The Ohio State national championship teams of the 21st Century had something in common, they were both counted out early — and in some cases often — by many college football onlookers and often for legitimate reasons.
The 2002 team had more lives than an alleycat as Jim Tressel’s team dodged bullet after bullet to win seven of its 14 games by a single score. They didn’t win pretty, but they did win.
The 2014 team lost in Week 2 to Virginia Tech and in the first year of the College Football Playoff, it was a legitimate assumption that their national title aspirations were over before they had begun.
In both cases, it was far from unreasonable to assume that the teams were not championship ready, because, for large portions of the season, they weren’t. But the beauty of sports is that it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish, and while the margin for error in college football is perhaps the thinnest of any major American sport, those two teams were able to balance atop that particular knife’s edge and get better as the season went on. While they both had bumps in the road, by the time everything was on the line, they were markedly better teams than they were when they began their journeys, and that’s all that matters.
It still remains to be seen if the 2023 Ohio State football team will end its season in similar fashion to those two iconic squads, but the early results indicate that they not only have the potential to do so, but they also have the makeup and blueprint to follow in their Buckeye brethren’s footsteps.
Through the first three games and 58:34 of the fourth, I think that it is fair to say that there were legitimate questions about multiple facets of this team; be they the inexperienced quarterback, the shaky offensive line, the d-line that couldn’t generate a pass rush, the head coach who often overthinks play calls, etc. And while those questions won’t — and shouldn’t — go away simply because the team pulled off a historic win on an unforgettable final drive, with the new information that we learned from that final 1:26, those questions carry a much different context.
With the hindsight of Ohio State’s 17-14 victory over Notre Dame, we now know that there is a fight in this team that can overcome a significant amount of adversity. We now know that Kyle McCord has the steadiness, arm strength, and decisiveness to lead a must-have drive. We now know that Ryan Day can, in fact, call plays to take advantage of this immensely talented roster.
Again, the outcome does not erase any of the issues that occurred during the first 58:34 of the game, but it is much easier to see them as teachable moments and things to build upon than it was before Chip Trayanum snuck the ball across the goalline with a single second left in regulation.
Could this be a coming-out party for OSU’s next great clutch quarterback?
Like the 2002 and 2014 teams were at this point in their respective seasons, the 2023 squad is clearly still a work in progress; even the heroic, game-winning drive was far from clean. McCord had one or maybe even two passes that probably should have been intercepted in the final minute and a half. That instantly iconic drive consisted of 15 plays, but only six of them resulted in positive yardage; the quarterback was just 5-of-13 on the possession.
But what is most impressive about those seemingly lackluster stats is that those five completions included 23 yards on 3rd and 10, 7 yards on 4th and 7, 19 yards on 2nd and 10, and 21 yards on 3rd and 19. We can debate the circumstances all you want, but that is clutch — a quality that is often in short supply in college football, and something that I certainly want my quarterback to have.
There are of course areas where McCord will need to improve as the season progresses, especially with a matchup against Penn State looming on Oct. 21. But knowing that he is capable of a performance like this — and that the most important throws on that final drive appeared to be shot out of a cannon with pinpoint accuracy — I feel far more confident about his ability to make those improvements than I did beforehand.
McCord is far more talented than Craig Krenzel, and likely than J.T. Barrett as well, but he demonstrated on Saturday night that he has something that made both of those legends championship-level quarterbacks for the Buckeyes. He seemingly has a preternatural calmness in high-pressure situations that allows him to execute when his team needs him most.
Again, he wasn’t perfect, but when his back was against the wall, he delivered, and that is something that is incredibly difficult to do, especially so early in your starting career. The other stuff can be improved through the course of the season, with more first-team reps in practice and real-life game snaps against Big Ten competition, but that intangible quality that is so hard to find can’t be drilled into someone. It comes from within, and I am far more confident now that I know that Kyle McCord has it.
Did Ryan Day see enough to put his full faith in Kyle McCord?
