COLUMBUS -- You have to give Ryan Day credit for something: his teams looked so poorly prepared to face Michigan the past two seasons they were able to lose decisively enough they shouldn’t have to worry years from now about whether or not they missed an opportunity to win The Game.
There is no illusion about which school has the better program now.
Saturday was winner take all, and Ohio State got nothing but a long list of serious questions about where to go from here.
Day had a full year to try to get a more experienced, talented team ready to beat Michigan, and what he came up with is not entirely clear.
Injuries at running back certainly undercut the effort to avoid thrusting the whole game into C.J. Stroud’s lap again, but Buckeyes running backs still averaged more than five yards a carry as the offensive line created holes and protected Stroud well.
Of course, Michigan was without a far more important running back Saturday and found a way to score 45 points on 530 yards while averaging an Ohio State opponent record 8.8 yards per play.
All things considered (personnel, stakes), this was almost certainly the worst defensive performance in Ohio State history.
Jim Knowles may yet prove to be the guy to fix the defense in the long run, but obviously the task was too big for one year. He did himself no favors with an ill-advised all-out blitz that led to Michigan’s first touchdown, a senseless risk that gave the Wolverines life when they weren’t doing much offensively.
Meanwhile, Ohio State ultimately ended up with a Junk Food Offense for a second consecutive year: Lots of empty calories but little substance.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson declared in August that putting up lots of yards and points does not a great offense make — that’s dependent on what a team actually wins at the end of the year. If Day heard that, he forgot it by late November when he ended up calling 48 passes against Michigan, each one making the opposing defensive coordinator’s job easier than the last. It was a lot like the Oregon game last year after which Day said he had erred only to continue to make the same mistake multiple times since.
Day’s defenses have been the focal point of criticism the last three seasons -- for good reason -- but in all of the Buckeyes’ losses the offense has fallen far short of its potential. This was another one in which that unit could have dictated the terms and given Ohio State control of the game -- kind of like Jim Tressel’s did in the last version of The Game to feature two undefeated teams in 2006 -- but it failed to do so.
At least occasionally one might expect Day’s teams to win shootouts like Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma and USC teams, but the only time that has happened was the Rose Bowl when Utah had almost no healthy scholarship cornerbacks and the outcome didn’t really matter anyway.
What’s next for Ohio State?
Maybe the Buckeyes back into the College Football Playoff and use the next month to heal up and come back looking like they were supposed to all season, but hope is not a plan.
Other observations on a championship season that wasn’t and the future:
- As far as preparation, the baffling thing is the Buckeyes clearly had things in their arsenal that would work against Michigan but curiously couldn’t figure out how or when to use them with any consistency. Isn’t that what practice is for? Meanwhile, Michigan knew what it wanted to do and stuck with it despite falling behind early.
- When Day was chosen to replace Urban Meyer four years ago, I wrote it was a test of Ohio State being too big to fail. That meant in regards to everything, but I thought his biggest challenge would be continuing to recruit at Meyer’s level. With Mark Pantoni still laying the groundwork, Day has been up to that task, at least as far as rankings, but all it has gotten him is expectations he has failed to meet the last two seasons as a roster became more fully his but has multiple holes that were evident Saturday, especially the secondary.
- Maybe it’s the nature of college football these days, but somehow Meyer managed to decimate the Ohio State defensive culture. After 15 years of being mostly elite, the Silver Bullets have been more bad than good since 2012, and I still think a system like Knowles’ is better for trying to fix it than the individual star-based approach that was in place before.
- Maybe Knowles tried to do too much in year one, tried too many packages. A rarely used Dime look was burned for the second Michigan touchdown, and the vaunted Jack package was in the game for the first of Michigan’s backbreaking long runs in the fourth quarter that turned the game into an embarrassment. Knowles said when he was hired he knew he didn’t have the four years he needed to bring the Oklahoma State defense fully online and spent the spring and preseason on an accelerated installation pace. Ohio State played great team defense for a decade under Tressel and was far more successful on that side of the ball than it has been since he left town. Since then they have tried multiple things all based more on individual talents, and it’s failed more than it has worked.
- If this is the end of this particular era of the Ohio State empire, it looks a lot like the last days of Michigan’s last sustained run of success. Lloyd Carr had the glitzy national recruiting program 15 years ago, but it crumbled underneath him in the end as multiple highly rated recruiting classes didn’t pan and Ohio State passed Michigan with a more locally-based recruiting approach that included only targeted national recruiting efforts.
- Day has not backed up his early claims he would prioritize Ohio, and he seems to be trending toward the disappointing all-star team model that failed John Cooper in the 1990s and Carr in the second half of his tenure. Tressel stayed closer to home and built a program with a more solid base that was of course still supplemented heavily with national names. Tressel benefited from Carr’s program slipping but also expedited the Michigan decline on and off the field with his style of play and locking down former Michigan recruiting hotbeds like Cleveland.
- Day’s best move so far was obviously getting Justin Fields out of the transfer portal. He carried the Buckeyes for two seasons, and since then the offense has been searching for consistency. The Buckeyes nearly had to face Michigan that first season without Fields, though, as he got hit in the knee late in the game prior against Penn State. Fields was hurt dropping back to pass at a time the game was already decided. That was one of many game management foibles that have marked Day’s tenure but rarely matter since most of Ohio State games are already won on signing day and aren’t close.