Six days is down to 10 minutes and one more speech from Tommy Tuberville.
"You get one shot at these guys, and we came to win this damn thing," the Cincinnati head coach says. "Defense, bow your neck. Offense, play fast."
The coach has a plan for upsets like the one he's about to attempt. It never involves what he calls the "raisin' hell" speech. But his voice is growing louder and louder, an Arkansas holler unlike any tone he's used this week. He is straying from his plan.
"We got one damn shot at these guys! One damn shot! Don't leave that field thinking you could've done one more thing!"
In the middle of the visitors' locker room is Gunner Kiel, about to start at quarterback in the type of game he was long recruited to play in. His eyes aren't calm, but his body is still. His wide receivers sit cramped and out of sight behind a partition. Receivers coach Blake Rolan repeats technical advice alongside a chorus of other assistants doing the same to other position groups. His players look neither attentive nor distracted, neither confident or concerned.
This is the desired result of a week's work: stone-eyed professionals ambivalent to history, 108,000 people, and Ohio itself.
Receiver Mekale McKay stares at nothing. He does so with contempt, his 6'6 frame leaned against the corrugated metal locker, an iPad in his lap playing Snootie Wild into his headphones. Three seats down, receiver Chris Moore stands up to put on his helmet and stretch his neck.
"Time to go work," he says to no one.
The team masses at the door. The last receiver out is Nate Cole, wearing the same null countenance. He finishes coloring block letters across his wristbands with a marker: "R.I.P. FLICK."
If there's such a thing as an in-state foil for a national brand like Ohio State, it's Cincinnati.
To enter Ohio Stadium, the visiting team must navigate a curved ramp. The cement wall suggests military-grade strategy. It narrows the walkway to a width of only a pair of football players, making it impossible for a group to bounce around and build energy.
Players hear the noise echoing off the cement pillars. And when the visitors finally round the bend, a massive scarlet flag flashes by, loud and shaky and out of focus. In a found-footage horror movie, it's the reveal shot of the monster.
"YOU'RE IN THE SHOE, MOTHERFUCKER," the screams start.
2-0 Cincinnati is more than a two-touchdown underdog to Ohio State, which hasn't lost a football game to another Ohio opponent since Oberlin in 1921. Adidias sent the Bearcats gloves that create the shape of Ohio, a jab at Nike's Buckeyes. The Cincinnati football recruiting department prepared three different "The Ohio State Champion" graphics, waiting to go to top state talent heretofore uninterested in the Bearcats.
It matters more than anyone admits. If there's such a thing as an in-state foil for a national brand like Ohio State, it's Cincinnati, historically one of the state's honorable mentions.
By the Bearcats' own admission, they're undersized and outgunned.
"But we're gonna be loose, I promise you," Tuberville said five days prior. "Pressure's on them. They can’t slip up anymore. They’ve got to play well. They can’t lose to us. I don't know if we've got house money, but hey, I know we're playing on their million and a half they're paying us."
The Bearcats have incubated rising coaches -- Notre Dame's Brian Kelly, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Tennessee's Butch Jones -- for over a decade. But in the veteran Tuberville, the school has found a successful coach uncanny at upset-engineering who's also content to put his twilight roots down on the Clifton campus.
He knows his resume includes two wins over favored Urban Meyer teams, in another life down South. He knows how to spend a week grooming a thin team, one built around highly sought and subsequently damaged high school prospect Kiel, making his first-ever start against a power-conference opponent.
"A dang greenhorn, and we're taking him straight to the O.K. Corral," Tuberville said Thursday morning.
By order, Kiel's hidden from the media for the week. He's the storyline, not Ohio State freshman J.T. Barrett, who leapt into action when starter Braxton Miller went down for the season in summer camp and whose inexperience contributed to a 35-21 home loss against Virginia Tech two weeks prior.
The Bearcats have a blue-chip quarterback and a receiving corps as deep with talent as it as with bravado. They have a puncher's chance, and with luck that Tuberville will try to find, they might pull the upset.
The home fans look down. The visitors push out to the field just as the crowd greets its home team, entering from the other end.
"THIS IS THE FUCKING SHOOOOOOOE."
By design, the opponents will cross each other diagonally as they take to their sidelines, the visitors running straight at the teeth of Ohio State football.
The howling now drops straight down on top of the black UC helmets.
Wednesday, UC had instructed its strength coaches to run near the front of the pack and break up any potential fights.
