Five Things: Changes Must Be Made After Ohio State Follows Up Loss to Michigan With a 14-3 Loss to Missouri in the Cotton Bowl

By Chris Lauderback on December 30, 2023 at 10:10 am
Lincoln Kienholz with about 1.5 seconds to throw.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State's 2023 season ended with a whimper in the Cotton Bowl as the Buckeyes dropped a 14-3 decision to 9th-ranked Missouri behind an offense crippled by poor line play and and aggressive Tigers defense daring quarterbacks Devin Brown and Lincoln Kienholz to make a play downfield. 

Brown, thrust into a starting role after Kyle McCord transferred shortly after the Buckeyes lost to Michigan, suffered a high ankle sprain on Ohio State's third possession and played just one more series before having to shut it down. The injury pushed Kienholz into action and, while not his fault, the true freshman was unprepared and overwhelmed by the lack of blocking, experience and a plan. 

Meanwhile, Ohio State's defense did all it could do, constantly forced back on the field after short Buckeye possessions, before giving way late as Missouri scored touchdowns on back-to-back fourth quarter drives.

The problems blocking and at quarterback were exacerbated by eight penalties and the standard atrocious performance from Parker Fleming's special teams. 

The loss dropped Ohio State's record to 11-2 and marked the first time since 1990 and 1991 that the Buckeyes suffered losses to Michigan and the ensuing bowl opponent in back-to-back seasons. 

Let's get to Five Things. 


One of many Ohio State juniors needing to decide to turn pro or return for another season, Jack Sawyer has been talking for a month like a guy who plans to come back to Columbus to improve his draft stock and get another crack at reaching team goals such as beating Michigan, winning the Big Ten and earning a spot in the College Football Playoff. 

Sawyer wasn't all that impressive early this season but came on down the stretch and last night easily had his best game as a Buckeye. The Pickerington native logged four tackles, three sacks and a quarterback hurry in a sterling performance. The four stops combined for -19 yards. 

After the game, Sawyer spoke with emotion about his teammates and complemented Kienholz for hanging in there during a really tough situation offering, "“I just want to give Lincoln a shoutout for stepping in there and playing with confidence in a tough spot. I thought you fought your ass off, man. It's not easy, and you went in there and you did the best you could. So shout out to you, man.”

Beyond what he does on the field and how he blossomed over the last few months, Sawyer is the type of dude Ohio State needs in the locker room if it wants to have any chance at turning things around when it comes to winning matchup games. 


It wasn't just Sawyer holding up his end of the bargain as Jim Knowles' defense held Missouri to a season low 14 points. 

The problem was the defense could only give up two points on this night if Ohio State was going to prevail. With the OSU offense posting seven of 11 drives lasting 2:04 of game time or less, and running no more than five plays on six possessions, the Buckeye defense held up until the fourth quarter. 

Missouri mustered just 105 yards and zero points across its first nine possessions but the Tigers cranked out 226 yards on the final three drives, two of which resulted in touchdowns. 

Sawyer was the headliner but many guys across Larry Johnson's defensive line had their moments paced by Ty Hamilton's six stops, two tackles for loss and a sack. JT Tuimoloau logged four tackles, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry while Tyliek Williams and Mike Hall Jr. combined for seven stops. The defensive line accounted for six of the team's eight TFLs and five of six sacks. 

Mike linebacker Cody Simon did everything Tommy Eichenberg would do in a game suited for his skill-set as he posted a team-high 12 tackles. Corners Denzel Burke and Davison Igbinosun were solid in run support and defending the pass, helping hold Tigers quarterback Brady Cook to 11-of-18 passing for 128 yards and one touchdown. Josh Proctor left it all on the field with six physical stops and a hurry (to go along with a bogus late hit call). 

Salute to the defense for doing it's fair share in the face of long odds thanks to Ohio State's rudderless offense. 


The offense obviously stunk out loud as evidenced by the three points and 203 total yards, both serving as the lowest outputs in either metric since Day joined the staff in 2017.

But to their credit, a few offensive players hung in there. 

I was thoroughly impressed with TreVeyon Henderson - who was a question mark to even play in this game - after he turned in a modest 19-carry, 72-yard performance. Yeah those numbers aren't eye popping but he competed his ass off even as he knew he was going to get smoked on most carries as Ohio State's offensive line performed to Yakety Sax playing in its head. 

Henderson was very vocal on the field and appeared to remain positive even as he had to be frustrated beyond belief. Like Sawyer, he's the type of guy you want in the locker room for more than just his talent if Ohio State hopes to right the ship in 2024. 

