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Column: Ohio State focused on toughness for 365 days, now they’re in the same place they started

Ryan Day wanted to prove something this season, and now he has to look in the mirror to figure out what went wrong in his chase for toughness.

Michigan v Ohio State Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Obsession is a dangerous tool that, when wielded well, can create the determination and drive to overcome past failures. Ryan Day was obsessed with Michigan, and he was focused on turning this Ohio State team into a tough team due to the result of The Game last season. This obsession started last season when Josh Gattis — the former Michigan offensive coordinator — spoke after Michigan beat Ohio State in Ann Arbor last season.

“They’re a good team. They’re a finesse team, they’re not a tough team,” Gattis’ comments set Ohio State on a course of 365 days of lying to itself.

Ohio State was not a tough team last season, but they were never built to be a tough team in the same vein as Michigan. But the identity of the Buckeyes over the years hasn’t been traditional toughness, it has been competitive toughness. A team that overcomes adversity and takes on the challenge in front of them with no fear. Not this old school toughness that so many people still chase.

Ohio State was a tough team when they won 62-39 in Columbus in 2018, and the Buckeyes gave up 39 points then. Justin Fields was tough when he re-injured his knee and delivered a touchdown a few plays later in Ann Arbor. They won football games in their own way and on their own terms. That is the true epitome of toughness on a football field — being comfortable in your identity, your team’s strengths, and winning a football game with those in mind.

For Ryan Day, he lost site of that, and needed to fix a problem that only existed because of a final score. For him, the first step in fixing this toughness problem was getting a new defensive coordinator in Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State, and bringing in three other new coaches at positions that struggled last season. As a group, the new coaches said all the right things. They wanted to coach tough, fundamentally sound football players.

I ask these questions because these new coaches were brought into fix a lot, but was physical toughness the issue when Ohio State’s safety Cam Martinez got spun around in coverage giving up a 75-yard touchdown pass? Was physical toughness the reason Ohio State failed in one-on-one matchups throughout the season, and in a big moment against Michigan when Cam Brown missed a tackle in space?

No, the obsession with toughness failed the players, and this mindset lost focus on what mattered most: fundamentals and sound assignment football.

On this journey to become tough, the Buckeyes lost site of what made them special. This started in the spring, and for the new coaches and the fans, the spring game was the first opportunity to see what this new look Ohio State team would be. From the outside looking in, the defense played more organized football. The offensive line did not look sloppy, and the secondary made a few plays that stood out. But the real story was that Day chose to have live tackling in the spring game to prove that they were going to be a tough team.

“We’ve got to play physical. We’ve got to be tough. If we want to reach our goals this year, we’re going to have to be that way, we’re going to have to play that way, so we’ll do that on Saturday.”

Day chose to do this because they were playing Notre Dame in Week 1. At the time no one questioned the motive. From a mindset standpoint, the avalanche began on this quest of toughness for the Buckeyes. In the past, this Notre Dame team is one Day would have done everything he could to have humiliated. Not because he had to be tough, because he wanted to kick the shit out of them. Rather then being tough in the way that has gotten him here – a fearless desire to embarrass an opponent’s defense – Day decided this was the year of the pissing contest.

The killer instinct that made Day such an appealing head coach in the first place was his commitment to a high flying, balanced offense and burying opponents when the time came. The reason Day’s team wasn’t tough this season was not because of some missing machismo. They were not tough because whenever they faced an ounce of adversity, they folded. Tackling in the spring game was not going to fix the mental aspect that comes with being a tough football team.

On Saturday, the game against Michigan showed the dichotomy of toughness. Michigan wasn’t tough because they could run the ball effectively or tackle better. They were tough because when their back was against the wall and they were down early, they found a way to make plays. When Michigan punched back, Ohio State got buried in fear. The Buckeyes had one more successful big play that mattered in Marvin Harrison Jr.’s long touchdown, but the toughness battle was lost when Michigan scored the second long touchdown in the first half. Ohio State’s defense was not the same after that.

Going back to the summer, the toughness guru Mickey Marotti was the man responsible for creating a program that made the Buckeyes into a “tough team.” In my best Nathan Fielder impression, the plan was simple: change absolutely nothing, and make players lift big weight. Marotti was asked over the summer what the actual goal was.

“Everybody in this building from players, coaches, athletic trainers, nutritionists, equipment managers, everything and just kind of go back and look at what happened, why. And then turn over every stone and try to come up with a plan”

Going back to the drawing board might have sounded like a good idea, but the person drawing did not change. Once again, Ohio State forced this mindset of toughness. There are ways to be tough before getting to the physical aspect. Ohio State’s players have the physical capabilities to beat anyone, but looking at Marrotti’s plan, just remember the amount of soft-tissues injuries the Buckeyes dealt with. Look at how many injuries popped up during the week that shocked everybody Saturday morning on the availability reports.

Obsession and toughness are two things that need to be controlled. This obsession put Ohio State behind from the start, chasing a ghost of toughness that was never going to be caught because toughness is more than tackling and setting the edge.

After the offseason came the first game against Notre Dame – a team built on physical principles – against first time head coach Marcus Freeman looking to make a statement in Columbus. Ryan Day and the offense had three drives on the day that could be seen as redeeming. The Buckeyes offense was not imaginative, and the run game was stagnant until late in the matchup. After the Week 1 win, Ryan Day could only think about one thing.

