Two for Flinching

By Ramzy Nasrallah on June 7, 2023 at 1:15 pm
Oct 29, 2022; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Parker Washington (3) makes a catch as Ohio State Buckeyes safety Tanner McCalister (15) defends during the fourth quarter at Beaver Stadium. Ohio State defeated Penn State 44-31. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports
© Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 Buckeyes were soaring through their schedule.

Then they got a week off, and everything changed - and since our brains are harlots to recency bias, those memories are hazier than they should be. Midseason trends generally don’t earn the right to our memory stores.

Recency bias served us well for the better part of the two decades when the final few games ended well, or at least were mostly enjoyable. All you remember about 2022 is Michigan and Georgia scored 87 combined points.

You still remember one year prior when Michigan and Utah scored combined 87 points. Not even long covid can erase the memory of Alabama scoring 52 to put a cap on a partial, unfulfilling season. Recency bias and how seasons end are first cousins in the hippocampus.

We haven't enjoyed recency bias since the novel coronavirus debuted, but the 2022 midseason had this trending back to our beloved norm. That flight was heading for a comfortable, pre-pandemic destination.

Alas, flirting with 2019 LSU numbers never advanced to heavy petting - the 2019 Buckeyes were better flirters in almost every meaningful, measurable way. The back half of their schedule felt like a familiar story. That team knew how to end the movie.

The 2022 Buckeyes were both shiny and 6-0 at their midway point. C.J. Stroud was Joe Burrow-ish, Marvin Harrison Jr. was Ja'Marr Chase-esque and the Ohio State defense was the Ohio State defense. And they were doing it "under the radar" which meant they were still nine clicks short of the Tigers' 15-0 flight path.

Way too much football left, but the bye week could not have been better-timed. Michigan visiting the Horseshoe on a perfect day could not have been a better setting. The Buckeyes getting to play in a dome with a month to prepare for Georgia - also a gift to be exploited.

The Frye hire (bringing) Day's punishing run game back part was absolutely true through the first half of the season. But after the bye week it lost its punch, slice and efficacy in large part because it lost nearly all of its depth - but there were other reasons too.

Here's that run game on 4th & 1 against the B1G's weakest football program in November.

on a team full of 5-star aliens, going to a walk-on on 4th down is definitely a choice

Something scuttled Ohio State's cruel and efficient mean streak coming off of the bye week. The Buckeyes were clearly uncomfortable with who they were or how their story would unfold. They couldn’t have screwed up the end of the movie worse than they did.

If that act felt familiar, sure, the John Cooper vibes started pulsing the previous year in Ann Arbor. But that second act played out like the 2015 season right up until Sparty’s visit. That woke them up for Michigan, the same way Michigan woke them up for Georgia.

The Ohio State Buckeyes suddenly forgot who they were, again. Seven years ago that due to the inability to embrace any identity following one of the wildest national championship runs in the sport’s history. Last season all it took was one lousy week off.

They participated in three distinct football seasons in 2022 - the one which began with Notre Dame, the tenuous descent that started after the bye week and the catastrophe which it fed into on the schedule's final Saturday. That’s when five weeks of flinching finally bit them.

Horrible memories of an inability to run the ball on an unforgiving afternoon in Ann Arbor lingered over the five games that led to the rematch. A feeling which prompted the defiance of all relevant and current circumstances in order to prove a meaningless point, which was that Ohio State was, in fact, a tough football team.

The 2022 Ohio State Buckeyes inexplicably forgot who they were. All it took was one week off.

The Buckeyes got inside their own heads and the strategy from the bye week right up until kickoff in Atlanta was infected by fatal cuteness. Going to tight ends or fullbacks on 4th down with that quarterback and those receivers available. Taking that quarterback of the field to lean on the shakiest special teams in a generation for a fake punt, relying on a 3rd string walk-on center.

They reached the apex with blinding efficiency, stared at the sun and then outsmarted themselves for the better part of two months overthinking the one thing Ohio State shouldn't overthink.

Aside from a crippling number of concentrated injuries which still could have been survived through cogent strategy, the Buckeyes would get every big-picture break throughout the 2022 season.

And if that's all you knew heading into a two-week stretch of rest and recovery, you felt pretty good. Ohio State was an absolute machine and its head coach was not holding back.

Yeah, pretty good.

That defense which had allowed 87 points to close the previous season had only been forgiving in garbage time through the first six games, five of which contained garbage time with the sixth being a top-five opponent.

That unit gave up 87 points in its final two games for the second season in a row. This recurrence under a new regime and inside of a new scheme will hang on Day's neck like Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous winged metaphor right up until we arrive at the final sixth of the 2023 schedule.

Because last season was dizzying. The emotions of coming off a season without a division title, conference title or Gold Pants were fresh for many fans and just about every player and coach. The climb back to normalcy ended up in the same heap resembling the previous season's forfeited goals.

They learned the wrong lessons. Ohio State football players have been the same age every year for the past 125 seasons, so that's forgivable - but the coaching apparatus had no excuse to misunderstand the assignment as badly as it did.

This became obvious once the season was complete and the post-bye behavior crystalized into what it truly was - a clenching, uncomfortable and puckered inability to embrace its historic and well-deserved role as the oppressor in the division, the conference and most especially, the rivalry.

Which makes recency bias an asset for 2023. The consequences of flinching are still fresh.

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