Ohio State football: ‘Competitive stamina’ focus as another season dawns

INDIANAPOLIS -- Every college football season tends to have a theme.

Coaches love to tag a campaign with a buzzword or a catchy phrase, something to refer to when the days get hot and seem to drag on forever. A reminder the work might be hard, but it is necessary for a team to get where it wants to go at the end of the season.

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For Ryan Day, that term this year is “competitive stamina.”

It’s a slight twist on one he’s used in the past — competitive excellence.

To a certain extent, the “excellence” part, which was meant to encourage the Buckeyes to compete against themselves to be the best and maximize performance regardless of the opponent, was achieved last year.

Quarterback C.J. Stroud, running back TreVeyon Henderson and receivers Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Chris Olave all broke records as the Buckeyes went 11-2 last season and won the Rose Bowl.

Olave graduated, but the other three are back along with many notable players from a team that was good — but not good enough by recent Scarlet and Gray standards.

“Talking with C.J., I mean, it feels like I haven’t really won anything, honestly, and we’re looking to change that,” Smith-Njigba said Wednesday at Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis. “That’s not the standard that was put there before us.”

After avoiding a potential landmine game at Minnesota to open last season, the Buckeyes lost 35-28 at home to an Oregon team ranked No. 12 but missing a pair of key defensive players.

Ohio State won its next nine, including a nine-point win over No. 20 Penn State and blowouts of No. 19 Purdue and No. 7 Michigan State.

As it so often has over the past few decades, though, everything came down to the Michigan game. And unlike the past few years, the Wolverines won.

Not only that, the physical nature of Michigan’s 42-27 victory left the Buckeyes not only beaten but battered and bruised both physically and mentally.

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Day was happy to see his team recover to beat eleventh-ranked Utah in come-from-behind fashion in the Rose Bowl a few weeks later, but the fact remains the 2022 Rose Bowl trophy has no companions in the case from last season.

In the final assessment, Day saw a season with plenty of accomplishments even if it wasn’t as many as his team has been used to, but why?

The reason, he concluded, was inconsistency.

“Every time you play, every time you put it on the field, that’s what’s at stake, and you have to make sure you understand that and you’ve gotta show up every week,” Day said. “I think that’s the thing that we focused on this year as competitive stamina — being able to bring it week in and week out and play our best football at the end of the season.

“Because when you think about it, towards the end of the season there we had a really good game against Purdue and a top 10 team in Michigan State. We played really well, but then we didn’t play well in the last game. And so that’s not acceptable.”

On the bright side, the Buckeyes saw the difference between what it takes to be good and what it takes to be great.

“I think the guys now had a little bit more of some perspective on that as they headed into the offseason, which I think has been really, really good for them,” Day said. “Now as they head into the preseason, I think we have to have a really good preseason because Notre Dame shows up in the first game of the year, and so we got to be tough, we got to be physical and have really good leadership.”

Two groups figure to be under the most scrutiny over the next month as the Buckeyes prepare for a visit from the Fighting Irish: The offensive line and the defense.

Like the team as a whole, both had their high and low moments last season.

The line paved the way for some big gains and big games for Henderson but struggled at times to get push in short-yardage situations.

They were among the best pass protection units in the country, except against Oregon and Michigan. Of the 17 sacks Ohio State allowed last season, six were to the Ducks and Wolverines.

The defense had more problems but notably held Michigan State to seven points after knocking Spartans star running back Kenneth Walker III out of the game early, and the defense is undergoing a much more dramatic change via new coordinator Jim Knowles.

What’s it going to take for those units to be better not just some of the time but all of the time?

Well, to start with there’s an offshoot of time — experience.

“When we lose that second game against Oregon, they’re stressed to win every single game from there out,” Day said. “And then to play that way at the end in The Game, that was disappointing. It hurt.

“I think there were a lot of games last year that we did play (tough), but another year of experience, another year of getting strong with those guys, I think will matter.”

Smith-Njigba confirmed there is no lack of motivation for third-year players like himself who haven’t beaten Michigan yet.

“We feel like we came up short, and we got a lot of competitors on our team that love to play and want to be legends and have our name in the building forever,” the receiver said.

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