Similarities to 2014 and 2017 Seasons Show What’s Possible, How Thin Margin for Error Remains for Ohio State in 2021

By Dan Hope on October 26, 2021 at 10:10 am
Ezekiel Elliott, J.T. Barrett and C.J. Stroud

If the way Ohio State’s season has played out so far feels familiar, that’s because it is.

Ohio State has a 6-1 record through its first seven games of the 2021 season. The Buckeyes had to battle for a 14-point win over Minnesota in their season opener and lost their marquee non-conference game against Oregon in the second week of the season, but have rattled off five straight wins since, including four straight games against Akron, Rutgers, Maryland and Indiana in which they have scored more than 50 points.

The Buckeyes started two of their last seven seasons in nearly identical fashion.

In 2014, Ohio State suffered a 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech in its second game of the season after grinding out a 34-17 win in its season opener against Navy. Those Buckeyes bounced back from their non-conference home game loss by scoring 50 or more points in four straight games against Kent State, Cincinnati, Maryland and Rutgers. In their seventh game of the 2014 season, Ohio State earned a 31-24 win over Penn State – the same team the Buckeyes face this week in their eighth game of the season – in a game that’s most famous for Joey Bosa’s walk-off sack in double overtime.

Ohio State never lost again for the rest of the season either. The Buckeyes won all of their final 10 games of the regular season and the Big Ten Championship Game to earn their way into the first-ever College Football Playoff, then beat Alabama and Oregon in the CFP to win the national championship.

That season has served as an inspiration for what remains possible for this year’s Ohio State team ever since its loss to Oregon.

“We got a long season. This ain’t COVID anymore,” Ohio State defensive tackle and team captain Haskell Garrett said after the loss to Oregon. “Our main objective is still there. We need to get to Indy (for the Big Ten Championship Game). It’s a non-conference game. We’re gonna take this as a lesson, we’re gonna get on the film and nobody should be hanging their heads low. Hang your heads high. All this is is a lesson. We need to get on the film tomorrow. Make the proper corrections. We’re gonna put it behind us, and then go play the next game. It is what it is. They did it in ‘14. We need to do it in 2021.”

That said, the 2017 season – which was even more similar through seven games to the first seven games of this year – should serve as a warning of how fragile the Buckeyes’ title hopes still are.

Just like this year, Ohio State opened the 2017 season with a Thursday night road game against a Big Ten opponent and had to come back from a halftime deficit to beat Indiana. The Buckeyes then suffered a 31-16 loss in their non-conference home opener against Oklahoma. After a 38-7 win over Army in its third game of the year, Ohio State scored more than 50 points in each of its next four games, also including a road game at Rutgers and a home game against Maryland sandwiched in between a non-conference home game (UNLV) and another Big Ten road game (Nebraska).

Also like this year, Ohio State hosted Penn State on Halloween weekend in its eighth game of 2017. Like in 2014, a win over the Nittany Lions didn’t come easily in 2017, when Ohio State needed an epic fourth-quarter comeback to earn a 39-38 win. 

Ohio State’s First Eight Games of 2014, 2017 and 2021
Week 2014 2017 2021
1 WIN @ NAVY, 34-17 WIN @ INDIANA, 49-21 WIN @ MINNESOTA, 45-31
2 LOSS vs. VIRGINIA TECH, 35-21 LOSS vs. OKLAHOMA, 31-16 LOSS vs. OREGON, 28-35
3 WIN vs. KENT STATE, 66-0 WIN vs. ARMY, 38-7 WIN vs. TULSA, 41-20
4 WIN vs. CINCINNATI, 50-28 WIN vs. UNLV, 54-21 WIN vs. AKRON, 59-7
5 WIN @ MARYLAND, 52-24 WIN @ RUTGERS, 56-0 WIN @ RUTGERS, 52-13
6 WIN vs. RUTGERS, 56-17 WIN vs. MARYLAND, 62-14 WIN vs. MARYLAND, 66-17
7 WIN @ PENN STATE, 31-24 (2OT) WIN @ NEBRASKA, 56-14 WIN @ INDIANA, 54-7
8 WIN vs. ILLINOIS, 55-14 WIN vs. PENN STATE, 39-38 TBD vs. PENN STATE

It’s what happened after that game, though, that Ohio State needs to avoid to keep this year’s championship hopes intact. Just one week after that emotional triumph over Penn State, the Buckeyes had a massive letdown, suffering a 55-24 loss at Iowa. Although the Buckeyes would go on to win the rest of their games and the Big Ten Championship Game after that, that second loss kept Ohio State out of the CFP.

Those who don’t even want to think about the possibility of that happening again could validly make the case that this year’s C.J. Stroud-led offense is at a different level than that year’s J.T. Barrett-led offense, but the Buckeyes were ranked in the top seven in both total and scoring offense while they also had a top-15 defense in 2017. For most of the season, the 2017 Buckeyes played well enough to be a championship contender, but the margin of error they lost when they fell in their second game of the year ultimately came back to bite them when they couldn’t do what the 2014 team did and stay undefeated the rest of the way.

Just like both the 2014 and 2017 teams, Ohio State will need to win games against Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan in the second half of the season to secure the Big Ten East title. It also must avoid losing a trap game – for this year’s Buckeyes, that means beating Nebraska and Purdue in the first two games of November – and win the Big Ten Championship Game if it’s going to put itself in position to make the CFP and have a chance to compete for a national championship like the 2014 team did.

With the 2014 season as a blueprint for what’s possible, Ryan Day hasn’t had any trouble keeping his team motivated despite its early-season struggles, and the Buckeyes’ confidence that they could make a run like their predecessors did seven years ago has been growing by the week. But Day, who was in his first year at Ohio State as the Buckeyes’ co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach back in 2017, knows from experience that they need to stay focused on just winning one game at a time with their playoff hopes on the line every single week.

“Week in and week out, we know here we’re gonna get everybody’s best shot. And we have to bring it,” Day said last week. “Everybody in the Big Ten’s playing well this year, and you gotta bring it every week.”

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