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College Football Playoff offers Ryan Day a shot to change his legacy

Cracks have appeared in Day’s tenure at Ohio State as he gets further removed from the Urban Meyer era, but he now has a chance to rewrite his legacy’s trajectory.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Day is in his fourth season at the helm of the Ohio State football program, and after a promising start, some of the luster has come off of his stewardship of the Buckeyes the last couple of years. Despite maintaining a high level of recruiting, the further he’s removed from the Urban Meyer era, the more inconsistently his teams have played — and the more inexplicably odd the decisions and performances have become in the team’s biggest games, especially against the Buckeyes’ biggest rival.

However, with USC’s bad loss to Utah on Friday night and the Buckeyes’ selection to compete in the College Football Playoff, Day has a chance to correct the trajectory of his OSU legacy and move the narrative of his Ohio State career closer to that of Meyer’s than to John Cooper’s.

Things started brightly for Day in Columbus after Meyer’s departure. Day’s Buckeyes went unbeaten in the 2019 regular season, destroyed No. 13 Michigan in Ann Arbor, 56-27, defeated No. 8 Wisconsin by 13 points in the Big Ten Championship, and then got summarily robbed of an almost certain win over No. 3 Clemson due to an unconscionable officiating decision to overturn an apparent fumble forced by Jeff Okudah and Jordan Fuller’s subsequent scoop and score in the Fiesta Bowl.

That loss, which turned largely on a decision to negate a play that was called correctly on the field, was all that kept Day and the Buckeyes out of the national championship game in his first season in charge.

The 2020 season was an odd one due to the pandemic. After the Big Ten almost scrapped the season while other leagues played, conference teams played different numbers of games due to COVID outbreaks within their squads. Day’s Buckeyes navigated their way to the College Football Playoff after a 5-0 regular season, although a nervy home win over Indiana showed some vulnerability.

Day himself showed vulnerability as a head coach and as a play caller in the Big Ten title game against Northwestern that year. The Wildcats were locked in on stopping the pass in that game and did a good job of doing so. Despite some obvious early success on Trey Sermon runs, the Buckeyes trailed 10-6 at the half and steadfastly refused to commit to the ground game.

Once Day finally — seemingly begrudgingly — did that, Sermon turned in an all-time performance, setting a school record with 331 rushing yards as the Buckeyes outscored Northwestern 16-0 after halftime to win, 22-10.

It’s Monday, so why not spend five minutes enjoying those memories:

Day then led an angry Ohio State team against No. 2 Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal and got everything exactly right, stuffing Dabo Swinney and the Tigers into a locker with a 49-28 revenge victory. Unfortunately, the Buckeyes lost some key players (including Sermon) prior to and early in the championship match-up with Alabama, couldn’t figure out how to cover DeVonta Smith, and fell 52-24. That was a great Crimson Tide team, and a national runner-up season was probably a fair final outcome for the 2020 Buckeyes.

But Year 3 after Urban is when the cracks really started to show. While it’s clear that defensive problems — which were wallpapered over a bit by shuffling the coaching staff deck chairs midseason — created problems for Ohio State, it wasn’t only that side of the ball that was at fault for an 11-2 season and the team’s first loss to Michigan since 2003.

It took a couple of games, including a home loss to Oregon that can largely be pinned on defensive scheme issues, to get first-year starter C.J. Stroud settled in. Those early games were exacerbated by Stroud’s shoulder injury that eventually got better with some rest. But it was the Penn State game when we first saw the Buckeyes play like they were wound far too tightly. The Buckeyes prevailed 33-24 at home, but there were a number of unnecessary mistakes, penalties, and a Jeremy Ruckert fumble that helped the Nittany Lions that day.

The Penn State performance spilled over into the next game when the Buckeyes went to Nebraska and played a bad (ultimately 3-9) Cornhuskers team much closer than expected, scoring just two touchdowns, and only 26 points. Six of Nebraska’s other opponents scored more points against the Huskers in 2021 than Ohio State did.

An easy 56-7 destruction of No. 7 Michigan State had the Buckeyes feeling good going into The Game last year. But then things went very wrong.

The Buckeyes again had to settle for field goals early, ran inconsistently, trailed at halftime, and the defense got steamrolled in the second half as the Wolverines won, 42-27. It was the first time Ohio State had failed to reach the Big Ten’s title game since 2016 and just the fourth time ever that the Buckeyes failed to get there.

Ohio State finished the season with an appearance in the Rose Bowl against Utah, missing high-profile opt-outs that included starting wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, defensive tackle Haskell Garrett, and tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere. The Buckeyes showed some resilience to rally back to defeat the Utes, 48-45.

The 2022 season provided a chance at a fresh start for Day, with some changes to the coaching staff that were supposed to fix the issues of 2021, particularly on defense and along the offensive line. For the most part, the changes to the coaching staff did what they were supposed to do until the rivalry game.

Day led the Buckeyes to a 21-10 win over No. 5 Notre Dame on opening day, but things didn’t look crisp. While it seemed like that might be due to the Fighting Irish being a good team, Notre Dame went on to suffer an embarrassing home loss to Marshall the next week and struggled to win some close games over the next several weeks, losing at home again to Stanford on Oct. 15. The Irish righted the ship after that and had a decent year, but Ohio State’s struggles against the Notre Dame defense seemed odd at the time and after the full regular season, they don’t seem any less strange.

