In the aftermath of Saturday’s loss to Michigan, one of the biggest questions Ryan Day received was why Ohio State did not go for it on 4th-and-5 at Michigan’s 43-yard line in the third quarter.
Ohio State was trailing 24-20 and in need of a momentum shift, and Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud could be seen imploring Day to keep the offense on the field. The Buckeyes’ decision to punt the ball only gained them 23 yards of field position when Jesse Mirco’s punt ended up in the end zone for a touchback. Michigan ended up driving 80 yards in 15 plays for a touchdown, taking 7:50 off the clock in the process of taking a two-score lead, and the Buckeyes never recovered as they eventually lost 45-23.
Upon further review, however, it appears Ohio State actually was going to go for it in that situation – just not the way anyone expected.
Jim Harbaugh revealed as much during his initial media availability of Big Ten Championship Game week on Sunday, as he and his staff discovered Ohio State was actually planning to run a fake punt. Video of the play suggests that Ohio State long snapper Mason Arnold was supposed to snap the ball to fullback Mitch Rossi, who would have had an open lane to potentially run for a first down and then some, but Arnold ended up snapping the ball in Mirco's direction instead, forcing Mirco to quickly react to catch the punt and boot the ball with three rushers in his face.
“We got so lucky,” Harbaugh said. “They had a fake on. And they had us. I mean they had us cold. We were prepared for it. We knew the fake was coming just by the personnel that was there. We had four practices, four meetings. And not one of us saw it. Nobody on the field saw it, and they had us cold.
“I think their snapper snapped to the wrong guy, snapped it to the punter instead of to the faker, but it would have been a huge gain. We got extremely lucky. They actually were going for it and would have pulled off a big fourth-down conversion. We're kicking ourselves for not identifying it like we should have. We got super lucky.
“It’s not a question of coaching decision. They had decided – had it really wired to work. We had it wired to stop. We could have really stopped it. And then when they did snap it to their punter, we really should have blocked it.”
The punt came after Arnold had been penalized for an illegal snap, which made it 4th-and-10 instead of 4th-and-5, but Rossi likely still would have gotten a first down out of the play. Ohio State’s personnel appeared to be designed for a fake, as starting wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. and Julian Fleming were both on the field instead of the Buckeyes’ most common punt gunners, Jayden Ballard and Josh Proctor.
Ryan Day, however, did not acknowledge the potential fake when asked postgame about the decision to punt.
“I think in games like that, you have to play the field-position game,” Day said. “And 4th-and-5 around midfield, it was 4th-and-3, 4th-and-2, I think maybe you take a shot there. I didn't feel like we were desperate at that point. And so I felt like that was the right thing to do.”