A Cincinnati player up front starts to chant, "WORK! WORK! WORK!" Everyone runs straight into the noise and light.
Tuberville has recomposed himself. He shrugs almost apologetically and leans in so that no one else can hear:
"Amazin', isn't it? Seven days of work, and now it's just three and a half hours of emotion? But I don't know now ... All I know now is that we need something good to happen right away."
The Cats are four-wide in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) on the fourth play of the opening drive, exactly how they like it. Ohio State assigns man coverage against the called fade route, exactly how Cincinnati's coaches predicted. The Buckeyes are comfortable playing one-on-one in pass coverage. UC's starting wide receivers -- Moore, McKay, Max Morrison, and Shaq Washington -- couldn't be happier about that.
"When I see on film that they’re playing man on the outside routes, they’re trying to tell us that they’re better than us," Moore said Thursday. "So that’s an opportunity to tell them we’re going to make the plays."
From UC's 40-yard line, Kiel finds Moore tangled with Vonn Bell, who is turned backwards with his hands raised. He's playing Moore's eyes and not Kiel's pass. The ball hits Moore straight on. He's all alone now, and it's a 60-yard touchdown. Ohio Stadium mutes. The sideline mobs Kiel. Anyone not on top of him is staring up into the stands and roaring.
"You just said something! You just said something!" a teammate says to Kiel.
When the mob disperses, Cincinnati receives a sideline warning. Moore dances back to the bench. He's grinning ear-to-ear, as is the entire corps. The week's work has been vindicated. Now it's time to "get numbers," one of them shouts out to the field.
Offensive line coach Darren Hiller circles his group. He has only six healthy linemen to protect Kiel. One offensive series later, that number will drop to five, when senior Cory Keebler goes down with a knee injury.
"See? The noise is nothing you didn't expect. No problem on the signals, right? We're fine, right? Hey boys, listen to me. Listen to me now. Let's go rock and roll."
In 84 seconds, Cincinnati has taken the lead exactly how it had planned.
Cincinnati spent the week confident that the film on its bizarre 2014 schedule -- two bye weeks to open the slate, followed by wins against Toledo and Miami (Ohio) -- has shown nothing of its strategy. The Bearcats ran a base defense through eight quarters, even when Miami mounted a minor comeback.
"Oh yeah, we wanted to hold back for this, absolutely," Tuberville said.
The defensive-minded coach doesn't think his unit can compare to Virginia Tech's, which brought defenders to the line and played the run, daring Barrett to make contested throws.
"I don't have the type of boys Frank [Beamer] does, and not many people do," Tuberville said. "They were just fortunate enough to get ‘em down 21-7. When you’re down 21-7 to a team that’s not supposed to win a game, you start panicking."
"This kid scares me a little bit because I’ve seen him on film drop back and ... boom, boom, boom."
One concept the defensive staff assumes Ohio State will expect the Bearcats to run is zero blitz, which brings sell-out pressure with no extra help against a long pass. The film showed OSU checking to a speed option run against most blitz looks. UC plans to show a zero or one blitz (with one defender deep), then immediately drop out as the ball snaps. Tuberville wants to put a hiccup in Barrett's decision-making, hoping the freshman plays like a specific former No. 1 draft pick.
"JaMarcus Russell could never read coverages," Tuberville said. "If you played man and he saw man, he’d wear you out. But if you played man and he saw man, and then all of a sudden you dropped into a zone, he couldn’t do it. I’m telling you, I’m thinking … we can make it look like zero and drop eight into coverage and make him throw an interception. [Barrett] hasn’t seen that. He’s seen zero, zero, go speed option, zero. He hasn’t seen, 'Oh shit, it’s a blitz; I’m going to an option', and then all of a sudden, somebody’s standing there when he drops it off, because we’ve got three deep and five guys underneath."
Tuberville never speaks to shutting down Ohio State outright. He harps on confusion and leverage, accomplished by creating one or two early turnovers to let the offense run a shot for an immediate touchdown. Then a stunned Buckeye offense will work off-schedule, passing more. The freshman might force throws, getting UC's undersized defense off the field as quickly as possible.
The only issue: Tuberville is haunted by what he saw from Ohio State's Virginia Tech film and garbage time vs. Kent State. When the Buckeyes run well enough to create an on-schedule third-and-5 or less, Barrett is ruthless throwing out of play-action.
