LOS ANGELES — In the College Football Playoff era, any bowl game that doesn’t help determine the national championship is considered a sideshow.
Ohio State’s playoff hopes were dashed by a 49-20 loss to Purdue and overall consistency, especially on defense, even as the Buckeyes (12-1) repeated as Big Ten champions.
So in that sense, Tuesday’s Rose Bowl game against Washington can’t be considered a must-win game. Win or lose, the Buckeyes’ season will end in Pasadena with at least a feeling of what-could-have-been.
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Which is, oddly, what makes it a must-win game, mostly because of one man whose coaching career also is apparently at its end. Urban Meyer is retiring. Is there any way the Buckeyes view his finale as anything but one they can’t lose?
“There's a lot of conversation about us getting him this last win because we know it will be a special one for him,” sophomore running back J.K. Dobbins said. “He's never coached in the Rose Bowl. So we want to get him that win and send him out well.”
Meyer grew up in Ashtabula as a Buckeyes fan with Archie Griffin posters on his bedroom wall. Seeing Ohio State in the Rose Bowl was the pinnacle for Meyer and his generation and older. After arriving in California this week, he said that his career would have felt somehow incomplete — despite the three national titles his teams have won — if he hadn’t coached a game in Pasadena.
It is also special for him because of the reverence he has for so many of the players who’ve helped him compile the 82-9 record he’s had in his seven seasons with Ohio State. He rattled off the names of Johnnie Dixon, Terry McLaurin, Parris Campbell, Isaiah Prince, Dre’Mont Jones and Mike Weber.
“Those guys did everything we asked,” Meyer said.
Now they want to do it one more time, for themselves and their coach. But Washington (10-3) should be a formidable opponent. The Huskies have four-year starters at quarterback in Jake Browning and running back in Myles Gaskin and a solid offensive line.
The Huskies are considerably better on defense, especially in the secondary that might pose the toughest challenge this season for Dwayne Haskins Jr. and the Buckeyes’ explosive passing game. Washington has given up an average of only 15.5 points.
“Their secondary does a great job of keeping things in front of them,” said Ohio State offensive coordinator Ryan Day, who takes over the reins of the program Wednesday. “They break on the ball really well and are opportunistic in turnovers. “They make you work the thing down the field. They're not going to give you big plays.”
Ohio State torched a Michigan defense that was the stingiest in the country at the time in a 62-39 victory. The Buckeyes thought they could have inflicted even more damage.
“We were upset we only scored 62 on the team up north,” McLaurin said.
Ohio State took advantage of Michigan’s man-to-man coverage. Washington plays primarily zone, and the Huskies are looking forward to the challenge. The Pac-12 has been slighted all season, and they have a chip on their shoulder.
“I feel like this game is going to show everyone in the country what we can do not just as Washington but also the Pac-12, where we stand,” standout cornerback Byron Murphy said.
“I feel like (the Buckeyes) haven't seen a defense like ours. As a defense, I feel like we are the best in the country, so we're going out there and put on a fight and show everyone what we can do.”
The Ohio State offense vs. the Washington defense is the marquee matchup, but the game could be decided by how well the Buckeyes’ defense plays. That unit has been maddeningly inconsistent, mixing periods of dominant play with head-scratching breakdowns. This will be its last chance to get it right.
Ohio State’s seniors have a 47-6 record. The end of a career is always bittersweet, and they don’t want a blemish at the end of it.
“It's a great bowl game to be a part of," Prince said. "And there's a lot of us in the program in our last game as a Buckeye, so we're going to make the best of it.”