Ohio State football: Buckeyes still searching for their best selves after big win

Ohio State football coach Ryan Day accentuated the positive after his team outlasted Indiana to improve to 4-0 Saturday.

The third-ranked Buckeyes’ 42-35 win over the the No. 9 Hoosiers was not a thing of beauty, but it was a win.

In any year, that is pretty much all that matters — as more than a dozen Ohio State teams that fell just short of the ultimate goal can attest. Perhaps in this season that almost did not even happen, it is even more so.

No game is guaranteed as COVID-19 continues to affect college football programs and everyday Americans alike, a lesson that hit home just last week when Ohio State was left sitting at home with no contest because of a rise in positive cases at Maryland.

No game is quite normal, either. The Buckeyes played their first three in front of intimate crowds composed of family and close friends. Even those groups were not allowed in the stadium Saturday, and the emptiness of the arena has a potential to impact the play on the field in a game where emotion is often a part of the action as much as blocking and tackling.

And yet there is some normalcy to the 2020 season for Ohio State because every game has turned out to be at least in some form a referendum on the Buckeyes’ College Football Playoff hopes.

With every bomb from Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr., Ohio State’s claims to be one of the best teams in the country took a hit, but then the Buckeyes would strike back with a precision pass from Justin Fields or a big run by Master Teague III.

When all was said and done, Indiana coach Tom Allen was left to lament missed opportunities and admit his program still has work to do to reach Ohio State’s level.

“They are substantially elevated level of play compared to the other teams we have played so far in so many different ways, but for our guys to be able to put ourselves in that position,” Allen said. “Obviously give them credit for making plays, but we continued to battle to the very, very end.”

At roughly the same time in the southeast tower of the stadium, Day was doing what he has done every week of the season so far — pointing out positives and acknowledging negatives in hopes of continuing to push his team forward without weighing it down with expectations and negativity.

“There were a lot of things in this game that were unbelievable,” Day said. “I thought the start of the game was just ridiculous. The energy that we came out with was as good as I’ve seen. We came out and we really dominated, but then we let up some big plays. We’ve got to figure out a way to close out games. This is the second week we’ve allowed a team to hang around a little bit, and we’ve got to get that fixed, but there were so many great things in this game. Indiana is a top 10 team so this was not easy, and I’m really proud of this team.”

Shaun Wade’s interception return for a touchdown was a big play for the Buckeyes, but they still allowed touchdowns on four of Indiana’s eight second half possessions. Another ended with a fumble in the red zone.

Indiana’s 10 plays of 15 yards more stick out, as does Ohio State’s inconsistent ability to pressure Penix.

The live-armed lefty was under more duress at the end of the game when throwing was the only option, but at the end of the day he had been sacked just twice in 54 drop-backs.

“I think we could do a better job probably,” nose tackle Tommy Togiai said. “I know we were still getting pressure on him even though he was still throwing it up and getting completed passes. I know we could maybe try to do a better job of just getting there faster, but the last couple of drives we were getting after him a little bit, so I think we need to try to replicate that.”

Day ultimately returned to the theme of most of his press conferences in this truncated season: Ohio State is good but needs to get better.

“We gave up 491 yards passing, which is way too much,” Day said. “If we could stop the big plays, we would be in pretty good shape.

“I’m not pleased. I’m a long way from being pleased. We’ve got a ways to go. We’ve played four games and it’s almost Thanksgiving. It’s just very bizarre. You have an environment like this with no fans and it’s a different dynamic. That’s why we’ve seen so many strange things (across college football) this year.

“I’m not making excuses. I’m just calling it what it is.”

Day, who called the Buckeyes a potentially “once-in-a-lifetime team” prior to the season, said personnel, scheme and coaching methods would all be evaluated Sunday when the staff reviewed the win over Indiana and started looking ahead to this week’s game at Illinois.

“If you tighten up all three of those areas, usually you see improvement,” Day said.

Defensively, Ohio State has had to rely on a number of new faces following the loss of standouts such as Chase Young, Jeffrey Okudah and Jordan Fuller to the NFL, but Day expressed confidence in the players who have gotten the opportunity to replace them.

“At the end of the day, you have to put the best players on the field to make plays,” Day said. “We believe in our guys. We have confidence in our guys, so I’ll be very surprised if we have to make any changes, but maybe we will. We have to watch the film and see because almost 500 yards of offense in terms of passing is too much, and that’s just not acceptable.”


Ohio State at Illinois, TBA

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