- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO – Not much of anything Thursday could upstage the anticipated celebration of Ohio State football, mixed with frenzied excitement over the soon-to-start quarterback competition between the duo that led this program to a College Football Playoff championship last season.
Not much of anything but bad news about the Buckeyes.
The announcement came down with a thud, one hour before the start of Big Ten media days. Minutes after a report by the Columbus Dispatch, Ohio State confirmed the suspension of All-America defensive Joey Bosa, H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson and receiver Corey Smith for the Buckeyes’ season opener at Virginia Tech on Labor Day night.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said he had known “for a little bit” of the suspensions, explained only as a violation of athletic department policy by the four players. Meyer declined to elaborate.
The news clearly did not rock his preseason view of the Buckeyes. But still, wow.
From the shores of Lake Michigan, you could almost hear jaws hit the floor in Blacksburg, Virginia. Not to mention other spots nationally with an eye on the top team in college football.
“You push forward,” Meyer said Thursday. “We’re pushing forward.”
Ohio State, unveiled earlier Thursday as the preseason No. 1 pick in the USA Today coaches poll ahead of TCU and Alabama, stomped the air from the balloons at its own party.
The Buckeyes, amid a colorful offseason in the Big Ten headlined by the arrival of coach Jim Harbaugh at rival Michigan, remain the flag-waving pacesetter for this league. Unbalanced as it seems, the Big Ten – for now, at least, with a weakened West Division and only Michigan State as an apparent real challenge in the East -- goes as the Buckeyes go.
And Thursday, those Buckeyes took a punch in gut, showing likely that their bid to repeat won’t go as smoothly as the schedule appears to indicate. At the dawn of a new season, this is not the kind of development that inspires confidence in a program’s ability to avoid the temptation to lose focus in the wake of a championship.
Credit Meyer for his honesty on the matter. The coach described the Buckeyes’ challenge to maintain the edge that fueled their title drive last fall as a legitimate concern.
“There’s no perfect team,” he said. “There’s no perfect program. Everyone deals with stuff. When you’re Ohio State or some of these other big-time programs, stuff becomes a major deal.”
Bosa is the star on an Ohio State defense packed with talent. He changes the game in a way for which Virginia Tech could not have prepared despite months of studying the Buckeyes. The absence of the three suspended receivers against the Hokies zaps Ohio State of a chunk of its offensive versatility.
In addition, Marshall returns kicks. So ... hello, Braxton Miller, the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year who recently announced his shift from quarterback to receiver. The comfortable plan surely called for the Buckeyes to ease Miller, returning from a shoulder injury, into an important role.
So much for comfort.
Nothing about this news, in fact, is comfortable, starting with the ugly memory of Sept. 6, 2014, when the Hokies beat Ohio State 35-21. The Buckeyes, a year later, even without the suspended quartet, figure to take more than enough talent into the Week 1 to handily avenge their lone loss from 2014.
That was a different team last September, loaded with sophomores – Bosa and Wilson included -- who matured to form the backbone of a group that manhandled Alabama and Oregon in January.
“We’ve recruited pretty good,” Meyer said. “Now we have to go get them ready to play.”
Meyer complained in the spring that the Buckeyes failed to take the steps necessary in practice to build on the championship, to grow into a more complete team. His words, dismissed easily as a motivational tool or simply sky-high expectations from perhaps the nation’s most demanding coach, take on added meaning after the revelation of Thursday.
Maybe the Buckeyes are set for a season of hurdles that they did not face even last year in overcoming injuries to its top two quarterbacks.
The coach plans to handle the competition in much the same way that he’ll attack the adversity unearthed on Thursday.
“Dive into it with a sledgehammer,” Meyer said.
His approach is time-tested. Meyer’s methods work -- a calming thought for the Buckeyes. Nonetheless, new concerns emerged on a day reserved for months as Ohio State’s big party.