John Simon stepped to the front of the locker room. Ohio State had just come from behind to knock off Cal 35--28 with a late touchdown in Columbus. Simon, a senior defensive end, had arrived at Ohio Stadium that day with such severe pain in his shoulder he couldn't raise his left arm over his head, and he had no idea if he'd even be able to play. He went on to line up for every defensive snap and even had a tackle.
The Buckeyes' coaches asked Simon to say a few words, and the ones he uttered as he choked back tears touched a nerve. "The emotion he showed in front of that football team was so unselfish and so genuine that it became a symbol," says running backs coach Stan Drayton. "Coaches and players asked, 'Am I giving everyone in this program everything I have on a daily basis?'"
Simon's speech serves as the keynote for a new era in Buckeyeland. Ohio State has gone from a team scarred by scandal and symbolized by Jim Tressel's sweater vest to a surging program in the mold of its relentless, hyperbolic and impassioned first-year coach, Urban Meyer. Powering the transition is Meyer's concept of juice, the Buckeyes' favorite buzz word, their Twitter hashtag and probably a more important part of the turnaround in Columbus than anything transpiring on the field. It resonates in the weight room and the locker room and is constantly referenced on the practice field. Who's bringing juice today? Who's got juice?
"It's the mantra that energy equals production," Meyer says. "I don't want to be around energy takers, I want to be around energy givers." In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year played under the shadow of a postseason ban, Ohio State has rumbled to a surprising 10--0 start behind quarterback Braxton Miller and forged a formidable identity. Sure, there have been late-game pillow fights with lightweights such as Cal, UAB, Indiana and Purdue, but only a trip to Wisconsin and a home game against Michigan stand between No. 6 Ohio State and the sixth undefeated and untied season in the school's 123-year history. For Meyer, in his return from a one-year hiatus after burnout, esophageal spasms and chest pains eventually led him to step down at Florida, it's been a satisfying season. The Buckeyes have bought in. The juice is flowing.
"This is what I missed," the 48-year-old Meyer says. "Team building and being around the guys. I love them."
But how much juice does Meyer have? Part of what he brings to Columbus is a history of having conquered the SEC, a conference that continues to pull away from a stalled Big Ten. After Ohio State, no other team in the conference is ranked higher than 16th, and Indiana, at 4--5, had a shot at the Rose Bowl heading into Week 11. The Buckeyes, whose only win against a current Top 25 team was a 63--38 blowout of Nebraska, wouldn't have the résumé to get in the championship-game discussion even if they were eligible. In the years ahead Ohio State must not only match the Alabamas and LSUs in recruiting and on the field but also raise the level of play throughout its own conference. It's going to take more than an inspiring speech to help the Big Ten catch the SEC from behind.
In Meyer's senior year at Cincinnati, where he had a pedestrian career as a defensive back, he took a class on motivation that proved to be his best preparation for a football life. A psychology major, Meyer can still rattle off the same four pillars of motivation he learned in the mid-1980s: love, fear, hate and survival. "To this day, when I have to motivate someone," he says, "I'm going to use one of those four things."
Meyer believes that motivation is far more important than strategy and play-calling. Every day he sits on the couch of his most trusted assistant, strength coach Mickey Marotti, to take the temperature of the team and figure out what's needed to push the players. "That's his specialty," Marotti says. "He knows what to say, when to say it, how to say it, what buttons to push, how hard to push them, when to back off, when to hug them and when to kick them in the pants."
The coach has needed to push hard. Five players missed Meyer's first team meeting. Three were late and two didn't show to the second one. "He realized he wasn't inheriting a team that necessarily had a bunch of discipline and a real high level of commitment," says Ohio State defensive line coach Mike Vrabel. Meyer and Marotti—a former NAIA fullback with a fire hydrant's build, a drill sergeant's lungs and a prison warden's intensity—began a physical and mental overhaul, beginning with outdoor workouts at 4:45 a.m. There were bear crawls in the snow, chin-ups on frozen bars and the salty language affiliated with a boot camp. "The low point in my life, for sure," says senior linebacker Etienne Sabino.
Thus began Meyer's Jedi mind tricks, breaking the Buckeyes down and rebuilding them—as one. The difference could be seen at the end of two games. Last year, when Miller got hurt against Nebraska, Vrabel says, "Our players said, We knew we didn't have a chance." They lost. During this year's Purdue game, Miller went out with a late injury, but nobody gave up. Instead, back-up Kenny Guiton, whom Meyer nearly kicked off the team in the off-season, forced overtime by leading a 61-yard drive with 47 seconds left in regulation and no timeouts. The Buckeyes won 29--22 in OT.
"Usually at a place like Ohio State or Florida, you're getting a player who is an entitled player," Meyer says of the importance of motivation. "You're getting a player who has been better than everyone around him. You have to motivate that guy to buy into a team philosophy."
Miller is the best player in the Big Ten this season, and next year, with eight other starters on offense returning, he will be a Heisman front-runner and the likely face of the conference. The 6'2", 220-pound sophomore has accounted for 27 touchdowns this season, 14 passing and 13 rushing. Meyer calls him "a freak," and Miller does seem genetically engineered to run Meyer's spread offense, which has blended well with offensive coordinator Tom Herman's no-huddle philosophy. For a league in need of some national juice, the humble and dynamic Miller will provide it throughout the off-season.
"His improvement has been phenomenal," Meyer says. "We're talking about the early, early development stage of where he could be."
