Michigan State and Ohio State would have packed tens of thousands of fans into Spartan Stadium any other year for the December Big Ten showdown, yet perhaps it was for the best of East Lansing residents that spectators weren’t allowed in to see their team get whooped.
Ohio State steamrolled the Spartans on Saturday afternoon, running out to a 28-0 halftime lead before eventually winning the rout, 52-12. With their most dominant victory of the year, the Buckeyes improved to 5-0 with only one more game – at home versus Michigan – on the docket.
In the immediate aftermath of the 40-point win, head coach Ryan Day and acting head coach Larry Johnson weren’t quite ready to turn their attention to the Wolverines. Instead, they wanted to focus on their team’s performance amid adverse conditions, which included four coaches – including Day – and 17 scholarship players missing the game.
“I'd like to be quick because I think this is all about the leaders, it's all about the coaches who all stepped up in a big way,” Day said. “I can't say enough about the leaders this week and watching the leadership and watching the way these guys played. I couldn't be any prouder and happier for them, seeing guys like Justin and Wyatt, Shaun Wade step up making a huge interception, Haskell Garrett a huge play. There was just a lot of big plays that were made in that game. Watched Trey Sermon show up in a big way. It was really fun to watch.”
“A lot of things are running through my mind,” Johnson said. “The most important thing is I thought our players, the leadership of our seniors, did a great job the whole entire week just keeping everybody focused and just kind of really continuing to do what coach Day's done.”
Eight days before the game kicked off, Day tested positive for COVID-19. Co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, quarterbacks coach Corey Dennis and safeties coach Matt Barnes were also unavailable for Saturday’s contest.
Thus, the Buckeyes were without their head coach and only had seven of 10 assistants this week – including in the game – working in person with the team.
“I couldn't be prouder of a coaching staff,” Day said. “To watch Larry Johnson rally the team, Kevin Wilson this week drive the offense, Greg Studrawa with the offensive line situation, Mickey Marotti, Kerry Coombs. We were down four full-time coaches this week. So many people had to step up this week on the team and the staff and the coaches. It's all about them today. What a great statement about who we are as a culture, as our program. Hats off to everybody there.”
“We just did a lot of these Zooms right here, just like we're doing right here,” Day said. “This is how we met all week. We met on special teams this week. All of our position meetings were like this. That part was good, and thank God for technology because the coaches were able to be a part of all of those conversations, even leading up this morning, the team meal. Thank God for technology because that's how we did it. But so many coaches stepped up in a big way. It's one thing to be in meetings. It's another thing to put it on the field and go from practice and then motivate them to play. I think you saw a team that had great energy. That's what I saw. I saw a team that had great energy, great toughness, just enjoyed being out there playing with each other. Actually saw some smiles there in the fourth quarter, which was awesome to see.”
Johnson was made interim head coach until Day gets back to the team on Monday – as long as he doesn’t still have COVID-19 symptoms.
Afterward, Day disclosed that the decision to put Johnson in place was one that had been made “a long time ago.”
“His title is associate head coach,” Johnson said. “Had that conversation with Gene right off the bat when I took the job. You just never know what's going to happen in today's day and age. And then obviously this year, we have all these contingency plans that were already been talked about since the preseason. It's something I feel strong about. I think Larry has great leadership. Larry understands how to motivate a team. When he stands in front of the team, the guys listen. I think his leadership had a big part of really how well our team played today and the energy they played with. I couldn't be happier for him. To see him get the Gatorade bath at the end, I had a tear in my eye. I know he's been through a lot this year. We've all been through a lot. But to see that moment for him and for this team was special.”
“Pretty cold,” said Johnson, explaining the Gatorade bath. “I'm just glad it wasn't below freezing here or I would probably be sick. The kids kind of set me up. I had Zach Harrison was talking to me and I knew something was going on. What a great moment for all of us to enjoy and especially the guys. I'm really happy for the players and the way they responded throughout the adversity this week.”
Notably, Johnson was the first Black man to ever be an Ohio State head coach for a game. That had never been done before.
His thoughts on the milestone:
“Someone asked me that early on,” Johnson said. “Really, you're just coaching one game. All I'm doing is standing in the gap. I really am. I didn't think about none of that. I thought about the fact that to go here, come in to East Lansing and get a win, and I wanted to make sure when I turned it over to coach Day that we were 5-0. That was the biggest spot in my mind. I did not want to go back Sunday and stand in front of that team after losing a game. So that was my focus. Going into it all week long, it was never about it, it was about the team. That's just my mindset. How I feel. A great honor, but just important to just being the first is action. Everything I do is for the players and the passion that we have and show for the players. That's more important than anything else I can do.”