There have been few on the Buckeye beat as critical of Ryan Day’s play-calling in recent seasons as me. I am going on two full years of begging, nay pleading with him to let someone else call the offense for a myriad of reasons that have only increased since my first humble request; coincidentally, I upped my efforts after last year’s matchup against Notre Dame; he didn’t listen.
Not to beat a dead Buckeye, but at the core of my argument is the logistical strain it puts on a play-caller to also be the head coach. From a scheduling standpoint, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to be the CEO of a multimillion-dollar program and also be in the film room cutting up tape and drawing things up on the whiteboard as much as you need to in order to excel at both jobs.
But I also think that the further we get away from Day’s time as a wunderkind coordinator, he has developed some hangups around the way his team is perceived and some hesitations to trust himself and those around him, each of which has been to the detriment of both his and his team’s performance.
Over the past few seasons, it has appeared that in many of the most crucial situations, Day retreats to the safest, most risk-averse corners of his coaching toolbox. Whether that is out of fear of making a catastrophic mistake or if he truly thinks that the more conservative approach is the best option in those situations, I don’t know. But, it seems to run counter to the explosive playmakers that he and his staff have recruited to Columbus. It is almost as if Day is self-imposing limitations to what his team can do for a reason that I don’t believe that even he understands himself.
And yet, despite all of that, if Day remains insistent on keeping those responsibilities, I still believe that he is very much capable of being the best play-caller in the sport, and I think that Saturday night might be just what he needs to pull the reigns off of McCord and the shackles off of himself.
Throughout most of Saturday night's game, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden did everything he could to take away Ohio State’s electric offensive weapons. He bracketed Marvin Harrison Jr., even after his ankle injury. He regularly dropped seven or eight into coverage, essentially telling Day and the Buckeyes that he didn’t think that they could effectively run the ball and would love to see them try; and OSU tried. Until the final drive, Ohio State had run 50 plays: 25 runs and 25 passes.
In my opinion, that is not inherently the wrong thing to do. As an offensive play-caller, you have to take what the defense gives you to a certain extent, especially if you aren’t quite sure what your inexperienced quarterback is capable of against a high-quality defense like Notre Dame’s.
But following Saturday night’s performance, Day has to have a far better grasp on what McCord is capable of than he did going into South Bend. And if having that new data increases Day’s trust in his QB, the head coach could, and should, start opening up the offense more and more as the weeks go by, eventually getting the unit to the best possible version of itself when it becomes necessary.
Now, I don’t expect Day to completely change his stripes overnight, and, honestly, expecting him to deviate from the conservative trajectory that he has been on for the past three seasons might be the peak of homer optimism. But we know how well Day can call games when all of the pieces are in place, and while there is still a ways to go for this puzzle to be finished, with increased confidence in McCord, perhaps the all-important edges are all set and now it’s just time to fill in the rest of the picture.
Day will still have to contend with an offensive line not nearly at championship level, but they are four games in, they don’t have to be a finished product yet. The line has performed well in pass protection, struggling far more in run blocking. The only sack that the front five gave up against the Irish was on the questionable Intentional Grounding call on the final series; OSU is averaging just a single sack allowed per game thus far. That is something that a pass-first coach with a newly found confidence in his signal-caller can work with.
The current version of the Ohio State football team is not yet where I thought it would be coming into the season. While the defense has substantially improved, the lack of a disruptive presence upfront concerns me for when they face better offenses. But they’ve given up a total of 34 points through four games, so it’s difficult to be too worried at this point.
With dynamic skill position players like Harrison, Emeka Egbuka, Julian Fleming, TreVeyon Henderson, and many more, I expected the offense to be far more productive than we have seen through the first third of the campaign. But they’re 4-0 heading into a bye and coming off of one of the most thrilling offensive drives in recent memory, so I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that they will get things figured out.
I firmly believe that having concerns about your favorite team is healthy and I will continue to voice mine when they arise, but following Saturday night’s performance, my questions feel far less existential than they did just a few days ago. To me, this team feels like it has the building blocks for something special, and if it follows the roadmaps set forth by previous Buckeye title teams, the final drive against Notre Dame could be the turning point that sets them on a historic journey that just might end with Day raising a very shiny trophy in Houston on Jan. 8.