The Ohio State Buckeyes stepped off the plane Monday just after sunset at Sky Harbor International Airport. They left the uncommon warmth that hit Ohio earlier in the day for the very common sunshine of Arizona.
Five days before the No. 3 Buckeyes (11-1) play No. 2 Clemson (12-1) in the Fiesta Bowl at 7 p.m. Saturday, they took their first steps in the desert since they left Phoenix a year ago after beating Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.
That was just a bowl game. This is a playoff game. The winner faces No. 1 Alabama or No. 4 Washington in the national championship game. That adds to the intrigue all week in Arizona.
“We’re here for a reason,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said in a press conference just off the runway after the team landed. “We’re here to enjoy the sunshine, the desert, but most importantly to put on a good performance against a great football team in Clemson. I couldn’t imagine being in a better place with a better group of people than with my players and coaching staff and representing the great university.”
Just like last year, a small band played as the team arrived. Fiesta Bowl representatives wearing yellow coats waited for Clemson, which arrived 90 minutes before Ohio State, and then the Buckeyes. The Fiesta Bowl mascot, Spirit, posed for photos with fans.
The game is still days away. There will be much talk and hype until then.
“On behalf of the Big Ten Conference and The Ohio State University, we much appreciate being here,” Meyer said. “Buckeye Nation has always been very strong in Maricopa County and at the Fiesta Bowl.”
The Buckeyes will practice beginning Tuesday at Notre Dame Prep Academy. That’s three miles from their hotel, the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess.
“I think everybody’s healthy,” Meyer said. “I think we have one guy sick. He’ll be here tomorrow. We just don’t want him flying with the team. But everybody’s healthy. Everybody’s ready to go.”
The Buckeyes have used the past month since their regular-season finale against Michigan, not only preparing for Clemson but getting better themselves. Their big hope is to show an improved passing game Saturday.
“To win this type of game, you have to be nine strong,” Meyer said. “At times, we’re not. That’s not singling out one position group because that’s not fair. That’s not correct. Throughout the recruiting weeks, we kept some guys home to work on position units and specifics. I believe they did a good job. I believe we’re a better team.”
The Buckeyes are in the playoffs for the second time in three years. They beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and Oregon in the national title game two seasons ago.
“It’s always a little different feel because you’re playing for it all,” center Pat Elflein said, “but we approach every game the same. We prepared very hard for last year’s game. With a younger team this year, we rely on leadership of guys who have been in the playoff before. We’ll teach those guys how to prepare and how to get ready mentally for a big game like this one.”