Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, like all successful program heads, touts the importance of culture at what seems like every press conference. That of course isn't brain surgery - any team whether it be in sports or in the workplace, requires a certain culture and chemistry to thrive.
And for his part, Day seems hyper-aware of the need to feed, massage, inspect and protect the culture within Ohio State's football program, knowing it is a catalyst for success and insulation in the face of obstacles.
Of course, it's easier to maintain culture when your team is plowing through opponents, setting records, winning B1G titles and reaching the College Football Playoff on the reg.
Now, after a loss to Michigan not only ended an eight-game winning streak in the rivalry but also had the Wolverines chirping for weeks, while costing the Buckeyes a shot at a B1G title and the CFP, it's time to see exactly how the strong the fabric holding the team's culture together truly is.
It is surely a first-world problem for Day that his team has to play in a Rose Bowl as a consolation prize, against a Utah team that really does want to be there but such is life for a program with sky-high expectations.
Day himself has spoken confidently in declaring his team will be focused, committed and eager to face a Utes team presenting some very real challenges.
His players have been forced to answer a lot of questions about Michigan in the lead-up to the Rose Bowl but to their credit, when the topic has shifted to the Utes, guys like defensive end Tyreke Smith have said the right things.
“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.”– Tyreke Smith
All that certainly sounds good but Ohio State fans heard similar comments from staff and players before the Buckeyes went to Ann Arbor and looked like an unprepared, overconfident and soft team, sickness be damned. And that was with everything to play for.
Now Ohio State enters a Rose Bowl that can mean as much or as little as you think it means but no matter what, it doesn't mean anywhere near as much as playing in a CFP semifinal.
Utah is a good enough squad, and a tricky enough matchup, that judging the state of Ohio State's culture simply by whether or not it wins or loses next Saturday isn't fair. Plus, as Ramzy detailed earlier this week, it certainly wouldn't be an odd occurrence for the Buckeyes to drop a bowl game following a loss to Michigan. That said, there are certain things to watch for in Pasadena giving fans a glimpse into the team's culture and overall psyche.
First up is whether or not Ohio State can slow Utah's ground game. In losses to Oregon and Michigan, the Buckeyes gave up a combined 566 rushing yards on over seven yards per carry with nine touchdowns. Gross. It was a bit unsettling watching the Buckeyes put up little resistance especially when everyone in the stadium knew the Wolverines and Ducks were going to run the ball.
Now here comes Utah, ranked No. 13 in the country ranking up 216 rushing yards per game on the nation's second-best yards per carry average (5.62). If Ohio State's defensive staff and players have merely talked the talked all December, fans will know quickly. On the other hand, if the unit stands firm, that would speak to not just the talent, but the culture.
Assuming Garrett Wilson almost assuredly, and Chris Olave very likely, opt not to take the field, we'll get an extended look at how guys like Emeka Egbuka, Marvin Harrison Jr., Julian Fleming and Jayden Ballard approached Rose Bowl prep.
My expectation is all these guys, under the direction of Brian Hartline, will have prepared like crazy to show out against a Utah pass defense slotted No. 24 in the country. But seeing is believing and again, assuming Wilson and Olave don't play, it'll be chance to evaluate culture, among other things, within the receivers room.
Similar to the receivers room where youth is aplenty, a team loaded with talent and a healthy culture usually sees a handful of guys take major leaps during bowl practices and impact the bowl game itself, serving as a spring board to the next season.
Vonn Bell comes to mind from the 2013 Orange Bowl loss to Clemson as he played most of the game and logged seven tackles after somehow sitting behind Pitt Brown for 12 games. It was clear Bell was going to be a monster in 2014 and beyond after capitalizing on the bowl practice reps.
Might we see a guy follow a similar path? Maybe Jack Sawyer or J.T. Tuimoloau? One of those young receivers?
Response to early adversity will be another facet to watch. Ohio State's offensive line and defensive front seven had no answer after early punches to the mouth in Ann Arbor. If Utah comes out on fire it'll be interesting to see how the Buckeyes respond. A team with true culture alongside better talent will counter-punch, and then land a haymaker.
So while you're casually watching the Rose Bowl knowing the game's final score won't have a material impact on the 2021 college football season, be mindful how it unfolds will be a strong signal as to the overall strength of Ryan Day's program as it launches into 2022.