This was not the way that this game was supposed to go. Last year’s loss to Michigan was supposed to be a blip on the radar for a program that has dominated its rival for the entirety of the 21st Century. Ohio State, the team with more talent reconfigured its entire defensive coaching staff to be able to ensure that what happened last year never happened again. The Buckeyes spent the entire offseason and fall camp talking about how last year’s game had sharpened their resolve and how they now understood this rivalry more than they ever had before
I honestly think all of that might have worked (I said might have, not would have) if it wasn’t for one word, “tough.”
After last year’s game, then Wolverine offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said of the Buckeyes, “They’re a finesse team, they’re not a tough team.”
That was clearly more painful to Ryan Day than the loss itself. He seemed to take that comment personally, not as the coach of a football team, but as an individual. Proving Gattis wrong — or last least making it impossible for anyone to say that again — seemed to become his singular focus, all other areas of improvement be damned.
The insistence on proving how tough his team is became more important than actually just getting better and doing what they need to do to win. I don’t mind the focus on toughness during the offseason, when you have to give players a reason to put in the grueling hours of physical training that define their upcoming season, but Day’s pursuit of “toughness” seemed to cloud his ability to focus on who his team actually is.
Instead of playing to his offense’s strengths, Day forced this faux-toughness on them and insisted on running the ball between the tackles in short yardage, never took full advantage of the best quarterback and wide receiver combination in the country, and kept putting injured running backs into games chasing that elusive “toughness.”
Essentially, Day fucked around all season and squandered the ability to maximize what his team was and could be, because his ego was bruised so he decided that he wanted them to be something completely different than what he had built them to be.
To me, the two parts of Gattis’ statement are not saying the same thing, and Day focused exclusively on the wrong part. Ohio State is absolutely, unequivocally, without a doubt a finesse team as currently constructed. You do not assemble that level of offensive talent and not rely on finesse. Even from the running backs, while Miyan Williams was a bit of a revolution this season in a more physical mode, TreVeyon Henderson came to Ohio State as a quick-cut, home-run-hitting type of back who was more likely to run away from a defender than to run him over.
And let me be clear, being a finesse team is not a bad thing. Sure, you want to have some physicality to go along with all of that skill and finesse, but Day and his coaching staff — at least on offense — built the team to be able to score quickly either vertically or by turning a short or intermediate play into a chunk play on the sheer talent of the players with the ball.
Besides, you can be a tough team without having to line up and play smash-mouth offensive football. Toughness can be in wide receiver hand fighting, in tight ends not getting embarrassed in open-field blocking, in your quarterback not continually throwing off his back foot at the first sign of pressure.
Yes, I would love to see Ohio State’s offensive line absolutely obliterate the opposition in running blocking on every short-yardage play, but that’s just not who this offense is. In his first few seasons, it seemed like Day understood that, but the deeper he’s gotten into his tenure as head coach, the more confused he’s seemed to become about his team’s identity.
He used to have a creative, aggressive offensive approach. His unit used to be able to score at will against good teams and bad (not just the bad). But, because of one comment from an opposing coach, Day decided that wasn’t good enough anymore. We here at Land-Grant Holy Land have seemingly been on an island alone in questioning Day’s play-calling all season (one of the benefits of being a blog vs. an official beat outlet, I suppose), and while it might have seemed like an overreaction early in the season, that position has only proven to be more and more correct with each passing week.
Day seemed to think that his team’s talent didn’t need nurturing, didn’t need refining, didn’t need repetition. Instead, he assumed that it was a given and that spending time — both in practices and in games — on things that ran inherently counter to who they were as a team were going to magically transform them into a different team of completely different players.
Obviously, when trying to compete at the highest levels, you want to work to improve your weakest areas, but that doesn’t mean that you can abandon your strengths and expect them to continue to be as strong as they could be when you need them most.
Go ahead and plant some rutabaga and asparagus in your garden if you want, Ryan, but make sure you tend to your money crops too. Ryan Day didn’t do that, and he found out what can happen when you take your eye off of your identity and fuck around with things that need not be fucked around with.