Why Ohio State's Fiesta performance was too late

Elliott leads Ohio State past Notre Dame (3:04)

Ezekiel Elliott rushes for 149 yards and four touchdowns in the Buckeyes' 44-28 win over the Fighting Irish in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl. (3:04)

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Ohio State Buckeyes knew they had an early wake-up call on New Year's Day, so they didn't hit the town Thursday night. Instead, they turned on their TVs in the posh Princess Resort Hotel and watched Michigan State play Alabama in the College Football Playoff.


The Crimson Tide's 38-to-bagel victory should have had an R-rating for the carnage wrought upon the Spartans, but for the Buckeyes, it was a tearjerker. Or something else.

"It made my stomach hurt," Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott said.

Elliott and his teammates got over it. That was clear during an impressive 44-28 win over No. 8 Notre Dame in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl. Elliott scored four touchdowns and rushed for 149 yards, capping a run of 10 TDs in his past three postseason games.

Of course, the previous two, one of which included a win over Alabama, brought the Buckeyes a 2014 national title. Ohio State, the preseason No. 1, was earmarked for a spot in the CFP for 12 weeks of the season, even when the selection committee demoted it from the top spot because of unimpressive victories. While the Buckeyes seemed to meander through a middling schedule, few doubted their talent.

In fact, few doubt it today.

But on Nov. 21, Michigan State beat the homesteading Buckeyes on a last-second field goal, and that lone blemish was enough to knock them out of the playoff.

To a man, the Buckeyes blame themselves for falling short and no excuses were forthcoming after the Fiesta Bowl. They own up that they "shot ourselves in the foot" -- a phrase used by multiple players in the postgame locker room. They controlled their own destiny and faltered when the screws tightened. Michigan State didn't.

"While I do believe we are the best team in the country, it was our own fault we weren't in there," senior offensive tackle Taylor Decker said.

When asked about the Michigan State-Alabama game, Decker said, "I'm not going to go there. I'm not going to go there at all."

Others did. Junior safety Vonn Bell, one of several Buckeyes expected to enter the NFL draft early, said of the Spartans, "I knew they were going to get killed."

Linebackers Darron Lee and Joshua Perry not only watched the game together, they also collaborated on Lee's Twitter account during the game. One tweet read, "That loss hurts even more now [sad face emoji]." Another read, "He stiff armed a Defensive End. STOP THE FIGHT."

When asked about the game by his locker, a couple of teammates goaded Lee, "Tell him how you really feel!"

"It hurts because as a team we felt we should have been there," Lee said, measuring his words. "It is what it is. [Michigan State] beat us that day. It just sucks they couldn't score [vs. Alabama]."

Added Perry: "I wish Big Ten would have represented a little bit better than that. I thought it was going to be much closer."

As for the Buckeyes' loss to the Spartans, Perry, like many of his teammates, tried to keep his feelings in check by being philosophical, by leaning on his faith. Everything happens for a reason, he said. But when asked about lingering regrets, he admitted there are a few.

"There's always going to be a 'what if.' That's just human nature," Perry said. "Guys are going to say, 'What if? What if? What if?' But guys are going to look back on the positive times we've had together. We've had a great ride."

That great ride includes 50 wins over four years, two unbeaten seasons and a national title. Ohio State emerged from an NCAA scandal and is again a college football superpower. The so-called failure of 2015 includes a 12-1 record, almost-certain final top-5 ranking and back-to-back victories over Michigan and Notre Dame.

More than a few Buckeyes are about to become rich. Buckeyes are going to appear on NFL draft boards early and often this spring. But back inside the Horseshoe, the football is still going to be pretty salty in 2016. And beyond.

"I think a lot of people are going to expect less than what they are going to be able to produce," Decker said. "There's not going to be a huge drop-off. ... There's so many guys who haven't played -- that's going to be a hungry football team. I think it will be a similar hunger to when we won it all."

Diagnosing what went wrong for an obviously great team is one of the distractions of watching sports. Perhaps it was a lack of hunger. As good an explanation as any. But such speculation mostly takes place outside the locker room. Inside, they better understand the phrase first used by Raymond Chandler in "The Long Goodbye": "You can't win them all."

At least not every season.