Ohio State’s Ryan Day and the pressure to reclaim Michigan rivalry

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A box of Yogi Stress Relief tea sat on Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ desk, where he watched film repeatedly this offseason to analyze defensive breakdowns in losses to Michigan and Georgia.

The pressure here, he conceded with a smile, is a little different than anywhere else he’s ever coached over the past three decades.

“You can’t lose a game,” he said following his first season with the Buckeyes, an 11-2 finish that included a College Football Playoff semifinal appearance. “You can’t lose a game.”

Especially The Game. Twice.

Roles have reversed in the Big Ten, in which Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was lambasted in 2019 after dropping to 0-5 in one of the sport’s most iconic rivalries following an embarrassing 56-27 home loss to Ohio State. Buckeyes coach Ryan Day hasn’t defeated Harbaugh since — leaving two giant ink stains on Day’s Big Ten record that’s an otherwise spotless 32-0, including conference championship games. Not only has Michigan won the Big Ten each of the past two seasons, but the Wolverines have also encroached on Ohio State’s national spotlight, finishing in the top four in each of the past two seasons and reaching a new level under Harbaugh.

Ohio State is hardly in crisis mode — the Buckeyes enter this season with what should again be one of the most prolific offenses in the country and legitimate CFP aspirations — but the layers of NFL draft talent on the two-deep have yet to translate into a national title for Day. Back-to-back losses to Michigan have only compounded the scrutiny as Day enters his fifth season leading one of the wealthiest and most visible programs in the country.

“The expectation here every year is the same,” said Day, who is 1-3 in CFP semifinals. “Win the rivalry game, win the Big Ten and win the national championship. We fight like heck to do that and we’re right there. You can feel it, you can taste it, and that’s motivated the guys this offseason. When you get that close and you don’t get there, you didn’t get it done. And it certainly does motivate.”

And now he’s trying to do it without the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft, quarterback C.J. Stroud.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith has given no indication Day’s job is in jeopardy (“He’s my CEO,” Smith said in April), but the head coach is well aware the program hasn’t met its own expectations, particularly in the past two seasons. If Day loses to Harbaugh again, it will be the first time since 1995-97 that Ohio State lost three straight to Michigan. The goal, though, is consistently larger, and the Buckeyes haven’t won the national title since the 2014 season with Urban Meyer.

Day has made multiple hires to boost the brainpower in the building, has considered relinquishing playcalling duties, and had honest discussions with Knowles about how the defense can improve this fall.

“When you lose,” Day said, “there’s damage control.”

THE UNCANNY AND improbable timing of Ohio State’s missed field goal against Georgia in the CFP semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl might have etched its place in college football history.

As midnight approached on the East Coast and the New Year’s Eve clock in Times Square ticked down the final seconds until 2023, Ohio State kicker Noah Ruggles’ 50-yard game-winning attempt simultaneously sailed wide left as the iconic ball dropped and celebrations erupted everywhere. Everywhere but Buckeye Country.

The No. 4 Buckeyes lost 42-41 to the eventual national champions in what was the most entertaining game of last year’s CFP. It never comes down to one play, but that’s how close Ohio State was to playing TCU for the national title, and with all due respect to the Frogs, probably winning it. It’s a narrow twist of fate and football that changed the entire narrative and exacerbated the losses to Michigan.

“We don’t have a choice,” Day said of winning a national title. “The expectation is that you do. The rivalry game is obviously very important, and when you look at those games, and you see the single plays that really cost us the game, when you’re talking about on defense giving up explosive plays, that’s very important, that’s how games can go sideways. We have to identify that and get that fixed. That hurt us in the Georgia game as well.”

Which is why Knowles was back at his desk this spring, zeroing in on 16 plays of at least 20 yards that changed Ohio State’s season (six against Michigan and 10 against Georgia). Plays such as Donovan Edwards’ two runs of more than 75 yards in the fourth quarter for Michigan or Stetson Bennett’s 76-yard pass to Arian Smith in the final quarter for Georgia. It was the most plays of at least 20 yards Ohio State has allowed in any two-game span since 2004, and the 10 in the Georgia loss was the most the Buckeyes have allowed in any game dating back to 2004, when ESPN’s Stats & Information began tracking the data.

