Ryan Day is treading a fine line in his philosophical approach to preparation for September’s season opener against Notre Dame.
On one hand, a Fighting Irish program with two trips to the College Football Playoff in the last four years cannot be overlooked. And the Buckeyes can ill afford a loss to open the season, especially after last year’s Week 2 defeat to Oregon. For those reasons, one would think Ohio State should pour everything into the buildup for the high-profile non-conference clash.
On the other hand, Day wants to be careful not to set his team up for a potential post-win emotional lull, with a matchup against Wisconsin coming down the pipeline just a few weeks after Sept. 3. Perhaps that was another lesson learned from last year’s early-season loss, which came just one week after starting the year on the road in a night game against a formidable Big Ten foe in Minnesota.
But the bottom line is the Buckeyes have to win either way, especially given the added intrigue this offseason bestowed upon the matchup. That means Marcus Freeman and company will get everything and more from his former team as far as game-planning goes.
“At Ohio State, we have to win every game. You can't all the sudden put so much into one and then lay an egg the next week. But that being said, you're talking about a top-10 matchup, night game at home, gonna be an unbelievable atmosphere, a lot of emotion,” Day told 97.1 The Fan in a radio appearance on Wednesday morning. “And so we are. We’re gonna be all over this. We typically do that with our first few opponents anyways, so we can get a head start on that.”
Day has already sat side-by-side with Freeman this offseason, as the pair conducted a joint interview together with ESPN’s College GameDay before the NFL draft in late April. As one would expect, there was nothing but pleasantries exchanged between both coaches with their contest still more than four months away at that point.
“What a great opportunity for our football program to go and, really, it’s going to be an opportunity to see how good you really are,” Freeman said. “To play an extremely talented opponent, one of the best in the country, there’s nothing better a competitor wants (than) to go play the best.”
Perhaps the most contentious moment was when both coaches were made aware of the early betting line, which had the scarlet and gray pegged as 13-point favorites for the season-opening affair.
But even if Freeman felt slighted by the margin, he only made light of it at the time.
“I think they should widen it a little bit more,” he joked. (Multiple sportsbooks have since obliged, making Ohio State more than a 14-point favorite.)
Freeman ruffled some feathers in Columbus upon landing the head coaching gig in South Bend this past December. After being promoted from defensive coordinator, the former Ohio State linebacker penned an open letter to Notre Dame in The Players' Tribune in which he insinuated he regrets choosing the Buckeyes over the Irish out of high school. Now the leading man for the Notre Dame program, Freeman wrote, “I just thank God that I didn’t make the wrong decision twice.”
Freeman subsequently cleared up his comments at a press conference just a few days later, saying “in no way did I want to diminish my time in Columbus and the impact that time had on me.”
But the initial remark has already played its role in adding another layer of interest to an already major matchup to begin the season – and it’s far from the only piece of coaching drama that will make the buildup to the game even more intriguing.
Columbus native Al Washington was let go from his post as Ohio State linebackers coach this offseason, with new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles taking over that role, and Washington landed on Freeman’s staff as the new Fighting Irish defensive line coach. Former All-American Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis has also come aboard Freeman’s staff in a support role, adding another Buckeye to a group that will open its season at the Shoe come fall.
The personal relationships on either side don’t end there. Day also has ties to new Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden, whom he coached wide receivers under at Temple for a season in 2006.
“New defensive coordinator in Al Golden, somebody that I worked for and have a lot of respect for in that area. Kind of a new staff, some guys have been there before,” Day said Wednesday. “It’s a very good team, great program, very good coaching staff, big challenge. And so we’re gonna work all summer to make sure we’re prepared to play our best football in that game.”
Given the various coaching connections, both sides may feel they have a leg up on the other staff in terms of preparation – and perhaps even more so on the Notre Dame end. But that just makes this offseason’s work all the more important for the Buckeyes, who appear to be leaving no stone unturned in their approach.
“I think it’s great for college football to come in with such a great opponent coming in,” Day said. “Coach Freeman does such a great job, and it’s going to be exciting for everybody involved. It’s going to be probably one of the biggest tickets in Columbus in a long time, so it’s going to be fun.”