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May 28, 2012

Plenty to play for after a year of doubts

Follow Noon | Rowland | Givler | Birmingham

COLUMBUS, Ohio - A year ago the landscape of the Ohio State football program was vastly different than it is today. When people woke up on Memorial Day 2011 the Buckeyes still had head coach Jim Tressel in place (albeit embattled), current head coach Urban Meyer still had not done his first game of color commentary on national television and most importantly there was a giant cloud of controversy and uncertainty hanging over Buckeye Nation.

But before most people on the East Coast had even poured their first cup of coffee of the morning, a year ago today, Ohio State's future went from the fog of questions to the storm clouds of emergency as the program was thrown into a cauldron of chaos.

During the next several months the Buckeyes would end up losing a legendary head coach, being slapped (and convicted) with a Failure to Monitor charge from the NCAA and a season of games marred by suspensions and other mistakes that ultimately led to a losing season record for the first time in the lifetime of most Buckeye fans.

Now as those same fans are enjoying Memorial Day 2012 the outlook is much more optimistic. Sure, there will be no bowl game after the upcoming season, but all-in-all the light at the end of the tunnel is at hand and the conversations that once focused on 'what the NCAA will do' to Ohio State have shifted to 'what will Ohio State do' to the rest of the NCAA this season and moving forward.

"Lots of ups-and-downs, really that is how I would describe the last year," running back Jordan Hall said. "That is really all I can say about it but we are moving on from that and (things) are on the rise right now."

Don't expect the players who have been on the team through the turmoil to forget the feelings that emerged during the 'dark days' however. The team's 6-7 record on the field as well as seeing the disappointment of how the season ended will all serve as strong motivators to not repeat any of the on-field mistakes of the previous season.

"There have been a lot of highs and lows and we have embraced both of them and made the best of what we were able to and really just highly motivated this year and looking forward to it," defensive lineman John Simon said.

Players like Simon and the rest of the senior class know how finite the season will be in 2012. The team is barred from postseason competition this upcoming season and the home finale against Michigan will be the last game, regardless of an 11-0 record going into the game or an 0-11 record or anywhere in-between.

"As a team we really want to win every game, that is our goal," Simon said. "We are here to win but we can't get ahead of ourselves and we have to take it one day at a time starting now and see where it goes."

While some people may say that the team is going to come out with a chip on its shoulder to prove the doubters wrong the team itself won't say that it is using those kinds of tactics and rather just wants to restore the Buckeye program to where they believe that it should be.

"I would say it is just more that we had a disappointing year last year that we want to come out and have a lot better year and show that last year was just a fluke," tight end Jake Stoneburner said. "I wouldn't say that we have a more of a chip on our shoulder but we are out to prove a little more that we are a better team than we were last year."

And the underclassmen know that they will all have all the opportunities to do special things and make a run for a BCS title in 2013 and beyond but the current crop of seniors won't get that crack and the 2012 season legacy will be made of only 12 games.

"These seniors are the guys we are playing for and we love them," offensive lineman Jack Mewhort said. "You are going out there knowing that this is their last year and you want to make it special for them. In the back of your mind a little bit I think you know that it is a shorter season so I think that gives us motivation to go out there and start fast and prove ourselves and send those guys out the right way."

Nobody on the team wants to dwell on any 'what-if' scenarios with a schedule that many have deemed to be favorable with Michigan and Nebraska both playing the Buckeyes in Columbus, a relatively non-threatening non-conference schedule and several other Big Ten teams in rebuilding mode. But tripping up in any game would leave a sour team in the mouth of the team knowing that people are saying that the team has 'nothing to play for'.

"The motivation is that we can win every game and that is the goal, for us to win every game," defensive lineman Johnathan Hankins said. "I feel if we were to lose a game that it would be pretty devastating. My goal is for us to win every game because I feel like we have the potential and the right players and the right positions to do that."

So the Buckeyes will be a curiosity to non-fans and people who want to see how a team with no bowl future will respond. But at least for now, it sounds like the Buckeyes will not be playing for those people and will be keeping the focus at home for those who call themselves Buckeyes.

"I think we just want to be great for our teammates, for each other," linebacker Etienne Sabino said "I don't think we are playing to prove people wrong but playing for our team and our fans."



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