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Ohio State at a Crossroads After Some “Day”-ja Vu

Ohio State is at a crossroads after yet another demoralizing loss to Michigan. At 11-1, what is next for the Buckeyes?
Ohio State Crossroads

Well, another year, another letdown against Michigan. Ohio State is at a crossroads and Columbus, Ohio may have imploded by the time the team got back on campus. Losing sucks but losing to that team is inexcusable. And yet, Ohio State drops to 11-1 after yet another impotent attempt at dethroning the back-to-back Big Ten Champs.

11-1 is a banner year for 120+ FBS programs. At Ohio State, 11-1 warms up the seat if that one is the one you cannot lose. For Ryan Day, he’s the man at the top and is the recipient of some well-deserved ire. At the same time, Day did not lose this game by himself. Kyle McCord did not lose this game by himself. This was a team loss and every player who stepped on the has something they could have done better, as they would tell you.

Regardless of where the fingers are being pointed, this is the first time since the 1995-1997 stretch that Ohio State has dropped three in a row to Michigan. There are some players who are going to the NFL after this year who have never experienced a win in The Game.

Plain and simple, Ohio State is at a crossroads and what it elects to do moving forward will determine if it stays among the elite or falls off the face of the Earth.

No excuses, no allegations. It was just another loss to the team you cannot lose to.

Ohio State at a Crossroads After 30-26 Loss to Michigan

All in all, Ohio State still played well enough to win. At no point were they out of the game.

The game started with the defenses playing lights-out, as expected. Then, the tide turned off of an ill-advised McCord interception that set up Michigan with a first and goal. Obviously, they cashed in. The Buckeyes got the ball back and drove down for a field goal. Then, Michigan had a strong drive for itself and scored another touchdown.

The Buckeyes got into the endzone after a few chunk plays and a rollout pass to Emeka Egbuka. At 14-10, Ohio State had the opportunity to get a stop and score before the half. They got that stop, drove until they got to Michigan territory, and froze. In a scene reminiscent of the end of the CFP Peach Bowl against Georgia, Day took chances to get down the field and then turtled. Instead of going for a fourth and short, Day let the clock bleed and attempted a 52-yard field goal, trusting a kicker whose career-long is 47 yards. He missed and Ohio State went into the locker room down, 14-10.

The second half was more of the same. After allowing a long drive and field goal, Ohio State had a methodical, physical 12-play, 75-yard drive that ended in a touchdown to tie it up. It was the kind of drive that should have given Ohio State confidence and struck fear into Michigan. Alas, that was it.

Michigan scored a touchdown, and Ohio State punted. Michigan kicked a field goal, and Ohio State scored a touchdown to pull it to 27-24. After another long, methodical, “We are obviously going to run it, stop us” drive from Michigan, McCord got hit as he threw the ball and it was intercepted.

Defensive Letdown

The Ohio State crossroads decision is likely going to focus on the offensive side of the ball. Heading into this game, the Buckeyes were one of the elite defenses in the country. After this game, they may still be, statistically, but they could not get the stop that they needed.

After forcing punts on each of Michigan’s first two possessions, Michigan scored on six of their seven remaining possessions (not counting the kneel-downs). The Wolverines only had the ball nine times and came away with 30 points.

For a rebuilt, elite defense, this is inexcusable. The offense was able to claw back and bail out the defense to tie then pull within three. However, when it was obvious what Michigan was going to do, just like last year, the defense could not come up with a stop.

When Marvin Harrison, Jr. scored with 8:05 to go, the defense needed just one stop. Instead, Michigan built a 13-play, 56-yard drive to burn a full seven minutes off the clock.

Even if this defense is objectively better than they were last year, they did the same thing. The game fell on their shoulders in the fourth quarter while only needing one stop and they couldn’t get it done.

“For I Did Not Speak of my Own McCord”

Heading into the year, there were cautiously optimistic thoughts around McCord. Could he be anything like C.J. Stroud? Could he just be average? After 12 games, Ohio State has enough of a sample size to know what kind of quarterback McCord is.

In this game, McCord made some spectacular throws. Most notably, he had a perfectly-placed back-shoulder pass to Harrison that might have even taken the talented receiver by surprise.

On the other side, McCord had a number of misses. He missed wide-open receivers, put the ball in harm’s way too often, and put Egbuka on a Michigan recruiting poster for years to come with a hospital ball.

