Buckeyes meet fitting end in Gator Bowl

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Ohio State’s 2012 Gator Bowl experience was rather forgettable. Considering the circumstances of the past 54 weeks or so, the 2011 season and the NCAA bowl ban looming in the 2012 season, it might also be considered regrettable.

Monday’s 24-17 loss to Florida — it didn’t feel that close, not past the second quarter, anyway — marked a disappointing but fitting end to the strangest season in Ohio State history.

We shouldn’t have expected anything different.

The Buckeyes limped to the finish of the regular season, weighed down by distractions and obvious flaws that led to missed opportunities. Head Coach Of The Moment Luke Fickell said the right things about his team being excited to be at the Gator Bowl and have one more chance to put four quarters together, but no such thing happened Monday.  

The Buckeyes were flat, inconsistent and were beaten by big plays. They jumped offsides and missed tackles. Florida returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown — the returner wasn’t touched — and also scored on a blocked punt. Ohio State’s top senior playmakers, Daniel Herron and DeVier Posey, each lost a fumble.

Those two leave with a grade of “incomplete” for their shortened senior seasons. Take away the Wisconsin and Michigan games, and the Buckeyes’ offense ends the season with a grade of “inept.” The defense struggled late in the year, but a solid performance in the Gator Bowl went for naught because of special teams breakdowns.

On Florida’s first touchdown Monday, two Buckeyes defenders signaled that Florida receiver Deonte Thompson had dropped the pass. Fickell came onto the field as Florida lined up for its extra point, presumably to ask for a timeout and a chance to challenge the call. The referee either didn’t hear him or ignored him. The linesman had to see him but never blew the whistle.

It was that kind of day, that kind of year. A lost season ended the way you’d pretty much guess it would.

The Buckeyes finish 6-7, the school’s first losing season since 1988. Ohio State lost seven games in a season for the first time since 1897 and lost four straight games in one season for the first time since 1943.

Compliance issues weren’t a big deal back then. The 2011 Buckeyes were sunk by those and a bunch of other messes, big and small, that just kept coming.

“It’s been a rough 12 months,” Ohio State center Michael Brewster said. “I’m not going to miss 2011. I’m sure a lot of other guys feel the same way.”

Fickell sounded as if he had an answer ready postgame when the subject of this senior class and its legacy was broached.

“What we think about (our seniors’) legacies and what you guys write about them are two totally different things,” he said. “For us, we knew they’ve fought through and battled a lot of things. They kept fighting.”

He should defend his players, and he did throughout the year. But the fact is that the suspensions that kept coming — the ones that led to uncertainty extending all the way into mid-December — happened because players broke rules. A handful were repeat offenders.

Going back to last spring, these Buckeyes lost their head coach, their quarterback, as well as a handful of players to NCAA suspensions on two different occasions well after the initial five-game suspensions. They changed quarterbacks, lost one of their most important defensive leaders to a season-ending injury early in the season, and then saw a new coach hired 48 hours after they lost to Michigan — a game they could have won.

Word is there’s a team meeting with that new coach back in Columbus at 7 a.m. Tuesday.

At some point, these guys need some sleep. They’ve been living a nightmare.

Monday brought a miserable, merciful and welcome end.