Urban Meyer hated to lose. That statement says both nothing — who out there likes to lose? — and everything, because he hated to lose. The thought of his team not having more points than his opponent at the end of a football game anguished him, tortured him for 365 days a year, for close to 40 straight years. His body simply couldn’t handle losing, the way someone else’s body might reject a kidney transplant, and you could see it all play out in real time in the rare event a Meyer-coached team lost or even flirted with losing. It was perfect fodder for our meme-tastic culture, but terrible for the people who care about Urban’s well-being.
Urban’s hatred of losing drove him out of football on three separate occasions, once at age 45, again at age 46, and then once again 54, perhaps for good. All this despite the fact that he rarely lost. In 219 games spread across 17 seasons at four different universities, Meyer’s teams dropped just 32 games. Only twice did he lose four or more games, compared with the eight seasons he lost once or not at all. Think about that again: In over half of the seasons that he coached, Meyer lost one or zero games. He finished inside the AP top-5 more times (nine) than not (eight) — and that doesn’t include the 2016 season, where Ohio State went 11-2 and finished No. 6.
All that said, the topic of Urban’s worst loss is an interesting one, simply because there are so few to choose from. In an interview with the Columbus Dispatch, Meyer singled one game out.
As is the case with many coaches, the victories for Meyer are a blur, but the losses haunt. No defeat hurt more than the home loss to Michigan State in 2015 in a rainstorm.
How often does he think about that game?
“Every day,” he said. “That’s the one. I don’t blame others. I blame myself. I could have done some better things (as a coach) that day. That 2015 Michigan State game, that was a tough one.”
Far be it for me to position myself as an expert beyond the man himself, but Meyer absolutely picked the correct game.
Urban’s teams have lost by worse margins — the 31-0 blanking by Clemson in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl and last October’s 49-20 spanking at Purdue’s hand immediately come to mind — but never before or since had a Meyer team lost such a big game it had no business losing as that 17-14 loss to Michigan State on on Nov. 21, 2015. And by no business, I mean nooooo business.
For context: This was the Ohio State team that was fresh off the 2014 national title, a team that brought the majority of its key contributors back. Ten Buckeyes would be chosen in the first round of the NFL draft over the next three years, including 2016 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Joey Bosa and 2016 NFL First Team All-Pro Ezekiel Elliott. Simply put, this was one of the most talented teams in college football history. The Buckeyes came into the game at 10-0 and winners of 23 straight games.
Michigan State arrived in Columbus at 9-1 and ranked No. 9 in the nation, but it was a flimsy 9-1. The Spartans had beaten a bad Rutgers team 31-24 and a worse Purdue team 24-21. Only the flukiest touchdown in college football history saved them from certain defeat at Michigan.
While 10 future first-round picks wore scarlet and gray on that day, only one wore green and white.
Simply put, Michigan State was not as good a football team as Ohio State. But on Nov. 21, 2015, they were. Or, more accurately, Ohio State was worse.
J.T. Barrett, the most productive quarterback in Big Ten history, went 9-of-16 for 46 yards. Elliott carried the ball 12 times for 33 yards. The Buckeye offense achieved five first downs, and they might have been shutout if not for two Michigan State fumbles inside Spartan territory, including one at their own 6-yard line.
After the game, Ohio State was so disgusted with its performance that Buckeye players and coaches couldn’t wait to turn on each other.
“I’m disappointed in the play-calling. I’m disappointed in the situations that we were put in, and I wish it all played out differently. It is very disappointing,” Elliott said afterward. “In the one drive that we had where we kind of had some momentum after we scored on the strip-sack, the plays we ran, we ran a lot of gap schemes and we were gashing them. You guys saw that on that drive. We had a lot of momentum.
Honestly, we didn’t see those plays for the rest of the game. Those plays weren’t called anymore. I asked for those plays to be called, and they weren’t. It just hurts. It hurts a lot because of how we lost. I feel like we just weren’t put in the right opportunity to win this game. We weren’t put in the right situations to win this game.”
A week later, Ohio State went to Ann Arbor and dunked on the first Jim Harbaugh Michigan team, 42-13, but, because of Michigan State’s miracle win at the Big House earlier in the fall, Michigan State advanced to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship ahead of Ohio State.
Michigan State survived an undefeated Iowa team, 16-13, in the Big Ten title game, lifting the Spartans into the College Football Playoff while Ohio State, ranked No. 7, stayed home. Iowa was No. 5.
With all due respect to Michigan State’s hard-earned No. 3 final ranking, the wrong Big Ten team reached the Playoff. Alabama absolutely flattened Sparty 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl semifinal, while Stanford manhandled Iowa 45-16 in the Rose Bowl. Relegated to the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State concluded what should have been an epic run to back-to-back national championships with a ho-hum 44-28 win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, a game best remembered for Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith’s gruesome knee injury.
We’ll never know how Bosa and Elliott’s Buckeyes would have matched up with Deshaun Watson’s first great Clemson team or the eventual champion Crimson Tide — and that’s the problem. We should have watched it all play out in the 2015 College Football Playoff, if not for the absolute worst of Meyer’s 32 career losses.