Blue Ruin

By Ramzy Nasrallah on February 1, 2023 at 1:15 pm
Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Damon Arnette Jr. (3) takes the field prior to the NCAA football game between the Michigan Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.

One hour remained in 2022. All was right in the world.

The Buckeyes were committing video game atrocities at the expense of the Georgia defense in its own backyard. Our longstanding hypothesis was finally being proven: Ohio State can beat any team, provided its defense - a rebuild still in progress - was at worst, okay.

Our 11pm elation collapsed an hour later, but at the time the Buckeyes were not only handling the defending national champions, everyone watching was already making assumptions about what would happen next.

Texas Christian upset Michigan earlier in the evening, but nobody was under any illusion about what this version of the Buckeyes would do to the Horned Frogs in the title game. It would be a massacre.

This version. We will give that designation some color in a moment.

How could the Buckeyes, which had lost at home to Michigan by three touchdowns in perfect conditions be so widely and automatically assumed to crush TCU, which had just beaten the same Wolverines? It was obvious. These were two different Ohio State teams.

this should have been heisman winner throwing to biletnikoff winner if not for traumatic cuteness
The best version of Ohio State's offense is the one where the two best players are its central figures.

Michigan had futzed around in Glendale and gotten cute, cracking the door for the underdogs while the questionable officiating virus sent their title hopes spiraling. That version of the Wolverines looked nothing like the steady, confident, deliberate and on-brand one which had burned the Buckeyes to the ground a month earlier.

They were the best version of themselves in Columbus. The home team did the futzing that day.

Ohio State's offense against Georgia was running through Marvin Harrison Jr. on C.J. Stroud's arm, and there was nothing subtle about it - Ryan Day wasn't hiding a thing from anyone; he was simply daring the defending champs to try and stop it.

Stroud also rushed for 71 sack-adjusted yards, leading all players from both teams that night.

We don't have to revisit the 4th quarter officiating, Harrison's exit, Ohio State's defense or the field goal attempt as time expired. The Buckeyes' Peach Bowl objective when they had the ball was to be the best version of themselves, which is the one that smashes the Give Your Best Players The Ball button until it breaks.

it is possible to lose one game twice.

This version would put TCU and most other teams in a garbage can. It came within a point of beating Georgia despite losing every 50/50 moment outside of its control. The one we saw in the previous game against the team that futzed around with TCU looked nothing like what Ohio State rolled out in Atlanta - with one notable exception. We'll walk up to what that was.

Against Michigan, the Buckeyes dialed up a critical 4th down jump ball to a tight end who does nothing particularly well with any consistency. That wasn't even Ohio State's worst 4th down decision that afternoon - a fake punt run relying on a former walk-on full-back and a 3rd string walk-on long snapper also happened, and failed.

Taking Stroud and Harrison off the field to put the team's fate in the hands of walk-ons is a symptom of feelingsball, a debilitating stubbornness at the core of what has blunted football success recently. It makes no sense, a statement which also perfectly captures the Buckeyes 4th down strategy in 2022:

Feel free to click and expand on that data, but I'll summarize - Ohio State was among the best in the country at 4th down conversions, but among the worst at going for it on 4th down.

If you want to pinpoint why the Buckeyes haven't been as confident or feisty with 4th down go rates (not counting Cade Stover jump balls or fake punts powered by walk-ons), consider the 2021 Oregon game. Day went for it on 4th and 7, 4th and 2, 4th and 5 - field position was irrelevant; he was every bit of the aggressor we had come to know.

And the Buckeyes went 2-5 on those 4th downs against the Ducks, in a loss. One year later, Ohio State escaped Notre Dame in a conservative, field-possession type of Tresselball game where Day opted to punt on every 4th down, explaining afterwards:

I actually thought back on the Oregon game the year before, when I went for it in the same spot.

A slight pass for going conservative after losing Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming and forcing the rest of the receiving corps to play musical chairs in a season opener, but thinking about one time when 4th downs didn't go your way is feelingsball. It's past trauma infecting strategy in a game powered by players, scheme and analytics.

