Ohio State has already accomplished its first goal of the season, but the Buckeyes still have many bigger goals in front of them.
In his preparation for his first season as Ohio State’s head coach, Ryan Day looked ahead to this season as a series of three segments, and the first – the six games the Buckeyes played to start the season before their first bye week this week – is now complete. Considering that the Buckeyes won all six of those games by at least 24 points, the first chunk of the season couldn’t have gone much better.
“It's great to be 6-0,” Day said Tuesday. “It's something we talked to the team about, and the first goal was to get 6-0, and here we are.”
Now, the Buckeyes are entering their second segment of the season – a road game at Northwestern next Friday and a highly anticipated home game against Wisconsin before another bye week – with plenty of confidence and reason to feel good about what they’ve accomplished already.
“It’s good to know that everything that we're working on is paying off, because there's been a lot of hard work that’s been put in here,” Day said. “There’s been a lot of hours that have been put in here physically, emotionally, mentally, meetings, lifts, workouts. I mean, there's so many of those things that have happened. So to see that pay off is great.”
The Buckeyes know they can’t simply be satisfied with how they’ve played so far, though, if they want to achieve their bigger goals like winning a Big Ten championship, making the College Football Playoff and competing for a national championship.
At the midpoint of its regular season, Ohio State has played as well as any team in college football, but Day said the Buckeyes “all know that that doesn't mean anything if you don't win the next one.”
“We haven't proven anything yet, just that we have the capability to do well, but we're just halfway through the season and we've got a long way to go,” Day said. “So making sure that we have something to prove every single day we step on the practice field and on the game field is important.”
That’s perhaps especially important this week, as the Buckeyes look to sustain the momentum they’ve built up through the first six weeks of the season even though they don’t have a game to play.
Ohio State offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Kevin Wilson acknowledged that can be a challenge, but he believes the Buckeyes have the focus they need to understand the importance of continuing to work hard.
“We can take the foot off the accelerator and lose momentum, which happens a lot in open dates. You can also overpractice as a coach or as a player and push too hard. So there’s a balance,” Wilson said. “I think the kids that have maturity and the coaches that can see the big picture and have the maturity, can find that balance where you get the team fresh, but we can also be fresh and stale, we don’t want that. There’s a fine line there. So I think it’ll be interesting as we go through this week. And of course the key is when we crank back up on Sunday and get back into the flow for those next two games.”
Ohio State’s players will get three days off on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and thanks to the timing of the university’s fall break, they’ll have the opportunity to go home to their families should they choose to do so.
After a six-week stretch of games that included a particularly physical game against Michigan State on Saturday, Ohio State’s coaches recognize the importance of giving their players some rest and recovery time this week.
“We're a little battered, but that's what happens, six weeks in and after you play a game like we did against Michigan State,” Day said. “We're trying to get those guys healthy the best we can and be smart about it.”
Some of the Buckeyes’ most important players got banged up during Saturday night’s game.
Damon Arnette suffered an apparent wrist injury. Chase Young bruised his shoulder. Thayer Munford limped off the field in the first quarter before returning to the game. Jordan Fuller limped off the field after his fourth-quarter interception and did not return to the game. Justin Fields was slow to get up after his fourth-quarter rushing touchdown. So they can certainly benefit from having some time to heal up this week.
“This is definitely the most banged up I've been after a game, so I'm definitely glad we have a bye week next week,” Fields said after Saturday’s game. “So I think we're just going to just get in the training room, just get our bodies back right and just get ready for the next game.”
The Buckeyes are doing some game planning and preparation for next week’s game at Northwestern this week; they have to, given that Northwestern also has a bye this week and next week’s game will be played one day earlier than usual. Day said the extra week of preparation also gives the Buckeyes the opportunity to toss around different ideas and experiment with potential new wrinkles they could add to their game plan.
“You get to try some things, throw it out, work through it, a little bit more time to prepare, and that's always good,” Day said.
That said, the Buckeyes are also using the bye week as a time for self-evaluation. Day said the coaches have been giving every player “tangible things” to work on – whether those be on the field, off the field or academically – to make sure they know what they can do to get better.
“We're really taking a hard look to see what are some things we've done well in these first six weeks and what are some things that we need to improve on,” Day said. “We’re focusing on that this week.”
“we're just halfway through the season and we've got a long way to go. So making sure that we have something to prove every single day we step on the practice field and on the game field is important.”– Ryan Day
As the Buckeyes go through that self-evaluation process, Day likes a lot of what he sees, especially what he’s seen from Fields in his first six games as Ohio State’s starting quarterback. But he knows it’s way too early for his team to peak now.
“I think our chemistry has been really good the first six games,” Day said. “I think we have played with toughness. Seeing guys tackle, run to the ball, the way guys are running the ball, the way we're blocking on the line of scrimmage. Shoot, the way the quarterback’s playing. I think the quarterback's tough. I watch the way he takes shots and he stands in there. And I think our team is getting a little bit of that identity.
“Now we have to keep that going. We have to keep building. And really, that game on Saturday night was the first time we played 60 minutes. We had to get that thing into the second half, and go win the game in the second half. So that's going to be the challenge moving forward. I think higher-end execution just in all phases is going to be critical. When you kind of play the way we did in the first five games where it gets a little lopsided, you're talking 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids, when you play a team like Michigan State and you get some of that real resistance right there and some back-and-forth, you can get their attention and how important execution’s going to be and the details.”
After practicing for the final time this week on Wednesday, the Buckeyes will return to the practice fields on Sunday and continue to practice in Columbus through Thursday, when they will travel to Evanston, Illinois, for the Friday night game at Northwestern, which is scheduled for an 8:30 p.m. kickoff and will be televised on FS1.