- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Immediately following the loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and several of his assistants hit the road to recruit.
Recruiting is as much salesmanship as anything, so the coaches had to act like they were in a good mood around the prospects they visited. It wasn't easy to do.
"You had to go walk in with a smile, and it was the phoniest smile you've probably ever seen," Meyer said Thursday. "And then you get back, and you see the players you care about and see the pain on their face."
We've seen this before. A team falls just short of reaching the national championship game, as the Buckeyes did that night in Indianapolis, and proceeds to sleepwalk through its consolation bowl game. So it's natural to wonder about the motivation for Ohio State in tonight's Discover Orange Bowl against Clemson when it came so close to playing for the national title on Monday night.
Buckeyes players and coaches won't pretend they weren't crushed by that loss to the Spartans. But they also say they're plenty driven to win this BCS game, both for themselves and, to a lesser extent, the Big Ten.
Meyer called a team meeting after he got back from that recruiting trip. For the first time in 25 games as Ohio State's coach, he had to address the players after a loss.
"We had a real emotional meeting," he said. "Well, I don't know if emotional is the right word, but it was just like you would with any type of family members going through a hard time. From that point forward, they've been fine."
The carrot of a national title might have vanished, but other potential rewards remain. Ohio State has not won a postseason game since the 2011 Sugar Bowl (which would later be vacated), meaning the majority of the team has not tasted a bowl victory. The older players suffered through a 6-7 season in 2011, including a Gator Bowl loss, and dealt with probation last year.
"With coach [Jim] Tressel my freshman year, we won a Rose Bowl and then a Sugar Bowl, and then it kind of went down," fifth-year senior offensive tackle Jack Mewhort said. "So to show that we pulled ourselves back out of it and got back on top would be real important to us older guys. I don't think it's in our nature as competitors to be sulking or to be held down by something that has happened."
Meyer has traveled this road before. In 2009, his Florida Gators lost to Alabama in the SEC title game with a BCS Championship berth on the line. A not-so-sexy matchup with Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl awaited. Even through some serious distractions -- Meyer said he planned to step down before the bowl game then changed his mind -- the Gators ripped the Bearcats for an impressive 51-24 win.
Meyer takes detailed notes during each week of the season and said he reviewed the notes from that Sugar Bowl preparation to see how he handled the disappointment. He chatted about it with former Florida star Mike Pouncey at practice earlier this week.
"I would anticipate, from everything I've seen with this team, the competitive spirit is there," Meyer said. "I've also been in situations where I didn't feel the competitive spirit, and that's where you've got [to use] the secret T‑shirt or the secret handshake to get guys to play hard. I don't feel that."
It doesn't hurt that the Orange Bowl means 80-degree temperatures, South Beach excursions and an escape from the winter in Ohio. The Buckeyes also have several players from Florida.
"We're having a great time," said tight end and Naples, Fla., native Jeff Heuerman, who, it should be noted, said this before he caught the stomach bug that plagued the Buckeyes this week. "South Beach is a ton of fun. But we're trying not to do anything differently than any other game week, and we've been super successful with what we've done."
If Ohio State needs any further motivation, then the chance to salvage some Big Ten pride could provide it.
The league is guaranteed a losing record in the postseason after going 2-4 in its first six games. But Michigan State gave the conference a BCS win by beating Stanford in the Rose Bowl, and the Buckeyes can add another one if they get by Clemson. Two BCS wins and a victory over an SEC team (Nebraska beat Georgia in the Gator Bowl) would mean a highly successful bowl season for the Big Ten.
"Playing in the Big Ten, people sometimes have been down on us the last couple of years," Mewhort said. "That kind of lights a little fire under you that makes you want to go out and represent your conference well. I think that would be great for us and the Big Ten."
Meyer said he watched the end of the Rose Bowl and found himself rooting hard for the team that handed him his only loss as Ohio State coach.
"Any time a member of your conference does well in a big game like that, I do think it's important," he said. "Because the truth is the upper-level Big Ten teams are excellent football teams. The conference is getting better. Guys are working extremely hard to close the gap on the SEC."
The Buckeyes' main concern is finding a way to beat an ACC power tonight. They might not get that done, but it shouldn't be because of a lack of interest in the proceedings.