But that was just the first salvo fired at Day’s reputation in 2022. There were first-half struggles against Iowa and Penn State, with some curious play-calling and a lack of any adjustments until halftime, and the team again seemingly played too tightly and looking unsettled at times. Ohio State trailed midway through the fourth quarter of that game before finally taking control, starting with a long TreVeyon Henderson touchdown run.

Then the trip to Northwestern showed an outright stubbornness on Day’s part to adjust to clearly difficult weather conditions and commit to running the football. A bad Wildcats team went into the locker room visibly excited to be tied 7-7 with the Buckeyes, and Ohio State managed only two more scores in the second half to win 21-7. Fans and pundits were again questioning the Buckeyes’ toughness and ability to play up to their talent level after that game, as they had done following the 2021 loss to Michigan.

The team went on the road the week before The Game and again struggled through the first half against a Maryland team that had lost its previous two games. Day’s Buckeyes couldn’t get much done offensively in the first half and trailed 13-10 at the break. Ohio State took control in the third quarter, but struggled again in the fourth as the Terrapins climbed back into the game, cutting the lead to three points with less than 10 minutes to play. Day’s offense added a field goal, but it was a defensive play that helped the Buckeyes put the game away with just seconds remaining.

Ohio State got off to a good start in The Game in 2022, but then suffered from the same issues it had all season. They all came to a head in one game. The team played tight —despite a good start — fell into play-calling ruts, had pre-snap penalties, and busted coverage regularly. Defensive Coordinator Jim Knowles put his cornerbacks — a position group that struggled all season — on an island repeatedly in the first half and that allowed the Wolverines to bust some big plays and settle into the game after a jittery start.

None of Ohio State’s halftime adjustments worked in The Game, with the Buckeyes scoring just three measly second-half points. With Knowles’ defense uncharacteristically giving up two huge touchdown runs late, the final score wasn’t even close as the Wolverines prevailed, 45-23, winning in the Horseshoe for the first time in 20 years. Credit to Michigan, but it’s hard to imagine the team going gently to that goodnight under Meyer or Jim Tressel.

Despite an insanely good overall record, fans and some media outlets suggested (strongly) that Ohio State should replace Day as head coach. Public perception is that Day is trying to do too much and should turn over play-calling duties rather than trying to serve as both offensive coordinator and head coach. There’s plenty of ammunition for those critiques, with the Buckeyes laboring all season to do basic things — like getting the snap off before the play clock expired — and repeatedly calling plays that the team struggles to execute anywhere near satisfactorily (wide receiver screens, anyone?).

Though Day had few detractors over his first couple of seasons, and any criticisms of him seemed to come mainly from a vocal minority of a spoiled fanbase, the 2022 season — for the first time — made the suggestions of replacing him sound reasonable. It seemed there might be some credence to accusations that Day “doesn’t get” the rivalry with Michigan after two straight lopsided losses in The Game. And there was certainly plenty of evidence that Day refuses to change elements of his game plan that aren’t working or to adjust play-calling to throw out things that clearly aren’t working or stick with things that are.

Friday night, the Buckeyes got a major break, with USC getting housed by three-loss Utah in the Pac-12 championship. The Utes, who previously nipped the Trojans earlier in the year, destroyed USC in front of the entire nation in the rematch. After a season that included some close USC wins against average teams, in which a special player like quarterback Caleb Williams made all the difference, the Trojans had their second loss and that cracked the door open for Ohio State.

The Buckeyes got word Sunday that they’ll be going to the College Football Playoff after all. Their reward is a New Year’s Eve matchup with No. 1 Georgia — perhaps the best and most complete team in college football in 2022. Ohio State enters as the underdog, which is a role the team has not found itself in all year. There’s a chance to salvage a season that easily could have ended in a meaningless bowl game with several top players, including Stroud, sitting it out.

But now Day has a chance to rewrite an OSU legacy that has been showing more and more cracks as the time since Meyer’s departure grows. The Bulldogs will be tough and physical. Georgia’s defensive backs can run with Day’s celebrated receiving corps. And Kirby Smart’s offense can both run with power like Michigan and pick apart defenses through the air. Georgia made LSU look like a 2-10 team in the SEC championship. Avoiding a lopsided loss is imperative or Day’s critics will only get louder and Ohio State’s days of getting any benefit of the doubt will be over.

However, if Day and his staff can create a successful game plan to upset Georgia and get the Buckeyes to execute that plan with few (or no) mistakes, it will quiet some of the criticism. It will also likely set up a rematch with a team that has gotten the better of him two years running.

A win over the Bulldogs will probably — not certainly, but probably — set up a rematch of The Game on the biggest stage in college football. If Day can learn from his past mistakes and get revenge on Michigan in that iteration of The Game, it would shut just about everyone up and completely change the trajectory of his Ohio State coaching career. This would have to include working with Knowles to improve a dumpster fire of a game plan from the team’s most recent outing, but Day hired Knowles, so his destiny is tied to his defensive coordinator.

If Day were to lose that game, it might be a spiral from which he would be unable to recover. There is always pressure coaching at Ohio State. The next game — or two — will show how Day can handle it at its most intense.