And when decision-making is hijacked like this, a team futzes around. That one notable exception in the Peach Bowl when Ohio State wasn't the best version of itself? The return of that cursed fake punt, which Day was so intent on proving to himself it could work that he rolled it out again.

That play has now failed twice. The Buckeyes' weakest unit wasn't the defense, it's special teams - and it wasn't really all that close. Putting the game in that unit's hands is not the best version of Ohio State. Not in 2022.

Day had to prove to himself Ohio State could rush the ball against Michigan, a year after the run game was embarrassed in Ann Arbor. He obsessed over what happened that afternoon for 12 months and visualized how to play that game one more time.

The problem? That game finished in 2021. There are no do-overs.

A year later, converted linebacker Chip Trayanum saw his first real action of the season. He got six more touches than Harrison Jr., the biggest mismatch on the field and probably the sport. Sure, the Buckeyes scored only 23 points, but hey - they had two more yards per carry than they did in Ann Arbor in 2021. Point proven.

One-game setbacks metastasizing into multi-game failures is the worst symptom of feelingsball, which prevents this historically-prolific Ohio State offense which Day built from being the best version of itself. Play to win the game exploiting every possible advantage. The Buckeyes choosing to play at medium-strength is every opponent's fever dream.

It is possible to lose one game twice. The Buckeyes lost to Michigan in November trying to re-do the 2021 game, using a fractured offensive line and no running backs when it had Harrison Jr. But 4th downs and rushing struggles are not the only traumas which have bled into multiple games, if not multiple seasons.

Justin Fields ran designated QB rushes with regularity in 2019 and 2020. He had 42 yards rushing early in the 2020 Sugar Bowl against Clemson, when he took a brutal hit from Tigers LB James Skalski which was ruled to be a targeting violation.

eat shit, dabo
Justin Fields takes an illegal hit to the ribs from Clemson LB James Skalski during the 2020 CFP Semifinal at the Sugar Bowl.

From that point on, Fields' rushes were generally improvisational rather than scripted. His final rushing yards came on that Skalski hit, and he was far less than 100% against Alabama.

Then he left for the NFL. Two years later, Ohio State's offense is bracing for another Skalski hit.

Stroud's introduction to Ohio State fans was his lone rushing touchdown out of the 86 he would pile up with the Buckeyes. It appears he was instructed to avoid unnecessary contact during his two seasons, with two exceptions - the game in Evanston when throwing was impossible, and on New Year's Eve in Atlanta.

Which brings us back to the best version of Ohio State. The one that had Georgia on the ropes.

It's the one that ran everything through Harrison Jr., until the Bulldogs scrambled to overcompensate which only opened up clean opportunities for Ohio State's other playmakers. It's the version that saw the Buckeyes' non-running quarterback leading all rushers in yardage without the slightest bit of awkwardness.

Stroud was always capable of rushing the ball. Skalski finished the Peach Bowl with zero tackles.

And it's the version that saw Day go for it on 4th down from his own 35-yard line, without giving a passing thought to the 2021 Oregon game. Stroud gained eight yards on the play and moved the chains. The version of Day that got into his own head would have punted, despite the emotionless analytics about his own team screaming to go for it.

It was a master class of game-planning and strategy, because Day entered the game with a 0-0 career record and didn't allow the ghosts of shortcomings' past to bring him down. If he has a therapist, they earned their money in December. He should keep every appointment.

Jim Knowles will get his defense built. Ohio State will figure out how to manage NIL and the new recruiting landscape in the most optimal, sensible way possible. The Buckeyes will attract elite players and coaching talent for as long as they operate a football program.

But the barrier that's tricker to clear is the one that resides between our ears. Ohio State's head coach is clearly affected by negative events which have impacted him in other games. This is because of the simple fact that he is a human, openly in touch with his emotions and someone who has absorbed far more serious trauma in his life than losing to Michigan twice.

He is also as old as Nick Saban was when he was the Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator. Day is still just getting started. And if he can find the discipline to treat every game like he treated the Peach Bowl, that 11pm elation from New Year's Eve will last much longer.

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