"This kid scares me a little bit because I’ve seen him on film drop back and ... boom, boom, boom."
Tuberville moved his head in intervals, mimicking Barrett checking through his progressions.
"That scares me right now. Has all week," he said Thursday.
Barrett is no JaMarcus. For one, he can run. On OSU's opening drive, the freshman sees man coverage on second-and-7 in the option. UC covers the pitch to running back Ezekiel Elliot, and a fake to halfback Dontre Wilson on the speed sweep freezes UC safety Andre Jones in space. Barrett's rushing lane is Tuberville's nightmare: man-on-man blocks, OSU's big strength swallowing UC's small speed.
No one's assigned to the QB rush, and no one's free to move in as a spy. Barrett rolls for 17 yards and lights every Cincinnati concern in neon. Four plays later, the game is tied at 7, and the momentum is off the Cincinnati side.
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran's meeting room is fearsomely democratic. It's not quite the House of Commons on C-SPAN, but each morning the dialogue is spirited.
Wednesday morning, Rolan and passing game coordinator Darin Hinshaw, who knew each other when Rolan played for Middle Tennessee State while Hinshaw was a coach, went back and forth over the intricacies of a particular go-route.
"I like it because it scores touchdowns. Do you like touchdowns?" Hinshaw said. Others around the table cracked a laugh. Rolan looked like he was trying not to, in an effort to prove his point.
"I’ve the seen the type of coaches who don’t let you talk and let you know that your opinion doesn’t mean jack," Gran said after the session. "To me, that’s not healthy. I’ll listen to stuff. And if it’s good, we’ll do it. And if it’s not, I don't. There’s no egos. We can all agree or disagree, but we’re on the same page when we go out and coach."
Gran, Rolan, Hiller, Hinshaw and tight ends and special teams coach Marc Nudelberg debated everything from tweaking individual routes to hand signals and code words. When naming a newly modified pass, the staff rattled through names of rides at the nearby Kings Island amusement park. One formation added for the Ohio State game ends up with a hand signal that's a baseball-style crotch-grab.
"Hey, they'll remember it. We have to get them to remember it somehow," Gran said.
There's serious intent here. The motto of the week, which Hinshaw repeated during quarterback meetings each afternoon, is "when in doubt, play fast."
The motto of the week is "when in doubt, play fast."
"We called the Toledo coaches after our game with them. And they said, ‘Coach, half our defense didn't know what our call was because of the speed you were running,'" Hinshaw said. "Play fast. [Ohio State] has to sub people to get things done. Snap the ball as soon as the ref gives it to you. That gives us a chance. And have an exit plan if things go bad."
The Bearcats' offensive staff spent a week adjusting concepts specifically to address Ohio State's pass rush. To a man, everyone felt the strongest unit for the Buckeyes is the defensive front, specifically Joey Bosa and Cincinnati native Adolphus Washington. UC's offensive staff keyed its protections around those two. Rolan, a former graduate assistant at Tennessee under Jim Chaney, said Bosa can have "[Jadeveon] Clowney impact."
"We always had to know where Clowney was on every play," said Rolan. "I have no idea if Bosa is that good by comparison. But this week, he's our Clowney."
"[Virginia Tech] certainly made plays, but their quarterback got his dick knocked in the dirt." Gran said. "We cannot have that happen to us."
Now trailing 14-7, Cincinnati gets the ball on its own 25. On first-and-10, Kiel snaps out of a max protect look in shotgun. Ohio State sends a four-man rush. Bosa slips through the seven-man protection on an inside move and plasters Kiel torso-first. Kiel fumbles backwards. Left tackle Eric Lefeld can only swat it out of the end zone for a safety. It's 16-7.
The Buckeye offense breezes through two more scores. In four consecutive touchdown drives, OSU averages 8.8 yards a play. The Bearcats offense is seated and silent in the noise, save for Kiel, who walks up and down the sideline demanding a hand slap and verbal acknowledgement from each player.
"We're good, we're good. Hey, look at me. We're good."
"Stay on schedule. We mucked up that last drive with a penalty," he tells the running backs and receivers. "Stay on schedule and play fast. Play fast and we're fine. But we cannot get off schedule, guys. We do that and we're done."
Tuberville told his offensive staff two days before kickoff to plan on going for it on fourth down, especially when in OSU territory.
"At Auburn, I pulled our punter off the field in the third quarter one time against Georgia. I told him, 'Hey, you're done.' They're running the ball too well for us to not to try something."