While Johnson was technically the head coach, he ceded much of his control of the offensive side of the ball to Kevin Wilson, the fourth-year Ohio State assistant and current offensive coordinator.
Wilson, as expected, called plays on offense with Day not in the stadium. He was the go-to guy offensively.
“We talked throughout the whole week,” Johnson said. “We felt that it was better for Kevin to call the game. If he needed a timeout, I was there. Just kind of asked questions. ... He's the offensive coordinator. He called the plays. And I just kind of stayed out of the way. If he needed me, I was there. But I didn't go down and say, 'Call this play,' or, 'Do this.' Just let him manage the game.”
That plan worked out just fine.
Ohio State racked up 521 total yards – 199 through the air and 322 on the ground – while averaging 7.2 yards on 72 plays. Fields tossed two touchdowns without any interceptions, and he and Trey Sermon both rushed for more than 100 yards.
Fields’ first score, a two-yard scramble for six points, put Ohio State on top with the game’s first points to set the tone.
“It was a pass play,” Fields said. “Nobody was open, so I just tried to make something happen with my feet, and I saw an opening to the right so I just scrambled out there and just got in the end zone.”
For Johnson, a long-time defensive line coach, this week was the first time he got to work closely with Fields.
“Coaching the defensive side of the ball, you don't get a chance to talk to those guys a lot, and this week him and I talked a lot,” Johnson said. “What a great moment. What a great kid. Most importantly, just a great leader. He stood in front of the team, talked to the team and encouraged the offensive line guys and I thought was great. Every time I saw him walk, he put a smile on his face, so I knew we were in good hands.”
Fields’ zero interceptions were especially important after tossing three picks the prior game against Indiana. Day has called Fields his own harshest critic, so he knew he didn’t have to harp on the miscues.
“Coach Day wasn't really on me because he knows I messed up,” Day said. “He knows that I know where I need to improve on, and to be honest, those were just dumb mistakes by me last week. I'm glad it happened. It was a great learning opportunity for me. Especially coming into this week with some O-linemen missing, I knew that we were going to have pressure and I knew that there weren't going to be good play all the time, so I was just trying to be as smart as possible with throwing the ball away.”
“I thought he took another step in leadership, too,” Day said. “Again, I wasn't there, but listening to different people talk, it looks like he really made himself heard. That's a big part of being a leader. It's one thing to have yourself seen, but you're got to be felt and you've got to be heard, and I think he's taking more and more steps to be that leader.”
Watching the game at home, Day had a perspective he probably never, ever wants to experience again.
“I took a lot of notes,” Day said. “I yelled a lot. I got really, really excited on some other plays. Certainly Haskell's play I was running around the house. Other ones, I was screaming and yelling. It was not easy. It's all about the team, but it was a difficult day.”
Day added: “That was not easy to watch, but I was really proud to see it. It was great to see our guys pull away at the end.”
Part of what surely made the day easier for Day was Sermon’s breakout performance.
After a lackluster start to his Ohio State career following his transfer from Oklahoma, the senior carried the ball 10 times for 112 yards and a touchdown on Saturday. The 11.2 yards per carry was the second-highest mark of his career and the best since he was a freshman with the Sooners.
“Really just trusting my coaching and trusting my ability,” Sermon said. “It was kind of slow the first few games, but just practicing hard and continuing to get reps, just kind of get a good feel for it. I was able to just make the most of my opportunities today.”
Sermon added: “Each week, I just felt like I was gradually getting better, getting more in sync with the offensive line and just getting used to just playing with those guys.”
On Saturday, he thrived while running behind a line missing three starters. Will any of them be back in the near future? It’s unclear. Big Ten players who test positive for coronavirus have to be out for at least 21 days.
Day, however, should be one of the people who’s back in the stadium next weekend.
“I'm hopeful we start getting some guys back,” Day said. “We had a big number there. I get going here on Monday and we get some of the coaches back and we start to get some of these guys back in the building. I think that's huge. As long as we continue to do a great job like we've done, if you look at what we've done for the last four or five months, it's been excellent. We had this one mini-outbreak that was hard. We managed it, we did a great job and here we are. I'm hoping that the worst part is behind us and we can look forward.”
And by looking forward, Day knows what’s coming next: Michigan.
“We certainly have a lot more football to play, but we live to see another day,” Day said. “And with these kind of challenges and the adversity that we've been through, it is, I think it's a moment and it's something that everything needs to enjoy tonight. And then we're on to the team up north.”