“We just beat the No. 5 team in the country by 11 points, and I couldn’t be any prouder of our team, and the way that our team played, especially in the fourth quarter,” Day continued on saying, “A lot of people questioned our toughness in the offseason.”

Ohio State beat an overmatched Notre Dame team in the fourth quarter. What many took as a huge win was turned on its head only a week later. Notre Dame went on to lose their next two games against bad teams. But the Buckeyes won a toughness contest, at home. An issue arose that day. Day ignored the issues of the game like Ohio State’s offense being forced to punt on four out of five drives, not including halftime, with the fifth being a field goal attempt.

Ignoring the real issues that plagued this team was a problem that many are now talking about. Ohio State didn’t struggle this year because the team was soft. They struggled because of tentative play-calling and lack of execution in crucial moments. The inability to sustain drives was a problem that would plague the Buckeyes for the rest of the season, but hey, they won a toughness battle!

This toughness narrative was one the media sunk their teeth into, and was an honest disservice to the fanbase that ignored some more overarching problems this season.

We knew Ohio State was going to try to impose its will on Michigan through a traditionally tough sense. Stop the run and run the ball. Day was out to prove himself. His teams weren’t finesse and could win these physical battles. That mindset disregards the special talent on this team. Two of the biggest plays against Michigan were well-protected pass plays to five-star receivers for huge gains. Throughout the year, Day forgot about what made his team truly special at times. Against Indiana, Ryan Day ran the ball every single short yardage opportunity he got.

“I was ready to bang my head against the wall,” Day said after the game. “We need to get better movement, we need to run harder, we need to get the first down.”

Rather then change the process of the decision making in those situations, Day doubled down. We need to run harder. He’s not entirely wrong, but the mindset is. Everybody in the country knows Ohio State likes to run wide zone to the boundary in short yardage situations. Toughness doesn’t matter if the opponent knows what’s coming. But once again the message was clear: Day was obsessed with not being soft.

This all culminated in the lead up to the final game of the regular season, the team that started this new approach to being tough for Ohio State. All the questions being asked were about toughness. Day responded with a sentiment that they did everything they could to prepare for this matchup.

Every Ohio State coach says you prepare 365 days for the game against Michigan. Every practice, every workout, and every day has dedication to the rivalry. This maniacal nature is needed, and beating Michigan is a full time job for the head coach at Ohio State. Focusing on one single aspect is a recipe for failure. Just as maniacal as thinking about Michigan, Day was thinking about proving Ohio State was tough.

Every fan, player, and coach knows how important this game is. Fans can debate toughness, but I can tell you one thing — nobody would care about toughness if Ohio State won The Game. That’s because toughness is undefinable. It is subjective, and at the end of the day the team that wins is tougher.

“Emotionally, we came into this thing swinging. But we came up short. So I just gotta get my mind wrapped around why that happened today. And how in the end, we didn’t finish this thing the right way,” Day said after the game.

The word ‘finish’ stands out. The Buckeyes did not finish the right way. Why? Because the obsession with toughness made the Ohio State team mentally soft. The Buckeyes tried to show how tough they were all season. The defense was much improved, but they still lacked that determination that comes from a tough group. When it came down to it, Michigan was able to break the Buckeyes’ spirit again.

The Buckeyes did not get punched in the mouth on the ground in a fist fight in the trenches. Michigan found their first success and made big plays through the air. Ohio State was lost from then on, and this is where toughness comes into play. After Michigan fought back, the fans tensed up, as did the sidelines. The Buckeyes’ toughness was finally truly challenged, and this is where they began to falter.

Ohio State did not lose to Michigan because they weren’t physically tough, they lost to Michigan because they were mentally weak. When the counter punch landed, Ohio State staggered and that’s when Michigan knew they had them. The obsession with toughness was a detriment to this team. Day coached scared and the rest of the team followed. When Jim Knowles’ gamble failed, the defense did not know where to go. The players failed to respond to adversity, and they failed to play with competitive toughness once their back was against the wall. That was not tough.

You know what was tough though — Parris Campbell taking a mesh route down the sideline for a touchdown, J.K. Dobbins willing his way into the endzone on multiple occasions, and the defenses in those games making the necessary amounts of plays to win the game. 2018, Ohio State had the worst defense in school history. Calling that unit tough would have been a crime in the court of public opinion. These plays weren’t seen as tough, but the toughness was in the fearlessness that those players played with.

The plays not being “tough” plays didn’t matter, the Buckeyes knew who they were then, and now the Buckeyes will once again be looking for themselves.

Obsession is dangerous and consuming, especially when that obsession makes you something you are not. Michigan has an identity. Ohio State tried to beat them their way and look what happened, Michigan was the team that hit the big explosive plays, not Ohio State. If you think they were worried about how they were perceived because they could not run the ball in the first half, they absolutely were not.

Now Ohio State will be on another year long journey of planning how to restore their place in the college football hierarchy because they failed to beat the hated rival once again. If toughness is the sole focus once again, nothing will change. The Buckeyes need to remember who they are, and that is a team that competes with toughness. Not one that needs to win a toughness contest every time they step up on the field.

Ryan Day failed his team in his season long chase to create a tough team, losing himself and what makes Ohio State great in the process. Now he starts from scratch again, with a seat that’s hot, and a team with a roster full of players that have never beaten their rival.