Ohio State's Players and Coaches Turn Focus to Michigan As the Buckeyes' Build During the 2023 Season Faces Its Ultimate Test

By Andy Anders on November 18, 2023 at 9:31 pm
Ryan Day

To say the last 11 weeks have been building to the renewal of Ohio State’s rivalry with Michigan would be an understatement. Truthfully, there’s been a ramp-up to Nov. 25 since the clock struck midnight on Ohio State’s 2022 campaign.

The identity of the Buckeyes’ defense is a prime example. Jim Knowles has openly pined about his shift in philosophy this year, dialing back his typical aggression to prevent big plays like Michigan’s five 40-yard-plus touchdowns that killed Ohio State against the Wolverines a year ago. He reiterated his assuredness in the strides the team has taken in that area after Ohio State’s 37-3 win over Minnesota on Saturday.

“I think we all feel better when you're playing in the back end and getting your hands on passes and contesting routes and being in the right position and on top when you're supposed to be on top,” Knowles said. “You see the numbers and the explosive plays. I mean, that tells the story. It's just something that gives everybody confidence. It gives the whole team confidence.”

As such, it’s no surprise that Ryan Day gave a sly “no comment” when asked at what point in Saturday’s game his brain turned from Minnesota to Michigan, as the collective minds of Ohio State’s players and coaches have now all done.

“It’s all going to be tested next week,” Day said. “You’re seeing the strides, but I mean, it is what it is. We’re getting better every week, but it’s all headed toward the end of the season and playing our best football.”

Not that the stakes entering The Game are ever low, but this year feels like one of the most high-intensity clashes in the history of the rivalry.

As much would be true simply based on the standing of both teams. Ohio State and Michigan are both 11-0 and likely to stay at No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in the College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday.

The winner of next Saturday’s contest goes to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis, representing the Big Ten East. The loser will watch said game from its couch and hope enough chaos happens around the college football world that it can backdoor into a CFP spot.

“It’s exciting,” Jack Sawyer said of the stakes for Ohio State-Michigan. “We’re in the same spot we were last year. We’re both undefeated. This time, we’re going up there, and it’s going to be a good game. We’re excited, and like I said, all the focus goes to them now.”

Speaking of last year, the results of the previous two seasons also play a huge factor in the palpable pressure so intense it could cook a turkey going into the Thanksgiving weekend clash.

The Buckeyes have seen their last two seasons derailed in striking ways by the Wolverines, first by a 42-27 scoreline in 2021, then a 45-23 final in 2022.

Both losses cost Ohio State a bid in the Big Ten Championship Game, and the former cost Ohio State its CFP chances. That is in addition to the heartbreaking, program-questioning nature of a loss to your most hated rival in such a fashion.

“We say we prepare for it 365 days a year, and I truly believe that,” Kyle McCord said. “I think, guys on the team, we think about it every day. Especially the way the last two years have gone. So to be back in the same position we were last year with a chance to right the ship – I think everybody is definitely excited for it, without a doubt.”

None of that even dives into the allegations of a massive, elaborate sign-stealing scandal perpetrated by former Michigan staffer Connor Stalions over the past three seasons, which caused the Big Ten to suspend Jim Harbaugh for the remainder of the regular season. It’s a story that has seen new developments with each passing week.

Even with all that on the line and the stories swirling about their heads, Day and company said that it was essential to maintain focus on Minnesota this week. The head coach stated everyone “stayed in the moment” against the Golden Gophers.

“Honestly, this week, we were really focused on getting this one,” Sawyer said. “Because if we didn't, if we didn't get this win, then you can kind of throw everything else out the window. So we were really focused on Minnesota this week and making sure we took care of this game.”

Questions now pertain as to whether Ohio State is up to the challenge of going to Ann Arbor and knocking off Michigan on its home sod.

"It’s all going to be tested next week."– Ryan Day

On defense, Knowles believes the Buckeyes have proven they can win games by getting stops this year and he’ll be locked in on seeing that trend continue against the Wolverines.

“We’re going to digest this one, obviously, look for the things that we can get better at from this game,” Knowles said. “I think that's important. It's a build, and it's going to be a build starting tomorrow. I'm sure the guys are going to be ready. We've come to count on our defense, and it needs to remain that way.”

Sawyer has seen the confidence of his teammates grow with each game.

“I think we feel very confident,” Sawyer said. “We have a mentality where we’re going to win games on defense. We’re just carrying that throughout the whole season and building each game, building each practice. Tonight was a good performance, and we’re just going to build on that for next week.”

Things haven’t always been as crisp for Ohio State’s offense, and even against Minnesota, the Buckeyes managed just 13 points in the first half and settled for field goals twice in the red zone. But the team has grown throughout the season.

And regardless of where the offense or any other aspect of the team is at right now, all that remains is to go show it on the field against Michigan.

“We’re here now,” Day said. “Are there always things we want to get better at? Absolutely. But I think you’re seeing the identity that we’re looking for. I think you’re seeing the run, you’re seeing the pass, you’re seeing the explosiveness, and that’s what we want. So we’re 11 games in. Time to go play.”

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