INDIANAPOLIS – Coaches typically don’t admit to in-game anxiety. Oftentimes, they just choose not to display that emotion, even though everybody feels it at times.
Ryan Day, though, acknowledged he had some worry during halftime of Ohio State’s 34-21 win against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship on Saturday.
“Was I nervous? Yeah, I was a little nervous, yeah,” Day said.
After two quarters, the Buckeyes trailed 21-7, the largest deficit they’ve faced this season. The Badgers had just punched in a touchdown 10 seconds before the first half ended, further demoralizing an already reeling Ohio State team that had faced shockingly minimal adversity throughout a regular season that featured 12 victories with double-digit win margins in a row.
Ohio State needed somebody to make a play. That somebody turned out to be Jeremy Ruckert, who came through with a photogenic, one-handed, 16-yard touchdown reception less than two minutes into the third quarter to spark a rally that led to the victory.
Were never going to stop watching this.— Eleven Warriors (@11W) December 8, 2019
Jeremy Ruckert. Insanity. pic.twitter.com/KCTw5oKtU4
But given his 12 catches for 120 yards and three touchdowns before Saturday’s game, an average of one catch per game, Ruckert’s name likely didn’t top the list of most people wondering who’d come through when the Buckeyes needed something from somebody. Day, though, had been waiting to call the play that led to Ruckert’s touchdown, having seen an opening in Wisconsin’s sturdy defense for the sophomore tight end in the middle down the field.
“Coach Day drew it up earlier in the week and I didn't know when he was going to call it,” Ruckert said in the locker room after the win. “We had an opportunity to make a play and a big one, because he doesn't really call too many bad plays out there, so we know if he's going to call it, it's got a chance to be successful.”
To ensure the success of Day’s brainchild, Ruckert spent more time than usual working on that single play.
The team repped it during practices throughout the week, and then he perfected it while working with offensive graduate assistant Trey Holtz after the team’s practices on Tuesday and Wednesday. Ruckert says he didn’t have to make any one-handed snags during those sessions, but everything else went as expected.
“We don't do anything by accident,” Ruckert said. “I just wanted to do it just how we drew it up and just how he wanted it. I knew Justin (Fields) was going to do it just how he drew it up and just how he wanted it. I knew Justin was going to give me the ball and I could go up and make a play for him. That was pretty much just trying to execute what coach Day put in the playbook.”
That play, a 2nd-and-4 situation from the 16-yard line, Ruckert lined up in a two-point stance outside of fellow tight end Luke Farrell.
As Farrell ran a seam route down the right side of the field, Ruckert broke sharply to the left, appearing begin a crossing route across the middle of the field. Instead, he turned upfield and found himself behind the only defender in his vicinity. Ruckert turned to anticipate the pass, but Fields had thrown the ball a bit higher than he hoped. Pushing off his left foot, he leapt into the air and grabbed the pass out of the air with his right palm, putting his right foot down to secure a much-needed touchdown.
“I stayed out after practice Tuesday, making sure I ran the route right and how I wanted it and to give myself a chance to make it in a game,” Ruckert said. “I think I did that, we did that.”
That’s the type of play many expected to see from Ruckert with semi-regularity when he signed with Ohio State in 2018.
The New York native was ranked No. 37 overall in his recruiting class, taking the No. 2 spot among tight ends. He earned such a high ranking almost exclusively because talent evaluators viewed him as an exceptionally gifted receiver. As a Buckeye, Ruckert’s opportunities through the air have been limited as he has worked to improve as a blocker. The questions of whether Ohio State will involve tight ends in its aerial attack more often continue to persist and have never showed signs of going away.
On Saturday, though, Ruckert made the type of play those watching have been waiting for from him. Inarguably, it was his most impactful catch yet as a Buckeye.
“It was definitely a great feeling for the team in general,” Ruckert said. “You just want to help the team in any way you can. To do it like that, it's very special.”