As good of a coach as Urban Meyer was, he suffered from some unexpected trap game losses at Ohio State.
Meyer did a great job at building one of the best teams in the country over the last decade. The vast majority of the time, the Buckeyes were the better team on the field when Meyer was on the sidelines.
But that didn’t prevent the occasional, unexpected loss. Losses to Michigan State and Penn State kept the Buckeyes out of the conference championship, and out of the College Football Playoff. Trap game losses to Iowa and Purdue cost Ohio State more playoff bids over his final two seasons.
Even losses that didn’t have implications in the long run, like against Virginia Tech in 2014, still don’t add up. Was Ohio State the inferior team? Of course not.
Ryan Day corrected this mistake in his first year and went undefeated up until the Fiesta Bowl. The narrowest margin of victory in the regular season was 11 points to division runner-up Penn State. Even in the loss to Clemson, the Buckeyes had a chance to win in the final seconds.
Day found a way to avoid the trap game that plagued Meyer at Ohio State. Which games will he have to look out for to ensure an undefeated year two?
How to Define a Trap Game
First, let’s talk about what a trap game actually is.
For the purposes of this article, a trap game is when a team that is clearly superior loses a game to a team that they should easily defeat. The two main cases here are the losses to Iowa in 2017 and Purdue in 2018.
Iowa defeated Ohio State in 2017 by a score of 55-24. The Hawkeyes had a 4-5 conference record and would go on to win the Pinstripe Bowl against the 7-5 Boston College Eagles.
Clearly, this Iowa team was nowhere near the level of Ohio State. The week after that game was the only time all season they even had a spot on the AP Poll.
Purdue also pulled off a perplexing win against Ohio State in 2018, winning 49-20. At least Purdue had a winning conference record that year at 5-4, but they lost the Music City Bowl to 8-5 Auburn, who had only three conference wins.
In each case, the lesser team not only beat Ohio State but blew them out. Each team also finished third in the Big Ten West and finished fifth or worse in the entire Big Ten.
Recent losses to Michigan State and Penn State don’t fall under the definition of a trap game. While Ohio State should have been the better team, the opponents were roughly equal and went on to the Big Ten Championship Game in each case.
Most Likely Trap Games for Ohio State in 2020
October 10th vs. Iowa
Two of Ohio State’s most shocking upsets in the last 20 years have been to Iowa. The Hawkeyes also crushed the Buckeyes in 2004.
But since 1952, seven of Iowa’s nine wins against Ohio State have come in Iowa City. The Buckeyes have won the last seven matchups in Columbus.
In the previous three weeks, Ohio State will have hosted Buffalo, Rutgers, and had a bye. They will be well-rested and they will be ready.
The set of circumstances that usually surrounds an Iowa win won’t be present in October.
October 31st vs. Nebraska
Preceding the loss to Iowa in 2017 was a gritty, one-point win against Penn State.
The Nittany Lions have been Ohio State’s toughest, most consistent threat in the Big Ten over the last decade. The winner of that game could very well represent the Big Ten East in the conference championship. Penn State is a must-win.
So it makes sense that the following game will usually be a trap game for Ohio State. This year, that game is in Columbus against the Cornhuskers.
According to the pattern, the Buckeyes’ trap games are usually against Big Ten West opponents. It usually helps that these are teams Ohio State doesn’t play every year, so the element of surprise is on their side. Nebraska checks that box.
But Ohio State has only lost to Nebraska once, and that was during the Luke Fickell era. Since then, the Buckeyes have beaten Nebraska five times in a row.
Nebraska had a rough offseason and are hemorrhaging talent via the transfer portal. If they’re looking for a win, it will be hard to find in Columbus.
November 21st at Illinois
Another commonality is that Ohio State travels westward in trap game losses. The Buckeyes will go west once in conference play for their game at Illinois.
Over the last decade, Ohio State has continued to win the Illibuck Trophy decisively. Each of their last eight wins has been by two scores or more, and their last five wins have been by 25 points or more.
But Illinois might not be the same team we’re used to. Last year they played in their first bowl game since 2014. While they haven’t had a winning season since 2011, the Illini could be a sneaky contender against the Buckeyes.
But what makes this interesting is that the Michigan game is the week after. The Buckeyes might get caught looking ahead.
Is it likely? No. But that’s what makes a trap game a trap game. The team that ends up winning was not supposed to.
Illinois is the most likely trap game for Ohio State this year. They will still have to play their best football of the season, but the possibility is still there.
Of course, if Day keeps his team focused and ready, then Ohio State should easily take care of business.