Despite Distractions, Staying Focused on Utah Remains Point of Emphasis for Ohio State Amid Rose Bowl Preparations: “We Have to Win That Game”

By Griffin Strom on December 20, 2021 at 10:10 am
Ohio State football

Distractions seem boundless for the Buckeyes at the moment.

While some players are grappling with the decision to leave or return to the program next year, others are still figuring out if they will even play in the upcoming Rose Bowl at all. Draft-eligible or not, every Buckeye has faced questions about the rivalry loss to Michigan, and with chatter from the Wolverines repeatedly making headlines in recent weeks, it’s been impossible to ignore.

Beyond that, Ohio State’s defenders have been tasked with staying dialed in with their current coaching staff while a brand new coordinator is set to take over the day after the bowl game.

Diversions are coming from just about every angle as the Buckeyes prepare for a season-ending contest that was already relatively meaningless, but winning it will require putting many – if not all – of those preoccupations to the side.

“It's just about prioritizing things and it’s not hard staying focused on the task at hand, and the task at hand right now is winning that game,” Kourt Williams said Thursday. “It’s a big deal. We have to win that game.”

With Williams wrapping up his second season in Columbus, the redshirt freshman safety is one Buckeye defender that will be impacted by the incoming switch at defensive coordinator, as Ohio State hired Oklahoma State’s Jim Knowles on Dec. 7. But while Steele Chambers said he did some research on Knowles following the hire and Zach Harrison said he’s been watching the Cowboys’ defensive film, Williams said he hasn’t looked into the new coach – who doesn’t officially start until Jan. 2 – at all amid bowl preparations.

“I don’t think it’s the right thing to do to have (Knowles) at a practice,” Buckeye head coach Ryan Day said Wednesday. “I just think that our staff is intact right now and we’re gonna do a great job playing in the Rose Bowl. But get him here for a couple days, just kind of get the lay of the land, and then we’ll start fresh on the 2nd.”

Williams and several of his teammates are taking a similar approach when it comes to the topic of Michigan, the archrival program whose players and coaches have raised eyebrows with more than a couple inflammatory sound bites since the end of Nov. 27’s 42-27 Buckeye loss.

Chambers, Thayer Munford and Jack Sawyer may have all issued responses to some of those Wolverine remarks in one way or another on Thursday, but Williams said Ohio State is best suited to move on from The Game altogether while it looks to get back on track in the Rose Bowl.

“I feel like we need to just forget about that game and move forward, which I know we will and we have,” Williams said. “And the way we play will speak for itself.”

A senior defensive end who has played his final game against the Wolverines, Tyreke Smith did not budge when asked about Michigan numerous times on Thursday. Questioned about the clear similarities between upcoming bowl opponent Utah and the Wolverines, Smith did not entertain any comparison, and the Cleveland native didn’t even acknowledge the comments made by players and coaches from the northern rival.

“I’m just focused on Utah right now. That’s my only focus right now,” Smith said. “That’s all I’ve been focused on; trying to watch their film, trying to get a jump on them. So I haven’t really been focused on that game.”

But despite that vocal disregard for the Buckeyes’ last on-field effort, it doesn’t mean Smith and company aren’t carrying a chip on their shoulder from because of it. Smith said rebounding with a win, especially in his final collegiate game (and in the Rose Bowl, no less) is of utmost importance to him.

“I feel like everybody got something to prove in this game …  It’s a big-time bowl game. It’s the Rose Bowl, so you’re not trying to just go in there like it’s just (a meaningless game),” Smith said. “Every time we go on the field we’re expected to play hard and play like we’re playing for the championship, so that’s how we’re gonna go out there and play.”

Smith is one Buckeye who isn’t burdened with figuring out his plans for after the Rose Bowl, but many still are to this point. Harrison said a discussion with Knowles would play a role in his ultimate decision about whether or not to return next season, and Dawand Jones is another player who is still making up his mind. Sevyn Banks told Eleven Warriors Saturday that the Rose Bowl will likely be his final game in a scarlet and gray uniform, although he hasn’t made his mind up completely just yet.

Buckeyes like Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are undoubtedly draft-bound after the Jan. 1 contest, but neither star wideout has said whether or not they will actually play in the Buckeye bowl game before officially declaring for the draft.

There are plenty of moving parts for the Buckeyes just six days before departing for Los Angeles, but considering the happenings at a number of other big-time college football programs since the end of the regular season, Ohio State might actually have it easy by comparison.

Nevertheless, juggling distractions and tough decisions is only made harder when the stakes for the final game aren’t all that tangible. But the repercussions of ending the season on two straight losses could be motivation enough for a group that could use a positive note with which to finish the year out.

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