INDIANAPOLIS – When Josh Myers talked to the team before Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game against Northwestern, the Ohio State center told his teammates to keep Chris Olave, Baron Browning and the other Buckeyes who couldn’t make the trip to Indianapolis in their hearts.
Because Myers knows how they must have felt being forced to watch the game from home.
Though Myers was back on the field with the Buckeyes on Saturday, he missed their previous game against Michigan State after testing positive for COVID-19. In his first interview session since his return to action on Saturday, in which he was the first Ohio State player who missed time due to COVID-19 this season to discuss that experience with the media, Myers opened up about just how hard that was for him.
“The process was awful,” Myers said. “I gotta be honest with you guys. It is what it is, and there’s nothing I can do about it, but the process was terrible. I had to sit there for 10 days and basically do nothing. I had schoolwork and stuff I had to finish up for my internship. But other than that, I couldn’t work out because I couldn’t get my heart rate up. And so I was just sitting there, and it was 10 of probably the hardest days I’ve ever had in my life.
“With the Michigan State game, I was so proud and so happy for our guys on the offensive line who stepped up to the plate, and the way they stepped up to the plate, but sitting there watching your own team when you have so much invested into it too, it’s awful. I don’t have any other way to put it. When you invest so much and sacrifice so much and then you have to sit out, it’s hard to put into words how bad it is.”
Despite being forced to miss a week-and-a-half of practice while quarantining, Myers said he felt better than he thought he would in his return to action, in which he was part of an offensive line that led the way for the Buckeyes to rush for 399 yards against a Northwestern defense that had only allowed more than 200 rushing yards in one game before Saturday.
“I thought I might have a hard time with it, just because of sitting out for the 10 days and literally not working out. I figured I was gonna be pretty tired at the end of this game and I was, but not how I thought I was gonna be, so that was good,” Myers said. “And it seemed like it was the same way for Nick (Petit-Frere) and Thayer (Munford).”
He said it broke his heart, though, knowing that players like Olave, Browning and Drue Chrisman were forced to watch from home and unable to participate in the Big Ten championship celebration with the team.
“I know what he’s going through right now,” Myers said when asked specifically about Olave. “And it’s even worse for him because it’s the Big Ten Championship Game. I only missed one game, so I can only imagine how bad he’s hurting right now, wanting to be with us and wanting to experience this with us, so god, I feel so bad for those guys.”
Will players be back for CFP? “It’s a mixed bag”
For the players who weren’t able to play on Saturday due to positive COVID-19 tests, the big question now is whether they’ll be able to return for a potential College Football Playoff game on Jan. 1.
That will depend on two things: When they tested positive and whether the Big Ten changes its protocol that currently forces players to miss 21 days before returning to competition after a positive test.
If the Big Ten doesn’t change the rule, Ryan Day indicated that some of the players who were unavailable this week would be able to return in time for the CFP semifinals but some of them would not.
“We kind of have a little bit of each, it’s a mixed bag,” Day said.
It is possible, though, that the Big Ten could change its policy. Currently, that policy would leave Ohio State at a significant disadvantage in the CFP, as each team will be governed by its own conference protocol and both the ACC and SEC allow players to return to competition after just 10 days. Lettermen Row’s Tim May reported Friday “could be very close to changing its mandatory sit-out time for a COVID-19 positive test from 21 days to 17 days,” a number that would still include a seven-day acclimation period for players returning to practice following a 10-day quarantine.
“I know they’re looking at it right now,” Day said. “I don’t know exactly where that’s at in terms of coming out with more information on that, but I know it’s being looked at very hard.”
Among the players who were unavailable on Saturday, Chrisman is the only one who’s publicly confirmed he tested positive for COVID-19. That said, other players who were not in attendance for Saturday’s game and were not previously sidelined by injuries included Olave, Browning, wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, defensive end Javontae Jean-Baptiste, running back Steele Chambers, safety Bryson Shaw, quarterback Gunnar Hoak and linebacker Tommy Eichenberg.
Fill-ins rise to the occasion, again
Given that Ohio State had to come back in the second half and grind out a 22-10 win on Saturday, the Buckeyes certainly weren’t unaffected by the players who couldn’t play against Northwestern. Olave’s absence, in particular, was certainly noticeable as Justin Fields passed for only 114 yards on Saturday, tying the lowest single-game passing yardage total for Ohio State since Day joined the Buckeyes’ staff in 2017.
That said, Day was pleased with the way true freshman Julian Fleming, who led the Buckeyes with four catches for 53 yards on Saturday, played in place of Olave in his first career start.
“I thought Julian stepped up and played a lot of reps for us,” Day said. “He played gunner (on the punt team). He made some nice catches early. So he did a good job of stepping up and playing for (Olave).
“When you have a rhythm with somebody, certainly Justin and (Olave) had a really good feel for each other, that was significant. But it’s not any kind of excuse. I thought Julian played well.”
Among the other Buckeyes who had to step up and play bigger roles on Saturday, the standout was certainly Justin Hilliard, who started in place of Baron Browning at Sam linebacker and had the best game of his six-year Ohio State career, recording a team-high nine tackles with two tackles for loss, an interception and a fumble recovery.
Another standout was walk-on punter Zach Hoover, who had never punted in an Ohio State game before Saturday but had no issues punting the ball against Northwestern, downing two of his three punts inside the 6-yard line.
“How about Zach Hoover stepping up?” Day said. “He did a great job.”
Josh Proctor – who, like Myers, returned to action against Northwestern after missing the Michigan State game – was another player who earned postgame props from Day after starting at deep safety in place of Marcus Hooker, who missed Saturday’s game with an injury.
It certainly wasn’t a perfect game for Proctor, who had a whiffed tackle on a 34-yard run by Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey that was reminiscent of his whiff against Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence in last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal, and also dropped an interception that potentially could have been a pick-six. That said, he didn’t give up many big plays in coverage and made up for his drop by intercepting another pass in Northwestern territory later in the game.
Day also gave a postgame shoutout to linebacker Dallas Gant, who saw increased playing time on defense – particularly as an inside linebacker in four-linebacker packages – due to Browning’s absence.
“There was a lot of guys that stepped up to win this game,” Day said. “It doesn’t just happen, and I’m really proud of this team.”