Ohio State’s loss to Michigan is still weighing heavy on the minds of the Buckeye faithful, with many people are already looking forward to what’s next due to the defeat. The Buckeyes ended up on the wrong side of a lopsided scoreboard, 45-23, but unlike last year there wasn’t a physical dominance in the trenches until late.
The Buckeyes did not lose this game due to bad scheme, bad execution, or players not wanting it bad enough. They lost because they were unable to make plays in key moments, and with their inability to come up big in those spots, Michigan was able to break the will of Ohio State on both sides of the ball. As many have written this week, the mental aspect failed the Buckeyes to a greater effect than any scheme could.
Looking at those key moments will help make sense of where Ohio State went wrong, how Michigan was able to attack Ohio State, and why the Buckeyes lost their grip after both teams went into the halftime. Questionable coaching decisions in big spots and defensive lapses defined this matchup, not a physical imposition.
Ohio State needed to make changes last year, and after rewatching the matchup, the Buckeyes will need to look in the mirror this year.
Through much of the first half Ohio State was in control of the game at the line of scrimmage. They had found a run game with Chip Trayanum. Up to this point, the Buckeyes offense had converted a couple of short yardage third down situations. Ryan Day had an inventive first drive, and the Buckeyes had moved the ball at will between the 20s until this play.
On 4th down in the first quarter, the Buckeyes were trying to make an aggressive play. They had settled for a field goal in a similar situation previously to go up 10-7. Day gets into the Bison-personnel look with three tight ends on the field. They motion Gee Scott Jr. down to sell the run and Michigan bites. This gives Stroud a one-on-one throw.
There are two issues here: Day overthinking this after successfully running the ball, and the decision to throw the ball to Cade Stover against man coverage rather than one of your star wide receivers.
This is the level of confidence a play-caller needs, and if the play was executed, the game could have turned at this point. Instead, Day loses his edge after this, starting in a crucial situation he decides to play conservatively.
Offensively the Buckeyes lost their confidence after the failed 4th down conversion attempt, but what happened next played a bigger role in Michigan taking over the game against Ohio State. After turning the ball over on downs, the Buckeyes’ defense came out strong, forcing Michigan into another 3rd-and-long scenario. Jim Knowles was brought in to fix Ohio State’s defense, and philosophically this has been done by being aggressive.
The only issues with being aggressive is everybody has to do their job for that to work. Michigan drops back and Ohio State brings a max pressure playing Cover-0 behind the blitzers. Cam Brown is one-on-one with no help over the top. The blitz forces McCarthy into retreating and throwing the ball off of his back foot. Cornelius Johnson is able to make the catch, and this is where the play falls apart.
Brown jumps inside and lunges at the receiver to make the tackle. By playing with bad tackling technique, Johnson is able to get outside away from any potential pursuing defenders and takes it to the house. From there, Ohio State’s defense was not the same.
The next series, Michigan strikes again. At this point they’ve found the weakness they’re going to attack, and that is Ohio State’s secondary. Knowles’ plan in this matchup was to take away the run, and by committing to that he put his defensive backs into tough positions. After the last series, Knowles changed up how the Buckeyes would defend, leaving the defenders back.
Ohio State had been getting consistent pressure on McCarthy and forcing him into uncomfortable throws early. This is why after the big play he brought in an additional defensive back, and that being Cam Martinez getting his first snaps was questionable. Michigan runs a hard play-action and Johnson runs an incredible route. He gets Martinez turned the wrong way and then breaks off to the middle of the field.
Knowles abandoning what made his defense special in the aggressive nature led to another long touchdown, and the Buckeyes’ confidence was shot.
Ohio State bounced back one last time, and the frustrating aspect about the next play is Day did not take any shots like this again until it was much too late. The play is simple. Michigan brings pressure and this leaves Marvin Harrison Jr. outside in single coverage. Stroud delivers a bomb and the Buckeyes take the lead with a few minutes to go in the half.
During the stretch when Ohio State won 19 out of 20, the Buckeyes dominated with a belief that their talent would prevail. Where Day went wrong was not trusting his playmakers in key situations, and making the questionable decision to have so many designed plays to Cade Stover when Marvin Harrison Jr. exists.
A snap of the finger and the two best offensive players combined for a score.