“We had some matchup issues, which I blame myself,” Knowles said. “Got put into positions where the matchup was not in our favor. That’s my job to fix that and look out for that. We had some times where we lost our eyes and we didn’t execute. I call it eye violations. When the moments get big, our vision has to get smaller and more condensed. At times we had guys who were doing too much and not focused on their assignment. That goes back to me. Nobody wants to make the critical mistake, they don’t want to give up the critical play. That’s not how our guys are built. So then I have to look at my teaching and the environment.”

The environment features one of the most prolific offenses in the country at every practice. Knowles said he talks to his players about going against “the best receiver in the country” in Marvin Harrison Jr., who caught 77 passes for 1,263 yards and 14 touchdowns as a sophomore and is a projected first-round NFL draft pick.

“I went through it at Oklahoma State,” said Knowles, who was hired from the Cowboys following the 2021 season. “When you go into a place where the offense is just fantastic and off the charts, I feel like the defense, particularly in the back end, gets used to not winning in practice. I think it is a tough habit to break.

“It’s not OK to lose to Marvin,” he said. “That’s who we have to beat if we’re going to win the national championship, so we’re learning to compete against our offense and doing our fair share of winning.”

Winning was all Ohio State did last fall through its first 11 games, when Ohio State’s defense allowed an average of 16.9 points, compared to 43.5 against Michigan and Georgia. The Buckeyes held their first 11 opponents to 4.5 yards per play, while the last two averaged 8.9.

“You have to be willing to change if necessary,” Knowles said. “That’s part of growth. You have to be restless, uncomfortable. Nothing is nonnegotiable with me. I’ve worked my way to get here. I’m not going to fall on the sword and say, ‘This is the way we do it.’ No, look at everything. Break it down. It doesn’t matter if I’ve done it for 20 years. If something doesn’t work in those crucial situations, then I really need to look at myself.”

The problem went deeper than a few big plays, particularly against the Wolverines, who plowed their way to 252 rushing yards and 7.2 yards per carry. Michigan’s Edwards had nine carries for 170 yards and two touchdowns — in the fourth quarter — and 114 of those yards came before contact. It was the second straight year the Wolverines outgained and outmuscled Ohio State up front, as they ran for 297 yards to Ohio State’s 64 in 2021.

The disparity prompted former Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis to question the Buckeyes’ toughness two days after the 2021 game.

“They’re a finesse team; they’re not a tough team,” Gattis said at the time, according to the Detroit News. “And we knew that going into the game that we can out-physical them, we can out-tough and that was gonna be the key to the game, and that’s what we prepared for all year long.”

Former Buckeyes’ star James Laurinaitis joined the program in January as a graduate assistant working with the defense, and Day hired former Nebraska assistant Mike Dawson as a defensive analyst. Day said the defensive staff is a “very veteran group,” but at the end of the day, “I’m the head coach, and I’ve got to make sure that it’s the way that we want it.”

Ohio State returns its leading tackler from last season, linebacker Tommy Eichenberg, along with defensive tackle Michael Hall Jr., who tied for the team lead in sacks last season. Defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau, who enters his junior season with 15 tackles for loss and six sacks, should be one of the best linemen in the country. Tuimoloau, who was the No. 5 player in the 2021 ESPN 300, had one of the best performances ever by an Ohio State defensive lineman in the Buckeyes’ 44-31 win at Penn State last season. He had a career-high six tackles, three TFLs, including two sacks, two interceptions, one pass breakup, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He helped Ohio State force four takeaways that directly led to 21 points, capped by Tuimoloau’s fourth-quarter pick-six to seal the win. Tuimoloau said the defense trusts in Knowles, and the Buckeyes are motivated to be better this fall.

“We’ve got to continue to grow in all aspects of the game,” Tuimoloau said, “Go to our offense, ask them questions. They coach us, we coach them, just continue to drive each other to be the team we know we should be.”

Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord, who is competing with Devin Brown for the starting job, said the Buckeyes will be “a very tough team” this fall.

“I think that everybody feels like we have something to prove,” he said. “After last year, how close we were, I think we still have a little bit of a sour taste in our mouth, so we’re coming out motivated.”

ASIDE FROM GETTING the extra push up front, Ohio State’s offense hasn’t been a problem. In fact, it’s been one of the best in the country. Since Day joined Ohio State’s staff as co-offensive coordinator in 2017, the Buckeyes are the only FBS team to average 40 points per game in each of those six seasons. In spite of that success, Day has tinkered with the idea of handing over the playcalling duties to recently promoted offensive coordinator Brian Hartline, who also coaches the receivers, and Hartline called plays during the spring game.

Day also hired former NFL head coach Joe Philbin as an offensive analyst, and even with a new starting quarterback and three new starting offensive linemen this fall, the Buckeyes should find ways to generate eye-popping statistics. Including Harrison, Ohio State returns 10 of the 11 players who had at least 100 yards from scrimmage last year, with Stroud being the lone exception.

“I always say if you play quarterback here, you have the keys to the Ferrari,” McCord said. “… The list goes on and on of talent I have around me, and it definitely helps. Whether you’re with the ones or the twos this spring getting reps, there are future NFL receivers around you. If you don’t throw a perfect ball, they’ll still go up and get it for you.”

Harrison was one of the Buckeyes’ highlights in the losses, as he snagged seven catches for 120 yards and one touchdown against Michigan and had five receptions for 106 yards and two touchdowns against Georgia before leaving the game in the third quarter under the concussion protocol — yet another controversial game-changing play that wasn’t flagged for targeting.

“Not being able to play the fourth quarter and seeing your team struggle offensively, definitely tough,” Harrison said. “We’re one play away — a couple plays away — from it being a completely different outcome.”

Ohio State didn’t have to beat Michigan last season to earn the selection committee’s No. 4 spot and its shot against Georgia. The season-opening win against Notre Dame coupled with the Oct. 29 road win at Penn State — plus an elite offense that scored at least 40 points in all but two wins — was enough.

It could be again.

Ohio State has a similar schedule, including a Sept. 23 trip to Notre Dame. If the Buckeyes can beat the Irish on their home turf, and Notre Dame finishes as a top-25 CFP team, that win will again boost Ohio State’s résumé through Selection Day. If the Buckeyes finish with one loss or better, they would likely be considered for a semifinal, and all but guaranteed a spot with a Big Ten title.

Day said the pressure he feels now is no different than his first day on the job, when he took over for Urban Meyer. It’s been the same, he said, for the previous coaches who came before him, from Woody Hayes to Meyer and everyone in between.

Hayes won five national titles, elevating the program to unprecedented heights. In seven seasons as head coach of Ohio State, Meyer won one national title — but he never lost to Michigan (7-0). Jim Tressel won the national title in his second season and went 9-1 against Michigan. John Cooper was 2-10-1 against Michigan. He was fired, but any comparisons between Day and Cooper are unfair and frankly unreasonable. Cooper was fired following concerns about discipline, competitiveness and academics.

The only common thread is the expectation to beat Michigan.

“It’s more than just a football game,” McCord said. “It’s something you live 365 days a year if you come here. It was a surprise when we lost to them my freshman year, and I think it woke a lot of people up. Last year we were confident going into the game. I think we had a good game plan. We knew what we wanted to do in terms of offensive scheme and where we wanted to attack them on defense. To come up short again really makes you take a step back and say, ‘We’ve got to change our approach and some of the things we’re doing.’

“I think everybody had a clear vision of what it’s going to take to win, because obviously the last two years we haven’t done enough to do that,” he said. “I can say with confidence, I think that’s the No. 1 goal in every person’s mind in the building every single day we walk in is to beat them.”

Which is why it’s magnified when they don’t.

Emma Bowman

Emma Bowman is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Emma Bowman joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing emma@ustimespost.com.

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