
And yet, it's not enough. For many outside Columbus and the Big Ten footprint, they are the guys who got stomped by Florida, LSU and USC. Those three games stained an otherwise sparkling résumé that Ohio State's 28 seniors have spent much of the last few weeks defending.
"If you look back and nobody would have seen those big games, you would say, 'Man, look at their record, look what they've done, this has been a very successful football team,'" senior linebacker Marcus Freeman said. "But many people don't see us that way. Many people see this as a team that has choked in big games."
One way or another, the seniors' legacy will be complete after Monday night's matchup against No. 3 Texas in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl (Fox, 8 p.m. ET). They recognize the urgency to finish strong.
"People will remember how you leave," senior linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "If you look at the '05 class, they are remembered as a great class, even though they had an off year, they lost two games their senior year. They won the last one, the Fiesta Bowl.
"We will be remembered on how this game comes out. It's just a real fact."
Perhaps more than any other factor, the sheer makeup of the senior class fueled the preseason hype surrounding Ohio State, which was in the mix for a third consecutive trip to the national title game.
No group of seniors had more big-game experience. No group had more potential high draft picks who chose to stay in school. No group had fewer question marks on the depth chart.
And yet the script didn't go as planned for Ohio State or its seniors. Star running back Chris "Beanie" Wells sustained a foot injury in the opener. The offense spun its wheels in Week 2 against Ohio. USC stomped the Buckeyes, and senior quarterback Todd Boeckman was replaced by true freshman Terrelle Pryor. The team fought back and improved, but never secured a signature win.
Many felt the Buckeyes made the Fiesta Bowl based more on who they were -- or had been -- and not what they were this season.
"A lot of people don't have much belief in Ohio State when we get onto that [national] stage," senior tight end Nicol said. "That's OK with us. But it's important to us seniors, it's important to us as a team to go out and win."
Ohio State enters the game as a sizable underdog and could struggle to match Texas in several areas. But if the Buckeyes hold one advantage, it's big-game experience.
Texas played in the Holiday and Alamo bowls the last two seasons. The Longhorns really weren't supposed to peak until 2009, while 2008 had always been Ohio State's season to shine.
To have any shot at an upset Monday night, Ohio State must look like a team that has been in the spotlight before -- and learned from its mistakes.
"It seems like one or two plays have impacted hugely on these past couple games," Freeman said. "It seems like we get down and we can never overcome that and keep the game going the way we like. We have to just be more mature and realize not everything in this game is going to go our way."
Most criticism of the Buckeyes has targeted their speed and their schemes, but mental toughness and maturity might have been bigger problems in recent showcase games.
Ohio State has been outscored 55-7 in the second quarter of the losses to Florida, LSU and USC. The Buckeyes started strong in each game, only to fall victim to penalties, turnovers and missed opportunities. As Penn State found out in the Rose Bowl, the second quarter can completely turn a game, and Ohio State must show greater resiliency against Texas.
"We have guys who have been in that situation," Freeman said. "Guys who have been here, been down. Hopefully, we're not in that situation, but if we are, we've got to pick each other up and lead this team back to victory."
Freeman doesn't think Monday's game will define the seniors' legacy. But it might show the nation what they're not.
"We just want to go out with a great feeling, a feeling of victory and a feeling that we accomplished every goal we tried to," Freeman said. "Can you control what people nationally are going to think about us? No. But at the same time, you want people to think positively about you.
"We can just go out and play as best as we can Monday, and hopefully change some people's minds."