The late notice was intentional. Tuberville wanted a natural game plan already developed, one that the coaches could then modify. The staff had time to expand its third-down options to include second-down calls -- in a third-and-long situation, Cincinnati could run a short-yardage pass or draw to set up fourth-and-3.
Because of social media, Tuberville didn't tell the players until Friday night, after dinner at the team hotel in Dublin, Ohio.
"We got a couple surprises for ‘em. They’ll work. And don’t think I won’t try ‘em. But we aint got a whole lot of 'em. So when they work, you gonna have to play your ass off after that."
The room filled with laughter.
Later, Gran pointed at his boss.
"That’s why he’s the best right there," the OC said. "That’s why we won so many games at Auburn. 'Cause when we were going into those top-10 games, he’d say, 'Boys, we only got one shot.' Any of those big games. The worst time coaching for him is the games you’re supposed to win. Like next week [vs. Memphis]. They’re the worst, the ones you worry about. These ones here, he’s the best. The kids, I can see it in their eyes right now."
UC installed a series of trick plays, labeled "Deception" and chosen for OSU's most common defensive alignments, on Wednesday. The Bearcats will also unveil what Hinshaw called "Eddie's baby," a group of wildcat plays never used with Cincinnati's 2014 personnel.
Gran was happy with his balance on first downs heading into Saturday: 58 percent runs. But the size disparity against Ohio State led him to think UC would be most successful running in the spread, with a speedy QB unaccounted for in the gaps. UC had gained 114 yards with receiver Washington as the Catback in the 2013 Belk Bowl, but new Catback and 4.4 speedster Jarred Evans had only rushed twice this season. That was on purpose.
If Ohio State scouted Cincinnati's side Saturday night, it saw Evans running 40 yards from one end of the quarterback passing drill to the other, then pedaling an exercise bike in the first quarter.
Down 30-7, Evans provides the change-up Gran hoped for. Evans hits Moore, who's again in single coverage, for a 45-yard touchdown. OSU is confused. But so is Cincy, which is flagged for an ineligible receiver downfield. The play is wiped. Kiel returns under center. The drive stalls.
"I want [the players] to understand everything we’re doing is to give them some kind of edge. We’re going to take some chances," Tuberville told his staff Thursday. "Everything’s going to be against us. We’ve got to create some kind of momentum behind us. And yeah, it could backfire."
Hinshaw and Gran estimated that of the standard offense, which excludes situational down-and-distance calls and "Deception" plays, they'd carry about 35 passing and 10 rushing concepts into the game, with each play capable of being used in multiple formations. Coaches modified 15 to 20 percent of the playbook specifically for Ohio State, counting as new game-week information for players.
Every NCAA-afforded second had to be dedicated to the players' absorption of complex ideas. Gran may have three decades of expertise, but each week, he and his staff have four meetings, one hour each, to turn abstract and intricate into understandable and fun. Gran reminded his coaches not to "goop up the plan."
"If our kids know what to do and they can play fast, then we’ve got a chance," Gran said. "If they’re going out to the line thinking about the formation and what move to make and then what route, because we’ve changed it this week? Too late. It's over."
As early as Monday, the coaching staff agreed extra motivation wouldn't be needed. No hollering. No speeches.
The coach heard what he expected. Three position coaches report higher attendance at voluntary film sessions, which have run longer by the players' request.
He didn't play any games in the media, either. He took several minutes to actually use the words "Ohio State" during his midweek press conference, but denied any intent.
"No, no, I don't do any of that mess. They got a great program," Tuberville said over a plate of barbecue after the press conference. He eats with the media.
"Urban went to school here. So did his wife. Half his family did. My sister was a professor at Ohio State back in the '80s. Dang, I should've mentioned that in the press deal. But no, that always seemed stupid to me, when Dennis [Franchione] wouldn't say Auburn's name when he was at Alabama. Like no one knew our who our program was. But, hey, Dennis wasn't there long."
This is the Tuberville blueprint for managing player psychology during a big game week.
This is the Tuberville blueprint for managing player psychology during a big game week. After Tuesday's practice, your team is terrible, and you let it know just how bad the situation is.
"Some of y'all are out here playing like it's one of those preseason games we just had, because that's what those teams were," the head coach said. "We're about to get our dang butts whooped, if that's how you think we can beat these guys."