Ohio State's offensive transformation is apparent at the line of scrimmage. As Miller takes his position, opposing corners run back into place, linebackers frantically check their wristband crib sheets, defensive linemen pant while getting in their stances. Ohio State's offensive line group lost a combined 133 pounds of fat in the first six months after Meyer's arrival so that they could maintain the pace. Last year, Miller says, his cadence at the line of scrimmage would last about eight seconds, as he'd bark, "Red 87, Red 87. Four-down-set. Four-down-set." Now? "I say, 'Jet 93' and clap my hands, and it's time to go," he says.
Miller's individual development had come just as fast. He attributes 95% of what he knows about football to Herman, 37, a former coordinator at Rice and Iowa State who is a Mensa member. As an example, Miller cites a touchdown he threw to receiver Devin Smith against Indiana. He noticed the safety trying to disguise his coverage, looked him off to clear him from the middle of the field and get Smith in one-on-one coverage, then zipped the ball up the field for a 60-yard score.
Meyer looks forward to surrounding Miller with more playmakers, calling the lack of skill players when he arrived "alarming." The incoming recruiting class is ranked seventh in the nation by Rivals.com, and six starters will be back on D. If the Buckeyes can find receivers and runners who match Miller's ability, they could begin to challenge anyone. "With the staff Coach Meyer brought in and the things I'm learning from them, absolutely," Miller says. "It's unbelievable, and the sky is the limit. I just have to sit here and take it serious."
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany says his conference is in the midst of unprecedented change, with half of the coaches in their first or second season. (Meyer replaced Luke Fickell, who replaced Tressel, who left in 2011 before the school received a one-year bowl ban and three lost scholarships a year for three years for players receiving extra benefits.) "We've had a tough couple of years," Delany says. "I mean, gosh, I don't ever remember our conference, or any conference, having this much transition."
The season began with Alabama's drama-free 41--14 blowout of Michigan, and the league has been sucking the exhaust fumes of college football since. Oregon State stunned Wisconsin, UCLA shocked Nebraska and Indiana, Iowa and Penn State lost to MAC schools. Meyer says he's impressed with the schemes in the Big Ten, but the talent lags behind the SEC's. "There are great players in this league, but not enough," he says. "The quality is very good. The quantity is in the SEC. We don't have the abundance right now."
"We need the Big Ten to get better," Buckeyes AD Gene Smith says. "We've discussed this as athletic directors. We know that we have to get better." And as it improves, the conference will need to test itself against the best. Smith has begun to schedule more aggressively, committing to games with Oregon, Texas, TCU and Boston College in the coming years. "The days of playing three MAC games are over," he says.
"I think, the Big Ten, it's time to jump to it," Meyer says. "I think you're going to see a change. I mean that in a respectful way. We better get going."
While Meyer seems to have taken to the Big Ten, the league hasn't quite warmed to him. Three conference coaches contacted for this story declined comment. Ohio State swiped recruits from Michigan State, Wisconsin and Penn State after Meyer's hiring last November. That led to verbal spats with Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema and terse comments from Michigan State coaches. (The Spartans also accused Ohio State of sending "incomplete video" in film exchange that didn't include presnap movements.) But Meyer has clicked with high school coaches in Ohio and beyond, who admire both his recruiting verve and football acumen.
"Urban is going to compete in every phase of his life," says Cleveland Heights High coach Jeff Rotsky, whose star last year, offensive lineman Kyle Dodson, flipped from Wisconsin to OSU before signing day. "Anyone that thinks that they have a kid wrapped up, they better think again."
For a league in transition, Meyer is driving the pace car.
Hang on, Sloopy, Sloopy, hang on.... The words blast in the lobby of the Ohio State football offices, loud enough to disturb the ghost of Woody Hayes. The sensory overload continues down the hall, where mannequins wear flashy redesigns of the classic scarlet-and-gray uniform, floodlights shine in once dim corridors and radio highlights echo though the offices. "It was a very nice place, but very quiet," says Meyer. "We're making it un-quiet." Thus "Sloopy," a song that's been played at the start of the fourth quarter at home games since the late 1960s. It's another part of Meyer's injecting juice into the program, but can he keep from overindulging?
Meyer claims that he's "learned to shut it off" after burning out at Florida, and he's maintained his balance so far, but he hasn't "hit the speed bump" of the first loss yet. Next year he'll be bowl-eligible, too. His wife, Shelley, is optimistic that he'll handle the depths of losing better than he did in Gainesville, where anxiety and stress led to problems. "I'm hopeful based on how he's talked and the changes he's made, he won't go full-out dramatic in the tank like he used to," Shelley says.
In his last two stops Meyer has done his best work in his second season. Utah went undefeated and became the first BCS buster in 2004, and Florida won the national title with QB Chris Leak in '06. Will Meyer be able to get Ohio State back to the BCS title game and help revive a conference that hasn't won a national championship since 2002? It will take a lot more juice for things to get that unquiet in Columbus.
"His improvement has been phenomenal," says Meyer of his QB.
"There are great players in this league," says Meyer, "but not enough."
Pete Thamel will break down the engine of Ohio State's high-octane offensive system: the transformed O-line. Look for it after Wednesday at SI.com/cfb
Photograph by GREGORY SHAMUS/GETTY IMAGES
HAPPY TOGETHER Meyer and Miller (right) see great things in each other, and the Ohio State offense has reaped the rewards, surpassing 30 points in seven games and 50 in four.
GREG BARTRAM/US PRESSWIRE
A STUD IN SCARLET The 6'2", 220-pound Miller, a scoring threat through the air and on the ground—he has run the 40 in 4.47—will be a Heisman front-runner next year.
SCOTT STUART/ZUMAPRESS.COM (SI.COM)
THE JUICE IS LOOSE Vrabel, an Ohio State alum and now a Buckeyes assistant, and defensive tackle Joel Hale were among the many to express the team's new enthusiasm.