When coach Urban Meyer was starting his first set of spring practices at Ohio State last March, he saw a demoralized team that wasn’t exactly overflowing with talent.
But even if the program had an abundance of skill, he knew a successful season by OSU standards would require more than that.
“Talent will get you about seven or eight wins,” Meyer said. “Discipline pushes it to nine wins, maybe. Then when you get leadership, that’s when magic starts happening.”
The Buckeyes will take a 9-0 record into a home game against Illinois today. And while two of their toughest tests are yet to come against Wisconsin and Michigan, they have an explosive offense, an improving defense and a confidence that comes from winning games even when they’re not at their best.
“This is a special team,” Meyer said this week. “They’re fighting for each other. It’s a refuse-to-lose-type atmosphere. Some of us have seen teams that play really well, and they’re blowing teams out all the time. We’re not that type of team, and I can give you 150 reasons why.
“However, we’re a bunch of guys that work really hard, have a blue-collar approach and show up every Tuesday and want to get better. You don’t want anything else as a coach.”
The emergence of quarterback Braxton Miller into a Heisman Trophy candidate and the transformation of the offensive line into one of the nation’s best units are the main reasons the Buckeyes have climbed to No. 6 in the Associated Press Top-25.
But the players also say the relationships forged during grueling summer workouts and the ability of Meyer and his staff to get the team to believe in itself have made a difference, too.
“I can just tell you we’re a tight team, we’re a fighting team,” senior linebacker and co-captain Zach Boren said. “Coach Mick (Marotti) and the strength coaches, they made the (offseason) program so hard and miserable at times, we just became close as a team. I think with that and the coaching style, guys have kind of bonded.
“Late in games, when we’re down, someone makes a play and we’re up. We have that fighting mentality that great teams just have.”
The Buckeyes haven’t always looked impressive, but they’ve managed to do enough each week to prevail. It’s an imperfect team with a perfect record.
“We haven’t really played good sometimes, but at the end of the day, we’d give our right arm for the guy next to us and that’s what’s making us win,” sophomore receiver Evan Spencer said.
“It’s really special. I wish everyone in the world could see the camaraderie we have between all of us. You guys can see it on Twitter, saying how we love our teammates. And everything we do, it’s never for any individual praise. It’s always for the team.”
The Buckeyes have benefited from a soft non-league schedule and the Big Ten experiencing a down year, but their goal of a 12-0 season, which seemed improbable two months ago, is within range.
And while the only tangible reward they can play for is a Big Ten Leaders Division crown — yes an AP poll title is attainable, but they’d need lots of help — the instant success has allowed the coaches to establish credibility with those they want to influence the most.
“(It provides) momentum in recruiting and momentum in development of your players,” Meyer said. “You’re dealing with 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds, so momentum is everything. … We’re not playing for next year. We’re trying to get as many wins as we can. This whole thing is about getting win number 10.”
“We make a lot of our phone calls (on Monday nights) to recruits. It’s as much about the coach’s tone, the energy in the phone call. You have to make those calls when something bad happens as well. I’m not really into it. But I can’t wait to make those phone calls … and say, ‘Hey, this is Urban Meyer from Ohio State, and we’re 9-0. The best thing about 9-0 is you have a chance to go for 10.’ And the conversation usually picks up from there.”