Wednesday, things are only marginally better, regardless of actual performance. Keep it short: "Scout team, you showed good effort today."
"You can’t holler wolf all the time. You watch guys and try to respond," Tuberville later said.
Coaches and players alike covet off-nights. Thursday afternoon, the wide receivers sat around the campus training table, planning their anything-but-football affairs.
"When I get away from football, I try not to think about it. Probably play some FIFA," Moore said. "Doesn't matter who I play with. I like Ivory Coast, though."
"FIFA, with him," Thompson said, motioning to Moore.
"It's a movie night for me. I’m a Netflix guy, you know?" McKay said.
He's pressed for details.
"That show Once Upon a Time. I ain’t done watching the season."
The show with the Disney princesses?
"Look, if you ain’t seen it, go check it out. It’s kinda good, you know, for just kicking back," McKay said. Kiel later admitted he'd be watching the season premiere of Scandal, partially so he can have something in common with his girlfriend's grandmother.
Morrison, perpetually found with a plug of dip and a hoodie (Thursday's is a UC camo edition), had already had his big Thursday dashed.
"Well, I thought about going Hooters, but I guess the receiving corps doesn’t want to do it. Guess it doesn’t meet the expectations around here."
"Where is there even a Hooters around here?" McKay asked.
"Newport," Morrison said, referencing the Kentucky town on the other side of the river. "I've got homework anyway."
The Tuberville plan means that late Thursday, you lift your team's spirits, "no matter what. Doesn't matter if someone's not showing enough effort or not. You don't want any negativity out on that practice field. You have to leave them in a positive mindset that day, so that they can think it's possible."
After attending Thursday morning workouts and class, running back Chamoda Kennedy-Palmore told teammate Howard Wilder that he'd forgotten an item, maybe a book, at his house. He left campus on his motorcycle. A car struck him at an intersection just north of UC's practice field.
Kennedy-Palmore, 19 years old and a graduate of nearby Lakota East High School, died one year and three days after freshman offensive lineman Ben Flick died in a car accident on the way home from Cincinnati's win over Miami (Ohio).
Roughly an hour before Tuberville was set to address the team at midfield, administrative staff informed him. UC's Thursday practices are closed to the media, and the school held its news release until Tuberville could tell players in person. The players had no idea what was coming.
"Good work today. That’s what we’ll need for Saturday. Guys ... we've got to deal with some more bad news."
He paused. It was an instant tell that something was off. Something was wrong. Maybe 10 people in a crowd of 120 knew what was coming. To them, the pause drew out forever. He had to raise his voice over the city traffic just over the wall of the practice field.
"We tell you this all the time," Tuberville said, his words breaking up, his throat shaking. "You don't know how much time you have here."(USA Today Images)
When he announced the news, a handful of players broke down immediately. Some were former Lakota East teammates. Some were Lakota East rivals.
"You don't know. You don't know. And we tell you this all the time," Tuberville said, his words breaking up, his throat shaking. "You don't know how much time you have here."
Tuberville motioned for Antrione Archer, Cincinnati's director of player welfare, to lead a team prayer. The coach left in his personalized golf cart to clean up and meet with Kennedy-Palmore's family at the hospital.
"You fall back on what you know, on what you believe. You just make sure they know we're here for them," Archer said after the prayer.
Tuberville has to drive straight from Kennedy-Palmore's grieving family to UC's weekly radio show at the Montgomery Inn, where he and athletic director Mike Bohn decided that Tuberville would graciously leave before the usual question-and-answer session about the week's opponent. Bohn handled the segment.
"It never felt right sitting up there answering questions about Chamoda or Ohio State," Tuberville said after. Before Flick died last year, Tuberville hadn't lost an active player since Ole Miss offensive lineman Joey Embry drowned in 1998.
"You never know what to say to kids. Kids process quicker than you or I, but they also get affected easier."
On his way to the parking lot, Tuberville shrugged off a question about the effect on Ohio State prep.
"You don't know with these things. You don't prepare for the loss of life. It's not in coaching. It's about being a parent right now. Because you have to be a father to a lot of these kids. But I don't know how they'll respond in football."
Archer led a Friday night chapel service at the team hotel. Theming it "Turning Pain into Power," he cited James 1:2-4. "The testing of your faith produces perseverance."