It was also nice to Emeka Egbuka record his most catches (six) since the Notre Dame game (seven) in a contest where Ohio State's quarterbacks completed 10 passes. Yeah, I'm reaching here. Still, like with Henderson, having a veteran Egbuka back even after a disappointing season hampered by injury, assuming that's what happens, would be huge for whoever the quarterback is next year. I'm just as high on Carnell Tate, Brandon Inniss, Jeremiah Smith and others as you are but having Emeka to help lead that room would be significant. 

Finally, props to Xavier Johnson and Cade Stover for hanging in there and trying to provide some leadership on a night where the offensive staff let its players down. 

Johnson's story is well-documented and while Stover wasn't always an elite blocker, the dude brought toughness and selflessness and developed into an upper tier pass catching tight end. Those two will be missed in various ways. 


Not that my opinion matters but I still don't take lightly calling for someone's head in an article and it's certainly not a common occurrence from me since writing for this site dating back to 2006. That said, special teams coach Parker Fleming has to go, like yesterday. Hell, like last season. 

Now that Day's own seat is starting to warm, it seems inevitable he'll dismiss Fleming knowing Ohio State couldn't possibly be worse off it didn't have a special teams coach at all. The rare situation of even having a full-time special teams coach is even more problematic as it is keeping James Laurinaitis from being an assistant coach in charge of linebackers that could hit the road and recruit. 

Last night, Ohio State special teams did what it always does: logged three penalties and fair caught like three balls inside the 10 (and while you can't pin it on Fleming, missed a 48-yard field goal indoors). 

A delay of game penalty on the punt team after the first series of the game was hardly a stunner and I always love a good holding call on punt return when Ohio State fair catches like 75% of punts anyway. 

Ironically, special teams accounted for Ohio State's only points of the night but it's obviously beyond time for Day to address this gaping shortcoming. 


Working off the assumption Day isn't going anywhere before the end of next season at the earliest, what to do about special teams might be the easiest decision on his plate. 

First, if Day is going to more effectively oversee the entirety of the program - the head coach's primary reason for employment - then he probably needs to get comfortable giving up playcalling and ensure he's got the right person on staff to call the plays and help create the game plan, whether that's Brian Hartline and/or others. 

I'm at a loss for words why, at least by the second half, Ohio State had virtually zero counters to what looked like the same four-man rush and blitz packages. Watching Kienholz sprint straight backward 10-15 yards and launch the ball across his body as far as he could clearly wasn't a path to success. No screens to Henderson, tight ends or receivers to take advantage of Missouri's pressure? If you never burn the blitz, it never stops coming.

Second, a hard look at the offensive line organization is in order. Yeah, Missouri was able to pin their ears back and dare Ohio State to throw especially after Kienholz was forced into action but that doesn't excuse the consistent mental errors and one-on-one breakdowns seen throughout the night from the front five. 

Tackles Josh Simmons and Josh Fryar each had false starts and got turnstiled a few times which wasn't exactly a new issue despite playing better over the back half of the regular season. 

The interior also struggled after a reshuffling during bowl practices saw right guard Matt Jones move to center, reserve Enokk Vamahi inserted into Jones' right guard spot and 12-game starting center Carson Hinzman benched. Day said postgame Hinzman was bad in practice so a change was made. That change exposed the reality Ohio State has little to no depth on the offensive line right now and didn't do much to develop it during the season as Vamahi was repeatedly beat last night after logging just 43 snaps during the first 12 games.

Also, while I think there's merit to the hypothesis shared by some that Hinzman was actually benched for comments he made about an NIL collective during an interview earlier this month, you might have a drug problem if you think that collective called for his suspension and was granted such a request, versus Day himself taking action. 

Bottom line, the offensive line was an Achilles heel in far too many games this season and unless Day gets active in the portal and/or addresses the recruiting and development by he and Frye, the same figures to be true next year. It's wild Larry Johnson catches so much more heat from the fan base than Frye. 

And real quick, Day will also have to decide if Corey Dennis is the top tier quarterbacks coach he needs, particularly if he wants to move into more of a CEO-based role. 

No one coach, player or decision created the current concern that is Ohio State's quarterback room but with 2024 potentially being a make or break season for Day, whether to snag a QB like Will Howard in the portal and determining who will help coach the quarterbacks feel like pretty big decisions. 

All this is obviously rooted in a belief Ohio State can't/won't fire Day at this point. Gene Smith hiring a new head coach when he's retiring in a few months is unrealistic unless the new athletic director is hired and sits alongside Gene starting like tomorrow. I know a growing number of fans vehemently disagree with keeping Day for another season and I absolutely understand the frustration but I struggle to see an elite replacement walking through the door if that replacement has no clear idea who his boss will be in six months. 

More likely, fans have to hope Day has a reckoning with himself and makes a host of changes in coaching personnel, logistical staff and head coach role deployment, and roster construction. Otherwise, an inability to win games against top tier competition will continue for at least one more season. 

View 193 Comments