On the final drive of the game, McCord had the opportunity to take advantage of recency bias and make everyone forget about his struggles. Admittedly, after his first incompletion on a Cade Stover drop, he made two great throws to get the Buckeyes to Michigan’s 37-yard-line. Then, he was hit as Donovan Jackson, his left guard, was bullied back to his junior high days and let Jaylen Harrell get a free shot off of a stunt.

For a program that has CFP National Championship aspirations every year, McCord was not going to be the one to lead them to greatness. It could be argued that an elite supporting cast carried him.

Perhaps the most jarring stat, Harrison finished with 1,211 yards and 14 touchdowns on the year. He nearly replicated his performance from 2022 with a significant downgrade at quarterback.

Not So Special Teams

For a team with a full-time Special Team Coordinator who makes half a million dollars, Ohio State’s special teams continue to disappoint.

The missed field goal is not on Parker Fleming, let’s get that out of the way. Jayden Fielding, the kicker who missed it, made his warm-up kick and had enough leg but the blame lies with Day and his conservative approach.

No, the ire is with the punt team. Jesse Mirco has not been great this year, as a whole. The first two punts for Ohio State traveled 34 yards and 33 yards. He added another punt later in the game for 43 yards to pull his average up to 36.7. That’s not going to get it done.

All three of those punts went into the wind from the North end to the South end of the stadium, so perhaps that has something to do with it. Well, Michigan’s Tommy Doman hit a 49-yard punt in the same direction that was downed at the two-yard line. Coincidentally, that was his last punt of the game.

Ohio State’s special teams over the last three years have been less-than-ideal. After an era of Urban Meyer-led special teams where he took the unit very seriously, it’s been a stark letdown. While it may not be as paramount, Ohio State is at a crossroads when it comes to the special teams.

New Day, Same Day

“Fire Ryan Day” is trending on just about every popular social media site. You can’t go five minutes without someone comparing him to John Cooper, the infamous Ohio State coach of the 1990s who had multiple National Championship-worthy teams derailed by losses to Michigan.

The issue with this sentiment is you finally fire one of the best coaches in the nation by winner percentage, who takes his spot? Mike Vrabel does not want to coach college. Urban Meyer? Why would Ohio State re-welcome that circus as great of a college coach as he was? Luke Fickell is committed to building Wisconsin.

The most common response seen is Brian Hartline. Is Ohio State going to give the job to an Offensive Coordinator in name only? Despite Day saying that he would give up playcalling after the Georgia loss, he retook them over right before the season kicked off. Hartline likely has a bright future and can recruit and develop elite receivers better than any. To say he should be handed the keys without calling a single play is a tad short-sided and prisoner-of-the-moment.

Day is not going anywhere.

Seeing the Forest But Not the Trees

Now, that’s not to say he is infallible. Day cannot lose three straight to Michigan after two decades of dominance. He is quoted as saying winning Rose Bowls is not the goal, National Titles are. He has a fantastic “big picture” view of the game and has built his program to win National Championships.

However, he does not understand the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. That deep-seated, carnal, tribalistic hatred for Michigan does not exist within Day as it did within Meyer. This offseason, whenever it starts, Day should be locked in a room with full-game replays from the last three years against Michigan Clockwork Orange style until he gets it.

“We all know what this game means to so many people,” he says after the loss. No “us”, just “many people.”

Day is unequivocally a great coach and recruiter. He had a great game plan for this game that was just not executed at the quarterback position. He had a few bad calls, like that fourth-down situation at the end of the first half. But if a Day firing is on Ohio State’s Christmas wish list, they had better hire someone that takes them on a Nick Saban-type of run. Or else they risk falling off like Nebraska after firing Frank Solich. Solich also succeeded a National Championship-winning legend, for what it’s worth.

Now What?

At 11-1, Ohio State is not dead when it comes to the College Football Playoff. Realistically, if Georgia, Michigan, and Washington all win with Texas and/or Florida State losing, Ohio State can sneak in.

It all depends on the CFP Committee rankings heading into the Conference Championship weekend, of course. The committee had Ohio State at number one for a few weeks and had them neck-and-neck with Michigan. A six-point loss on the road in a game where they were, objectively, never out of it is not a death knell.

It’s going to be another conversation of “best” vs. “most deserving” and Ohio State is right in the thick of it. Do they deserve a shot? That’s for the committee to decide.

 

Ohio State Crossroads
Photo courtesy: Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

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