He relayed the time when, as a Georgia native playing linebacker for Central Michigan in his college days, he finally got to play between the hedges in Athens. How badly he wanted to play through that heat in his home state, to show UGA what it'd missed by not recruiting him. It was a message everyone in the room sans Kiel could connect to, of being ignored by your home's flagship program, be it Ohio State or someone else.
Bohn said he learned while on his way to Columbus Friday afternoon that Archer had been arrested in Kentucky in June for sexual abuse, allegedly rubbing his genitals on a 73-year-old female store clerk.
According to Tuberville and Bohn, the coach learned Saturday, before the Ohio State game, that Archer had been placed on immediate leave. He then learned of the alleged incident's specifics after the game. Tuberville said he addressed the issue with his coaches immediately and his team the following day.
Thirty minutes after the Friday chapel meetings, UC officials approached Archer in the hotel. They informed him to leave immediately.
Archer's last words to the UC football team had been: "Strength and character lead to salvation. It's the endurance training of life."
Tight end D.J. Dowdy's energy overtakes his composure. On every opponent third down, the UC offense is supposed to huddle close to the sideline. This ensures preparedness to take the field, but it's also a symbolic gesture of faith in the defense. As OSU continues to drive with impunity, more and more UC offensive players linger near the bench on third down.
"COME ON, Y'ALL, GET THE FUCK UP."
Dowdy's neck bulges as he screams, his hands in the air.
"LET'S GO OFFENSE. NOW! WE GOT TO TURN THIS AROUND! WE WILL TURN THIS AROUND."
Ohio State's Curtis Samuel converts the third-and-1, but fumbles on the next play. Dowdy explodes. It's the first swing of momentum after 30 unanswered points.
Kiel runs for the first time, for 19 yards and then again for five more, proving Gran's hypothesis. Cincinnati has its first snap in the red zone.
"In tight situations, I’m going to man up and power my way through," Kiel said Thursday. "For me, people think I’m a pocket passing quarterback, but if it’s third-and-5 or any kind of short distance, I’m going to do whatever I can do to get the first down. But I know I need to learn to slide and protect myself. I’m so used to playing in high school against little DBs and safeties I can run right through."
Kiel hits receiver Johnny Holton for a 19-yard touchdown pass. 30-14.
Ohio State punts for the first time. Pinned on UC's own 3-yard line, Kiel has just under two minutes.
The Buckeyes didn't adjust. Moore is single-covered on the inside. Freshman cornerback Eli Apple, a top-50 national prospect, can't catch up after biting on a cut by Moore, a Tampa native unrecruited by the Gators. He runs with the state of Florida and his hometown's name tattooed on his left bicep. He scores an 83-yard touchdown. 30-21.
The Buckeyes had been torched for the last few games of 2013. In back-to-back losses against Michigan State and Clemson, Ohio State allowed a combined 682 yards and eight touchdowns through the air. That prompted the hiring of Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash. Now Ohio State's secondary works a bit like Michigan State's, with a lot of quarters coverage and press-man instead of complex zones. It's an effort to let talented players work and not think.
UC shares that philosophy. Its offense's big-picture plan has been to let its best players outplay man coverage.
"The best offenses do what they do. If you look at great offenses that are great down the field, it’s because they do what they do. They’re not thinking. They’re acting," Hinshaw said Wednesday.
Of Ohio State's first three games, only the Virginia Tech film was worth poring over. Everything's viewed, but Navy's triple option made OSU's defense in that game irrelevant. Kent State's drop-off in comparable talent didn't offer much outside of situational looks. Virginia Tech became the foundation for Cincinnati's plan, and when Gran fired through film in an intense Friday night review at the team hotel, it was Virginia Tech film he used to help the offense visualize.
UC coaches have watched hundreds of plays' worth of Hokie quarterback Michael Brewer, a former Tuberville signee at Texas Tech. A voice in the meeting room hails him for his "balls on third down" against Ohio State. Those balls are never more evident than on an 18-yard pass on third-and-17 from Tech's own 4.
"Unbelievable," Gran said. "That’s what you have to do against a great team: contested throws. Quarterback’s gotta shoot it in there. Receiver’s gotta make it happen. That’s what Virginia Tech did. And it took some nuts, too."
The staff knew its offense moves with more tempo than the Hokies' does. Coaches were confident Kiel could make stronger, more accurate throws than Brewer, and to a better group of wideouts. Thompson said the plan was to "win fast."
"Just gotta keep a clock going in your head. It's hard to explain. You just have to go."
