Nearly one year ago, Ryan Day sat at the Longaberger Alumni House, just a one-mile drive away from the stadium in which he spent Saturday afternoon, and told everyone staring at the newly named Ohio State head coach to “expect a team that's going to be tough.”
He then spent the entire offseason, preseason and first couple months of the season repeating the word “toughness.” He viewed that as the identity Ohio State needs this season to reach its potential. A tough, physical group that needs to maximize its talent.
Yet in the first 10 games of the season – all of which ended in victories of 24 or more points – the Buckeyes didn't have to show much toughness. Rather than a tough team, Day looked like he had an uber-talented team that had clearly bought into the coaching staff’s philosophies. Rather than grit, almost unheard-of dominance became Ohio State’s identity.
Finally, in a 28-17 win against Penn State on Saturday, the Buckeyes looked human – at least, more human than they’ve looked the past couple months.
“I said it to one of the coaches, maybe it's been a little too easy at times,” Day said on Saturday. “This was hard today.”
The Buckeyes dominated the box score in every statistical category other than one – turnovers – which sent them careening toward a near-momentous collapse in the second half.
The Nittany Lions followed up a touchdown in their opening drive of the second half, which closed their deficit to 21-7, by recovering a fumble from J.K. Dobbins at Ohio State’s 12-yard line. Two plays later, they scored a touchdown to pull within seven points. On the fourth play of the Buckeyes’ ensuing drive, Justin Fields fumbled, coughing up the ball at his team’s 35-yard line. Ohio State’s defense held steady, with Jashon Cornell and Chase Young combining for a sack on third down to force a fumble.
Unexpectedly, Ohio State found itself with just a four-point lead late in the third quarter.
“There was a point in the game there where we were taking shots,” Day said. “And brought the team together and offense and defense together. Typically you don't have an opportunity to do that in the game. It was a timeout on the field. I think it was to review the fumble, yeah. And I said, we talked about going into a big, heavyweight match and you're going to take shots. And one of the things about playing in a game like this is you have to be willing to take punches and you have to not flinch when it happens.”
After a punt from each team, the reeling Buckeyes got off the ropes and delivered a punch of their own just in time.
Early in the fourth quarter, Justin Fields found Chris Olave in the end zone for a much-needed 28-yard touchdown pass to give his team an 11-point lead. The Nittany Lions responded by driving 48 yards down the field, all the way to Ohio State’s 27-yard line, before Justin Hilliard made the most impactful play of his career to quell the momentum by picking off a pass with 10:16 remaining.
“That was the first time we really were taking shots there, 14 straight points, and I'm not proud of that because we literally gave it to them,” Day said. “We handed them the ball. And we're going to get that fixed. But then to see the response of everybody involved, see the guys make some big plays, the big catch by Olave on offense. But then just to see the defense impose their will, it was unbelievable to see their response. And that was the first time that I really felt – it was a little bit in the Wisconsin game – but that we reeling right there, and we had to respond. And our backs were up against the wall, and we did.
“So to win a game like that that was not clean shows the toughness that we have, because you walk out of that game thinking, ‘Oh, we probably could have won a lot bigger than that.’”
Saturday’s game served as a reminder to Ohio State as much as anybody else that if the circumstances are right, the Buckeyes – like every other team – can lose. It’s possible.
They opened the fourth quarter with just a four-point lead on a team that it had thoroughly dominated throughout the majority of the game. Two lost fumbles in the second half, a lost fumble from Fields at the 1-yard line in the first half and a potential scoring drive sidelined by a holding penalty on Thayer Munford, followed by a sack from Yetur Gross-Matos, turned what could have been an 11th blowout in a row into a one-score game in the fourth quarter.
A more talented, better-coached team than Penn State – such as the ones Ohio State could match up against in the College Football Playoff – would likely beat the Buckeyes, should that amount of errors crop up once again.
On Saturday, though, the Buckeyes overcame a season-worst minus-two turnover margin and showcased plenty of the same aspects that led to their 10 straight beatdowns to beat the nation’s eighth-ranked team by double digits. As Jeff Hafley said, the game “probably could’ve went in a different direction.”
“I feel like it just showed us what we could've did to that team if we didn't have those three fumbles,” K.J. Hill said.
In a matchup that Day called “talent-equated” earlier in the week, the Buckeyes were clearly the better team. They held advantages in total yards (417-227), first downs (27-15), third-down conversion percentage (53.8-40), fourth-down conversion percentage (66.6-0) and time of possession (34:15-25:45).
“We have blown most people's doors off for the season, but I think we could have today,” Myers said. “I think we were capable of that. And we shot ourselves in the foot and got us in the ballgame. That was tighter than it probably should have been, which it is what it is. Truth be told, in the long run, it's probably a good thing that it happened, to be honest. Because later on, it'll be beneficial for us that we've been in that stressful situation before.”
With a face-off with Michigan, a Big Ten title game and a likely College Football Playoff berth on the horizon, Ohio State's end-of-year run could be much more similar to Saturday's game than the first 10 games of the season.
Day, who has preached toughness in tight moments for months, has been preparing for those times, and with such a talented bunch, he's been given plenty of leeway. He just needs to figure out how to get his team to avoid the self-inflicted mistakes than proved nearly catastrophic on Saturday.