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Ryan Day’s big-game record took a hit on New Year’s Eve, but bad luck is at least partially to blame

The Ohio State head coach does not deserve a total pass for his team’s past performances — especially in CFP and rivalry games. But can a fella get a break once in a while!?

Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Ryan Day is now 45-6 as head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes. His .882 winning percentage puts him ahead of Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, and Dabo Swinney — just to name a few. And he is highly respected for not only his offensive prowess and ability to develop quarterbacks, but also his general leadership and work as a mental health advocate.

But in the minds of many (eh, let’s call it a vocal few), his accomplishments and sterling reputation don’t mean a thing without the ring.

I concur, but to a lesser degree. Yes, at some point, Day must win a national championship if he wants to go down as one of the all-time Ohio State coaching legends. That is the expectation, and it is the standard to which he will always be held. Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer did Day no favors by winning it all so early in their respective tenures, but the current HC knew what he was signing up for. With great power comes great responsibility.

However, it is impossible to view Day’s accomplishments as anything less than impressive. The man is 45 and freaking six! His teams have played in three of the last four College Football Playoffs. He has been able to avoid upsets like his corners avoid finding the football (sorry, but not really). And the culture in Columbus seems to be quite strong, despite what some of his detractors would have you believe.

But why has Day not been able to get OSU over the hump? And should he shoulder all of the blame?

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Working in reverse, the answer to my second question is a definitive “no”. Day should receive much of the ire from disgruntled Buckeye fans, but football is a team game, with many players and coaches involved. There is plenty of blame to go around. On top of that, winning a national championship is hard! So in most instances, blame should be removed from the equation entirely. The better team usually wins, and to say that Ohio State is or always has been the better team, is just plain ignorant.

We as fans wish it were the case, but the 2020 season is a perfect example. I do not consider Day to be remotely at fault for his team’s loss to Alabama. He was not responsible for OSU’s worst defense since the turn of century, and Bama had the far more talented roster. Getting your butt handed to you by a superior team does not equal inferior coaching – at least not all of the time. In this particular instance, it was David versus Goliath, and the little guy was wearing scarlet and gray.

All of that being said, Day has repeatedly shot himself in the foot with a conservative approach in big games, resulting in multiple losses to TTUN and a 1-3 CFP record. So failing to get the Buckeyes (all the way) over the hump – when put in a very realistic situation to do so – is something that he should absolutely take ownership of. And I believe that he does/has. Because Day is not much of an excuse-maker, in my opinion... even if the temptation to do so must be real.

How could it not be (real)? Day and at least a few of his teams have been the victim(s) of horrendous luck in multiple big games, including last Saturday’s Peach Bowl. I know that if it were me giving press conferences and interviews, the media would not yet have heard the end of my tirade aimed at officials and their interpretation of targeting. But Ohio State has refused to play much of a blame game, despite losing arguably their most important player for the entirety of the fourth quarter.

Up 11 and driving, the Buckeyes faced a pivotal third down in their effort to put the defending champs (Georgia) away. C.J. Stroud lobbed a pass toward Marvin Harrison Jr. in the endzone, which the receiver did get his hands on, but he was separated from the ball – and nearly his helmet – by a hard hit from UGA’s Javon Bullard. Helmet-to-helmet contact was debatable, but the defender leaving his feet to launch and Harrison’s status as a defenseless player were not.

Somehow the original targeting call was reversed, forcing Ohio State to settle for a field goal and a 14-point lead. The rest, as they say, is history.

Unfortunately, losing college football’s best wide receiver (for a second time in 2022) was hardly Day’s first brush with bad luck in a CFP setting. Trailing 21-16 in the 2019 Fiesta bowl, OSU’s Jeff Okudah forced a fumble, which was then picked up and taken to the house by fellow Buckeye Jordan Fuller. But upon replay review and a large sum of money apparently changing hands, that call was also reversed, protecting Clemson’s lead.

Ohio State did eventually take a lead in the fourth quarter, but after trading scores with the Tigers, Justin Fields and Chris Olave could not get on the same page, leading to a game and season-ending interception for Day’s squad. The zebras, man. Twice in four years...

Re-hashing these painful events might give you the impression that I am a Ryan Day apologist. And maybe I am, which I’ve acknowledged on LGHL’s Hangout in the Holy Land. But we cannot simply ignore the obvious. OSU has been royally screwed by (at least) two blown calls in two different CFP semifinals. If that statement makes me a homer, fine. I would argue that it makes me a reasonable football fan with two functioning eyeballs.

I am not here to defend Ryan Day or label him a victim of exclusively bad luck. The man makes an exorbitant amount of money, and criticism comes with the territory. But I think it is worth pointing out or arguing that two plays – two tiny, little plays – have significantly impacted his early coaching legacy. And the vast history of Ohio State football! Think about that: Just two plays could have potentially cost Day and the Buckeyes two national championships.

If those painful memories are too much to bear, at least think about how incredibly close the Buckeyes have been – year in and year out under Day’s guidance – before grabbing your pitchforks. The luck will turn eventually, because we can’t lose ‘em all... Can we?