In a game like this, which ends in a lopsided 45-23 score, it’s not often that you can see exactly where something went wrong. But it’s as clear as Ryan Day in Michigan’s takedown on Ohio State at Ohio Stadium on Saturday.
Four points behind with less than seven minutes remaining in the third quarter, Ohio State faced a fourth- and fifth-placed Michigan 43. Quarterback CJ Stroud — who could all but taste the Heisman Trophy that game — pleaded for his coach to leave. The whole world saw Stroud beg his coach to give him the ball.
nope Seemingly without thinking, Day dispatched his punt team and took his star quarterback—certainly a top-five pick in the 2023 NFL Draft—off the field.
It’s right there. The tension built up on the sidelines, which you could feel through the television.
Stars are important. coaching too.
— Ari Wasserman (@AriWasserman) November 26, 2022
That game was lost there. That might seem like a reach in a one-possession game, but it’s not about a single play call. It’s about temperament, about the message it sends to its team.
This decision showed weakness and trepidation. It showed fear. And most importantly, it told his team that the offensive pundit and quarterback guru wasn’t sure his loaded offense would take control of the game against a team that had dominated them in the first half.
It didn’t matter that Ohio State spent much of the past year obsessing over the game. It didn’t matter that Ohio State had to reassert itself as attacker in college football’s fiercest rivalry. It didn’t matter that Day’s reputation as Ohio State coach was on the line. Day took his offense — and his thumbprint — off the field in a situation Ohio State would have had no hesitation in betting on it in any other game.
“We’re always going to be aggressive,” Day said in his post-game press conference, “but at the time, I thought playing punt was the right thing to do.”
Always? Not always. Day did something in this game that he wouldn’t do in others.
Ohio State has 11 more five-star prospects on its list than Michigan. It has an 11-spot lead in the 247Sports Team Talent Composite rankings. It has one of the best quarterbacks in college football and the best receiver in the country. This team is physically built to impose its will on defenseless opponents when games are tight. But against Michigan? hesitation and fear.
The second the ball hit player Jesse Mirco’s foot – who funnily enough landed in the end zone for a touchback – Michigan controlled the game. The possession that followed was a 15-play, 80-yard touchdown drive for the Wolverines. Ohio State was put in his locker and never came out for the rest of the game.
Day was a man in his post-game press conference. He answered questions politely, took responsibility, and understood that as Ohio State’s head coach, that just can’t happen. He didn’t snap at reporters and he didn’t sulk. He is aware of what the fans are thinking of him at this moment. He won’t be shocked to hear comparisons to John Cooper, the former Ohio State coach who used a national recruiting strategy — before national recruiting was typical — to pull off full rosters but tightened every time he played Michigan. That became a 2-10-1 record against the Wolverines and eventually gave him that irrepressible stink as a coach who couldn’t beat his rival.
It’s still not fair to compare Day to Cooper, especially considering the two Michigan teams that Day lost were very good football teams, college football playoff teams. Cooper had significant talent assets during his tenure as head coach and routinely lost to average Michigan teams.
But this tension? That tension we all felt during this game? The tension you could almost feel when Day decided to postpone Senior Tackle — a tradition since 1913 that saw the seniors hit a blocking sled one last time while the team honored them — midweek? That is real. Saying Cooper’s name at this point makes it at least reasonable.
And that’s the kind of thing you just can’t shake off. Last year Ohio State’s defense was weak, being bullied up front by a Michigan team that had a plan and executed that plan. You could brush it aside and say that Ohio State didn’t take their opponent seriously, that there were sick players on the team, and that the weather was far from ideal. Ohio State fans were hurt, but they’ve spent the last year convincing themselves it was a one-off event in a one-sided rivalry.
This time? It was 50 degrees and sunny. It was Ohio Stadium. Ohio State wouldn’t be surprised. The fans were foaming at the mouth, ready to reclaim the rivalry that this program possessed 400 days ago.
The result? Ohio State got its butt kicked again.
That makes it a difficult crossroads for the Ohio State head coach. Day won’t be fired, but he must storm into the next year with a fan base unconvinced in his abilities. We’ll hear more of Jim Harbaugh’s comment after last year’s win, “Born on third base and thought he hit a triple,” and we’ll recall how dominant Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer were in that rivalry game. For now, Michigan owns the rivalry. No flukes. No coincidence. Harbaugh and his team emphatically won it two consecutive years in two different ways.
Last year, Michigan was clearly itself, outperforming Ohio State’s defenses. That year, Michigan outranked Ohio State. It used a five-star quarterback and a top-50 running back to slam the door on the highly talented Buckeyes team, which is likely going into another offseason dubbed the finesse team. Michigan used big plays to destroy the spirit of defense. That’s what the state of Ohio is supposed to do, right?
And it’s not even clear what to do next. After last year’s game, Ohio State pulled from the majority of its defensive staff. It paid $2 million a year to hire Oklahoma State’s Jim Knowles to fix the problem, only to see Donovan Edwards score on a 75-yard touchdown rush on Michigan’s first offensive game after the Buckeyes had reduced it to one possession in the fourth quarter. Then the wheels fell off.
The funniest thing about this season is that there’s still a chance Ohio State will make the college football playoffs. It needs some help – like losses from TCU and USC – but there’s still a way to potentially challenge for a national title and dare we say playing Michigan again?
But throw that scenario out the window and focus on the reality of Ohio State. It’s about another season that ends in defeat in Michigan and no Big Ten title. Now it probably won’t play in the CFP this year.
The reality? Ohio State again lagged behind. It has now been 1,092 days since Ohio State beat Michigan.
Now the state of Ohio must get through the next 365 days with this build-up of tension.
The worst for the state of Ohio? It doesn’t know if it can trust its trainer to finish it.
(Photo: Ben Jackson/Getty Images)