INDIANAPOLIS -- Urban Meyer sat in the passenger seat of a golf cart as his players streamed out of the locker room and toward the team bus.
In between bites of a small, pepperoni pizza from Papa John's and sips of red Gatorade, Meyer placed his head in his hands. His wife, Shelley, occasionally tried to console him. But mostly, Meyer just stared blankly.
It was a look that no one had seen Meyer wear in a long time. Since Nov. 27, 2010, in fact. That's when he suffered his last loss as a head coach, against Florida State when he still led Florida. His current team, Ohio State, hadn't experienced a defeat since Jan. 2, 2012, in the Gator Bowl.
Several of the Buckeyes' underclassmen had never even known what it was like to lose a college game. Until Saturday, when Michigan State pulled off the 34-24 win in the Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Ohio State struggled with how to react to such a foreign concept.
"I’m just at a loss for words," linebacker Ryan Shazier said. "I haven’t lost in a while and it kind of hurts. We worked so hard and it just slipped out of our hands."
Of course, this just wasn't any defeat. It's as if the football gods timed Meyer's first setback just right so as to inflict maximum pain.
Had Ohio State not blown a 24-17 second half lead, had it found a way to pull through as it so often had, then a date with Florida State in the BCS title game almost certainly awaited. The Buckeyes had to sit home and watch the national title game with a 12-0 record last year because of NCAA probation. They'll be watching it from afar again this year and thinking about it long after that. As Meyer put it, losing to the Spartans is "is going to haunt all of us, I imagine, for a little while."
"Man, it hurts," running back Carlos Hyde said. "To be that close to going to a national championship my senior year, that hurts."
What stings even more is the Buckeyes' first Big Ten title game appearance served as the inverse of what fueled much of their success. All season long, Ohio State jumped on opponents with early scores then broke their will with physical play in the second half.
On Saturday, Michigan State raced out to a 17-0 lead as Meyer's team failed to score in the first quarter for the first time this year and faced its largest deficit in two seasons. The Buckeyes made uncharacteristic early mistakes, like a mistimed snap, dropped passes and a unforced fumble from Braxton Miller that nearly turned disastrous.
Was it a case of buckling under pressure, or perhaps a hangover from the previous week's intense rivalry game win over Michigan? Center Corey Linsley offered another explanation.
"I think we hyped [Michigan State] up a little too much," he said. "They're a great team. But we came out like we were playing the Bears or something."
Miller's scrambling ability sparked a comeback, and the Ohio State running game finally revved up in the second half. Hyde and Miller broke off big chunks of yardage versus the nation's best rush defense, and both would finish with over 100 yards. The Buckeyes' offensive line looked like it would wear down Michigan State like it had just about every other Big Ten opponent.
"We started going back to our basic plays," Hyde said. "I felt like I could have gotten any yardage we needed. I felt like we could have run the ball the whole second half."
But Michigan State would own the fourth quarter, with the Buckeyes gaining just 25 total yards in the final 15 minutes. Hyde got only two carries in the fourth and just 18 for the game. On the most critical play of the night, with Ohio State facing fourth-and-2 from the Spartans' 39, Meyer made the call to put the ball in his best player's hands. For the first time since he was a true freshman, Miller couldn't deliver in crunch time, as linebacker Denicos Allen stuffed him.
"We actually had practiced that play against that blitz," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "He was obviously running with some serious authority, and running the quarterback gets you an extra hat. We just didn't execute."
The Buckeyes' vulnerabilities on pass defense and in sustaining a consistent passing game of their own finally caught up to them against the best team they had faced in 25 outings. But while they may have at long last tasted defeat, all is not lost for this team.
Ohio State should still secure a BCS at-large bid, likely in the Orange Bowl. For a team that hasn't won a bowl game since the 2011 Sugar Bowl, which was later vacated by the NCAA, that's still something.
But first, Meyer and Ohio State must rediscover a lost art: how to rebound from a loss.
"We'll always be disappointed with what could have been," Linsley said. "But whatever happens in the bowl game we go to is going to show what kind of people we are."