"Just gotta keep a clock going in your head. It's hard to explain. You just have to go," Thompson said.
McKay, the most physical of a group of burners, saw on film that when the Buckeyes blitz, the pass defenders don't engage receivers at all. On normal downs, the OSU DBs use a "catch" technique, meaning that the Buckeye defenders won't bite on a receiver's first move. They wait to make contact after, a strategy coaches call "absorbing the receiver."
"They wait for the second move and try and grab at you and use their hands a bit," McKay said. "What I see is that they’re not that good at it. They haven’t played anybody that could bring that to light, anyone with our tempo."
"From what I can see on film, they want to put their D-backs in a situation where they can hold off the receiver as long as possible," Morrison said.
"Their defensive backs aren't their best players. Their defensive line is," McKay said.
"Best defensive line I've seen on film," Morrison said.
Gran knew his play-calling hinged on the banged-up offensive line's ability to hold off the rush, letting Kiel fire into contested lanes. He hoped Kiel's accuracy and his receivers' speed would throw routes open.
"You’ve got to get it out quick. But if your guys aren’t running double moves or something like that, you have to give them time to get open. So it’s a catch-22. That is the issue of the week. We’ve got to get used to the speed and noise as fast as we can. But if we’re not getting out of breaks, we’ve got a problem, because now we’re holding the ball and taking a sack."
The Buckeyes don't blitz much on normal downs -- around 30 percent, according to UC -- but third-and-long changes their philosophy drastically. Gran called it "their Michigan State stuff," as the Buckeyes line up in a three-man front and bring pressure from seemingly everywhere, with no discernible theme. The package's mystery has been dubbed "voodoo" by UC's staff.
"We call it 'voodoo' because the crap is tough and it comes from everywhere and you don’t know," Gran said. "The root of it is, we have to stay out of third-and-long. Third-and-5, -6, -7, we can deal with."
This means a more predictable set of pass-heavy calls. The goal would be to gain at least four yards every first down. To do that with a thin offensive line and to convert on short-yardage third downs, UC planned to call for Kiel to run the ball out of a pass look.
"On third-and-1, it'll either be hero or goat on that," Gran told Tuberville on Thursday.
"Just don’t tell me when you call it. I’d rather watch it than think about it," Tuberville replied.
The onus falls on Kiel to not only check into the right protection, but into a still-effective play against any look. This kind of advanced recognition will be a first for the blue-chip.
"If they line up in an odd front and I see two 'backers on one side or a corner coming up, voodoo is coming," Kiel said Thursday. "I better get in the right protection. If the tight end is in the field, bring him back in and check to a different pass. With that, they're going to play straight man behind it. But I better have the protection right. This is the best defense I've ever played against."
During Wednesday's film session, he watched Virginia Tech's successful blitz pick-up, including a third-down screen breaking for big yardage.
"Come on Adolphus. Get there. Get over there," he said, watching Washington start to cross the field on the play. He wasn't being sarcastic. Kiel was watching arguably the most dangerous opposing player of his career, and, four days before their meeting, cheering him along.
Right after the shock of a third Kiel touchdown, an Ohio State fan runs onto the field. Assistant Buckeyes strength coach Anthony Schlegel body slams him.
Confusion reigns. The locker room is an exuberant triage unit. Kiel is hooked to an IV (pre-planned by the medical staff). Some players sprawl on the floor, with trainers massaging shoulders, backs, and hamstrings. Others limp and wipe away tears of pain, waiting to be evaluated.
"Get loose out there! Play fast. Play smart. Get loose!" Gran shouts in intervals.
Strength coaches walk the room with bananas and Gatorade gel, announcing the amount of time until the half ends and yelling, "FUEL!"
Tuberville admits his defense is getting beat on almost every block. It'll switch to a scheme that covers the guards and center on rushes, to make Barrett handle the ball longer before making option decisions. And as bad as the defense has looked, the sudden change in momentum has the entire unit reenergized, coaches included.
Hinshaw dumps raw information to skill-position players as quickly as he can. He and the other press box coaches have to leave the locker room early.
"Defense, you hit 'em in the mouth. We just need two stop to get back in," Tuberville says. "Offense, you just stay out there a bit longer, and we're gonna give you that ball back!"
Cincinnati doesn't wait to re-enter the field. It runs single-file back out, cutting off the Ohio State marching band's sideline exit. Above, fans dance to Rage Against The Machine's "Testify."
