PHOENIX – Game week for Ohio State’s first College Football Playoff game in three years is officially underway.
The Buckeyes arrived at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport at approximately 2 p.m. local time Sunday to begin their week at the Fiesta Bowl, where they will face Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals for the second time in four years on Saturday at 8 p.m. at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
Dawand Jones led the Buckeyes off the plane as they arrived at the Fiesta Bowl. pic.twitter.com/OgaPUCsIQb— Dan Hope (@Dan_Hope) December 22, 2019
In a brief press conference at the airport following the team’s arrival on Sunday, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said he feels good about the team’s preparation going into this week and that he expects the Buckeyes to have just about everyone healthy for Saturday’s game.
“Our injury report coming off of last week was excellent. Everybody was practicing. After three more days of rest, we should be at full strength,” Day said. “I think our guys are going to come back today refreshed, reenergized, ready to go. We’ve got a lot of the game plan in, and then we’ve just gotta keep grinding on it. Coaches have been working at it the last couple days, and now, we've got really six days to get ready for this game, which is great.”
In the two weeks between the Big Ten Championship Game and Sunday’s trip to Arizona, Ohio State attempted to strike the best possible balance between giving the Buckeyes some rest and getting them prepared for their biggest game of the year. Ohio State held its first bowl practice on the Friday following the Big Ten title game, then practiced on four of the subsequent five days – through Wednesday of last week – before giving the players three days off to spend time with their families.
Because there are only three weeks between the conference championship game and playoff semifinals this year, Ohio State wasn’t able to give through all of its typical phases of bowl practice – which usually include time focused on developing young players and resting veterans – but Day believes the Buckeyes have used their time as wisely as they possibly could so that they are both healthy and ready going into this week.
“This was somewhere a cross between getting ready for a bowl game and a bye week … I think it's a really good plan to keep them fresh, but then also on top of their game,” Day said. “I think after a long season, especially after those three games we played down the stretch (Penn State, Michigan and the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin), these guys needed (the days off), and now they're going to come back refreshed, ready to go.”
Ohio State headed to practice as soon as it left the airport on Sunday, and the Buckeyes will now have a full week of practices just as they would leading up to a regular-season game. Beyond the practice field, they’ll be spending even more time together than they typically do during a game week, and while there will be some fun activities associated with participating in a bowl game, Day believes his team will be firmly focused on the task of beating Clemson, knowing what’s at stake on Saturday.
“It's like being on the road, for an extended period of time. That's kind of the way we've been looking at it,” Day said. “Certainly it is a bowl game, but it's a little different. This one you're playing for a lot more, and I think the guys are going to prepare that way this week.”
The Buckeyes players who met with the media on Saturday also expressed that they thought the team was prepared for the week ahead and ready to get back on the practice field.
“I think we were all excited to get back out here,” said Ohio State center Josh Myers. “We got to time to spend with our families and see them, and now it's kind of back to business.”
While Day and Myers are making their first appearance in the Fiesta Bowl – and for that matter, the College Football Playoff – the Buckeyes’ fourth- and fifth-year players, like defensive tackle DaVon Hamilton, have been in this position before. Hamilton and the other fifth-year seniors have actually been to the Fiesta Bowl, as the Buckeyes played Notre Dame in a non-playoff Fiesta Bowl to end the 2015 season.
The Buckeyes’ previous playoff game against Clemson didn’t go well, as they were shut out by the Tigers, 31-0. Hamilton said he wasn’t thinking at all about what happened last time, though, as they arrived in Arizona to get this week started.
“There's nothing really to say about the last three years. We're talking about the present now, and that's kind of all we're looking forward to,” Hamilton said. “That game, we didn't play very well, I would say. But this time around, I feel like we're going to play good.”
“Certainly it is a bowl game, but it's a little different. This one you're playing for a lot more, and I think the guys are going to prepare that way this week.”– Ryan Day on his team's mentality for this week's game
Although they did not all travel directly with the team, as players whose families live outside of Ohio and surrounding areas took their own flights to Arizona to reconvene with their teammates, an Ohio State spokesperson said all 106 players who were supposed to be with the team on Sunday were accounted for at practice, with the exception of one walk-on whose flight was delayed. Seventeen other Buckeyes, consisting of other walk-ons and players rehabilitating from long-term injuries, will join their teammates in Arizona on Thursday.