Three of the first six questions asked of Tommy Eichenberg, Jack Sawyer and Lathan Ransom on stage at Wednesday’s press conference centered around Ohio State’s only loss of the season.
The next question was essentially rhetorical.
“Are you guys tired of talking about the Michigan game?”
All three Buckeyes issued the same one-word response.
Luckily for the Buckeyes, they can change the narrative in three days when Ohio State takes on Georgia in Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal matchup at the Peach Bowl. And the added motivation to put the Michigan loss behind them might pay dividends for the Buckeyes.
Sawyer said that extra edge has been tangible in practice for a defense that gave up more points (45) and yards (530) to the Wolverines than any opponent it played prior in 2022. Even in favored games, Ohio State adopts the attitude of a team with a chip on its shoulder. Against the Bulldogs, though, they don’t have to manufacture it.
“We feel like it's always been Ohio against the world. We feel like that's never going to change. So throughout this whole month of bowl prep, our defense has been playing very pissed off in practice. I think the whole team as a whole has been,” Sawyer said. “And I think that's where we need to be. And like I said, we're just really focused and really eager to get back on the field Saturday night.”
The Buckeye players aren’t the only ones sensing it. Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said his unit has been yearning to perform better since the last time it took the field over a month ago.
It will finally have the opportunity it’s waited for this weekend.
“We're anxious. I mean the guys, they have an edge,” Knowles said. “I know they're grateful for the opportunity to be playing on the biggest stage and really just want to go out and play their best. And they're just hard-working, determined, have fun with it, but really focused. Really focused. I can sense that in our players.”
But an improved showing can only come if Knowles and the Buckeyes learn from their mistakes against Michigan. And if you ask Ransom, they’re not all that complicated.
“At the end of the day, I think our biggest lessons were just to do your job, not try to do too much. And then when the play is called, just everyone needs to do their job and execute at the highest level and those plays don't happen,” Ransom said. “But we're all focused on Georgia now, so that's where our minds are.”
Knowles has had to walk the tight line between making adjustments given what went wrong against the Wolverines and stopping short of overcorrecting after a game in which five explosive plays largely made the difference. But Knowles feels confident that the errors have been addressed ahead of a CFP game he expected to find himself in since joining the program.
“When I took the job, I knew that it would lead to this. So we've made it to this spot, and you don't change what you're doing unless there's a problem. So we certainly know the last game was not how we want to go out,” Knowles said. “We know there were the issues, and we've addressed them. But otherwise, you keep the same course of action. That gives the players confidence. They need to know they have a leader who believes in them and that we're going to have a great plan and allow them to play fast.”
"After that loss we took late in November, we've all been very eager to get back out on the field and just prove everybody wrong and prove ourselves right."– Jack Sawyer
By Saturday, it will have been 35 days since the Buckeyes last appeared on the gridiron. While that time has given the team ample opportunity to recover from injuries and shore up any weak areas it’s identified from reviewing the first 12 games of the season, it’s also increased the sense of restlessness for Ohio State to wipe the taste of Nov. 26 out of its mouth.
“It's been a month since we've played. But you can tell even in practice everyone's got a chip on their shoulder,” Steele Chambers said. “And JT (Tuimoloau) gave a rousing speech right before we got in the playoffs game that gave me goosebumps. But I think from then on, everyone's been really serious as to what we plan on doing. So the last month of practice, everyone's been going at it full tilt. And I think you can really see this on Saturday.”
That hiatus is almost over, though, and Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta will provide the ultimate proving ground.
“I think definitely after that loss we took late in November, we've all been very eager to get back out on the field and just prove everybody wrong and prove ourselves right,” Sawyer said.
There’s no denying just how devastating the Michigan loss was. In one fell swoop at the end of last month, the Buckeyes saw two of their primary objectives dashed in an instant. But Knowles and his defense know the ultimate prize is still on the line in the contests to come.
“Everyone's excited. This is an opportunity, an opportunity to show what our defense is really about and how good we really are,” Ransom said. “So I think we couldn't be looking forward to it more. … Everything is on the line. One of our – it's our biggest main goal that we set when you come to Ohio State out of our three goals, and we have a chance to achieve it. So there's nothing to lose.”