The halftime adjustments keep Ohio State out of the end zone, but barely. Ohio State kicks a field goal after corner Aaron Brown breaks up a Barrett touchdown. Kiel jumps up and down in celebration on the sideline.
On second-and-3, Kiel stares down Morrison, who breaks from the inside to the sideline on a go route, causing OSU safety Isaiah Williams to follow when Kiel pump fakes. Moore shrugs single coverage. Three OSU defenders follow Morrison, and before a Buckeye can catch up, McKay arrives to tail Moore into the end zone, high-stepping. It's a 78-yard touchdown. Ohio State's 23-point lead is now five.
When they gather on the sideline, Kiel brings his entire offense together.
"We become legends tonight, boys! SAY IT! SAY IT! Legends tonight!"
Ohio State responds with another field goal, this time on a 50-yard drive. Another touchdown would give the Bearcats a chance to tie the game with a two-point conversion.
Kiel stares down voodoo on third-and-7 long enough to find McKay for an 11-yard completion. With a fresh first-and-10, Kiel gets the green light; OSU looks to be playing the run. He dials up another deep attempt to knot the game.
The pass is as true as the previous four touchdowns, but Holton tangles with Apple, who'd grabbed a handful of jersey. When Holton pushes off of Apple's grab, the officiating crew calls pass interference on the Bearcat.
The sideline wails. Rolan erupts, followed by his boss. Tuberville unhinges himself against the local line judge, all chin and chest, like a Bobby Cox ejection at its peak. The receivers are all shrugs and incredulity.
"I mean, what?" McKay says to Washington on the sideline. "I see that call, and I'm trying not to laugh."
Instead of first-and-10 on the OSU 45, Kiel has to fight out of first-and-25 on the UC 25. The noise builds. Ohio Stadium finds its home-field advantage. A five-yard run and a false start later, Kiel can only attempt a screen pass on third-and-25.
Ohio State drives 62 yards for another touchdown, the first of two that close a 50-28 win. Cincinnati moves the chains one time in the fourth quarter.
The Buckeyes finish with 41 minutes and 56 seconds of possession, a number showing both OSU's success on the ground (65 carries at 5.8 yards a clip) and Cincinnati's quick-strike passing game. The Bearcats' scoring drives averaged one minute and 19 seconds.
On the way back to the locker room, Gran grabs running back Hosey Williams by the jersey.
"You go in there with energy. Keep your head high. Keep their heads high. This is about senior leadership. Don't let them lose twice. Short memories."
"This one was a struggle. It was hard for me to focus after Thursday," Tuberville says. "You talk about a game or you talk about a guy making a mistake. What happened Thursday was the end of someone's life. You can't correct that. To see the players react to that, I've got to get over it to get them over it."
Three days later, he's watching film of the first program he was in charge of, Ole Miss, against his next opponent, Memphis. He's also overseeing a new week's schedule, one that includes a speech to his players to explain Archer's dismissal and a memorial service for Kennedy-Palmore following Thursday's practice. You can hear him eating popcorn over the phone. He keeps a movie theatre-style pushcart in the corner of his office.
"It's mind-boggling. I called [Archer] as soon as I found out what happened, because I thought [the news] was a mistake. Bottom line is, wasn't a mistake. So I said, 'Well, I'll be prayin' for you and family, man.' I mean, what else do you say? You want to trust people."
Tuberville's only play is to tell his players that "anyone in life can make mistakes if you stray away from character."
Film review and postgame meetings validated the Ohio State plan. Tuberville feels his defense was ineffective due to Ohio State "almost totally" self-correcting its errors during a bye after Virginia Tech.
Tuberville, a defensive traditionalist who's long favored running the ball to control the game clock and keep defenses fresh, has one high-level weapon at Cincinnati: the passing game. But it's a tool he's not entirely familiar with.
"We'll be fine in the long term. Yeah, we can build here. I've got plenty of defensive linemen redshirted right now. Just gotta get 'em ready. We can be a big-time defensive program here. It's possible.
"But I'll tell you the truth. That game last week wasn't that tough for me, getting those kids ready. And this week won't be either. But next week, week after, going to Miami? Now, I'll have to rattle a few chains. But we'll have a shot."
Cincinnati would go on to lose to Memphis, with Kiel and top running back Williams suffering injuries. Williams will miss at least the Miami game. Kiel likely won't play against Miami, either.