Despite the Buckeyes regaining the lead, the Wolverines already had Ohio State beat. After the two big touchdowns, Ohio State was questioning everything and playing with no conviction. Every step was second guessed outside of a couple plays in the second half.
Michigan runs an inside zone read option here, and they are reading J.T. Tuimoloau the defensive end. Tuimoloau dives inside towards the running back, creating an obvious read for McCarthy. The issue is Tuimoloau has help on the inside with the linebackers and safeties. By jumping inside, McCarthy is able to turn the corner with a full head of steam, and when he gets to the second level, this is where you see the first sign of defeat on Ohio State’s side.
Tuimoloau takes a bad angle, attempting a weak arm tackle. Denzel Burke throws his body at him, leaving his feet without wrapping up, and Tanner McAlister is so focused on getting the strip he gets carried an additional five yards. The Buckeyes’ effort tackling was exactly what you’d see the remainder of the game. Michigan had already won.
On the next play, Michigan is driving the football down the field and Ohio State is playing on their heels after McCarthy’s run outside. Joel Klatt does the work here for me, showing what went wrong. If you pause at the 0:07 mark, you can see the defensive backs staring at the quarterback, and neither are playing the tight end after the receiver falls.
The pressure Ohio State brings doesn’t get home, McCarthy steps up in the pocket to make the throw. He delivers to another receiver running alone past the coverage. Ohio State’s defensive backs are beat once again.
The last play on offense that told the story of this game was the decision on this 3rd-and-3 at the 50-yard line. Ohio State is looking for a response. As stated previously, they did not go to Harrison Jr. or Egbuka in these situations until the closing minutes of the game when it was out of hand.
Throughout the year, Day has made some questionable decisions in these situations, and even said he felt like he was running his head into a wall. Well, so were Ohio State fans when he decided to call a toss play to a player in his first game at running back all season.
This play is over from the start. After Stover motions across, Michigan knows exactly where the ball is going. Stover has horrendous effort in his block, and this forces Trayanum to bounce the run even further outside. The receiver vacates his block to come down, and now Traynum has two defenders to beat before he even gets to the line of scrimmage.
This was a play-call that took too much time to get in, and also took too much time to develop in this situation. Michigan’s defense is built to handle inside and outside runs in these scenarios. They play gap sound responsibility football. This allows them to stop the Ohio State back short.
But that was not all. The Buckeyes folded. They were done, and psychologically beaten. The very next set of plays told the story of Ryan Day against Michigan this year. Everyone has seen the screen shots of the fake punt, but here are two from the play. The first shows how Jesse Mirco does not look ready to catch the ball.
In the second image, you can see a hole and enough space for Mitch Rossi to find the endzone. Whether it was a miscommunication or the fake was called off after the snap infraction the play before, this was an opportunity to be aggressive. They backed off, and the next Michigan drive was an 8-minute drive to give the Wolverines a two-score lead. Ohio State would drive down one more time, settling for a cowardly field goal.
The game could be surmised by simply saying one team took advantage of opportunities and the others backed down from them. Ohio State was not beat Saturday because Michigan had better players, they were not beat because they weren’t physical enough. They were beat mentally.
Even when the Buckeyes had the lead, you can feel the tenseness in the moment that was too big for the Buckeyes. Day became conservative, not trusting himself, which in turn led to the players losing belief. In quite a few crucial points you can see the eagerness in quarterback C.J. Stroud’s face, the look of give us a shot and we’ll make it happen. But Day backed away in too many crucial moments.
This was the case on the defensive side of the ball as well. After the first touchdown Michigan scored, Knowles backed off. Once they backed off, it opened up another opportunity for Michigan to strike down field. Knowles was no longer aggressive and never committed to anything specific. Michigan was able to run the ball down the stretch, and the lack of belief led to the two home runs that put the game away.
Comparing the last two games against Michigan, this one should sting a lot more. At home, losing the battle from a mental standpoint is unacceptable, and it starts with the coaches. One team played with no fear, a strong belief, and willingness to fight even when things weren’t going well. The other puffed their chest out and ran once they got punched in the mouth.
This game was decided by moments, and in key moments the Buckeyes came up short. Now ensues another offseason of looking in the mirror and evaluating what went wrong. This time around, the Buckeyes will have to dig even deeper to find a solution.