NEW ORLEANS – Coaches in all sports have a tendency to try to minimize the moment. They don’t want their players to think too far ahead or get lost in the big picture, fearing overcompensation from them in response.
Ryan Day, to a degree, is one and the same. He is a coach after all. A coach who preaches each individual player doing the job required of him.
The nature of the past year, though, has forced him to talk with his Ohio State players about everything that’s going on in the country. It has led his Buckeyes to maneuver a laundry list of obstacles in order to even just get onto the field before performing at a high level and keeping the ultimate objective in mind. It has him talking about his own team on a larger scale than ever before. Led him to treat them like grown-ups.
Usually during the year, you often hear Ohio State players talk about their three main goals: Beating Michigan, winning the Big Ten and making the College Football Playoff. They rarely go further than that. But not this season. Not after all they’ve been through together – minimizing time with loved ones to avoid COVID-19, training for a season they weren’t sure would happen, games getting canceled and more. After all they’ve sacrificed, all they’ve worked for, they want it all. Understanding the maturity of this group, so does Day, and he isn’t sugarcoating it.
“Now we've got an opportunity to win the whole thing, and then you've got an opportunity to write one of the best stories in college football history,” Day said on the stage in front of both his team and the country after Ohio State exacted revenge on Clemson by winning the Sugar Bowl, 49-28.
The yet-to-be-completed story, which has one final chapter destined to take place in Miami when the Buckeyes face off with Alabama with the national championship on the line, always had to feature Dabo Swinney and the Tigers. It was destiny that they’d match up again while Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence are still in school after the unforgettable 29-23 Clemson win a year ago.
“What a journey it's been to get back to this spot. Just went out there and played our butts off.”– Defensive tackle Haskell Garrett
So much of what Ohio State did in the offseason to prepare for this season was to win against Michigan, win the Big Ten and eventually win a national title. But doing all of that would still have felt somewhat incomplete without getting another shot at Clemson, the 2019 Fiesta Bowl opponent the Buckeyes believed they deserved to beat but fell short to on the sideline.
One more chance against the Tigers in the College Football Playoff fueled them. An opportunity to shut Swinney up fueled them. The possibility of payback fueled them.
On Friday in New Orleans, all of that work and sacrifice paid off. Fields out-dueled Lawrence, Trey Sermon ran wild and a sometimes-shaky defense largely put the clamps on Clemson after the first couple of drives, allowing just four touchdowns in a game that became immediately clear the victor would need more than 28 points.
“Obviously very happy for this team after such a long journey to get here after last season,” Day said in the postgame press conference. “It's something that weighed heavy on us after this game, so to come full circle against a great team in Clemson. You know, Trevor Lawrence, one of the best quarterbacks to play in the history of college football and against a great program, to come back and win after last year, with all the trials and tribulations we've been through in the last 12 months, just couldn't be happier for this team. Showed so much character.
“I’ve got to tell you, it was hard, and this team really showed what they're made of, and it was fun to be out there tonight.”
Fun, indeed. And for some, still hard to believe.
“To be honest, it's still kind of surreal,” defensive end Jonathon Cooper said.
He was among the most vocal Buckeyes throughout the extended offseason, showing up on television to push for the Big Ten to play football and appearing in team-released videos hyping up his teammates. A year ago, due to an injury that led him to redshirt, he didn’t come off the bench to help his team in the six-point loss to Clemson. He couldn’t. His plan of redshirting prevented him. So, Cooper spent the offseason training, hoping he’d get another shot, and in the Sugar Bowl he drilled Lawrence for a strip sack.
Perhaps nobody worked in the offseason for this singular moment more than wide receiver Chris Olave, whose miscommunication with Fields caused last year’s game-ending interception. That moment reverberated within his mind for an entire calendar year before the junior could go off for six catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns.
“I feel great,” Olave said. “Coming off last year, it was tough trying to train all year just to be in this position. We finally got here. Just being able to compete with these guys and have fun with my teammates, most importantly, I'm just blessed and proud to be here.”
He’s not alone, either. This is the type of storybook ending that doesn’t come around too often. It’s too perfect. Too poetic.
This time, though, it’s real. As luck would have it, the Buckeyes got what they wanted in another showdown with Clemson, and to their credit, their play propelled them to the sweetest revenge they could have wanted.
“What a journey it's been to get back to this spot,” defensive tackle Haskell Garrett said. “Just went out there and played our butts off.”
And now, after vanquishing their demons in a long-awaited night that won't ever be forgotten, they’re going to the national championship game in nine days.
“We've worked so hard this offseason despite all the stuff that happened,” running back Trey Sermon said. “It was very important for us to win this game. We knew what we had to do, and we know that our goals that we have.
“Now we're just one step closer.”