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Ryan Day’s trust issues with his players, staff, and himself could sink Ohio State’s season

The head coach can’t keep reversing course at the first sign of trouble.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

There is an increasingly vocal contingent of Ohio State fans who are over Ryan Day as the school’s head football coach. They do not believe that he has the mindset, aggression, or drive to compete at the highest levels of the sport, despite his elite recruiting. I am not there yet, as I still believe that we have seen enough of that over his first four-plus seasons to know that he’s capable of it. However, he is quickly running out of time to turn that from a thing that happens only in bowl games to the thing that happens all the time.

I believe that Ryan Day is a good, decent human being who cares deeply about his players, the school, and the program; and that is valuable and important in all walks of life, but especially for a college coach. But Day has issues, serious issues, and I’m afraid that they could tank another season if they aren’t addressed incredibly soon.

Despite having the third most talented team in the country, despite having a coaching staff full of highly paid assistants (five of whom make at least $1 million annually), despite being named the best developer of quarterback talent in college football, Day doesn’t seem to trust anyone in the program that he runs, including himself.

On Tuesday of last week, the Buckeye head coach announced to the world that junior Kyle McCord would be his team’s starting quarterback for the Indiana game, but that sophomore Devin Brown would also play a significant number of snaps. The presumption was that this decision was made because the competition between the two was still too close to feel comfortable shutting the door on the idea that Brown could potentially be the best man for the job. So, since he had yet to throw a single pass in a college contest, getting Brown some game reps to see how he looked against a defense not wearing scarlet and gray would be valuable for making a final determination.

That seemed like a logical and responsible course of action, given the fact that, while IU is a conference opponent, the Hoosiers weren’t expected to truly test the Buckeyes. But guess what; they did... more or less. The first half ended with a score of just 10-3 in favor of OSU, thanks in part to Tom Allen’s triple-option, ball-control game plan; the NCAA’s new, ludicrous running-clock rules; and a largely ineffective Ohio State offense.

So, instead of getting Brown any substantive snaps in the game, he got three first-half plays — two handoffs and a third-down, quarterback run that was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage — and then he didn’t see the field again until the final series of the game when Indiana had all but given up.

So what happened? Why did the understandable and fully thought-out game plan for rotating quarterbacks get thrown out the window at the first sign of something vaguely resembling trouble? Day explained his rationale in the postgame press conference, but what it truly comes down to — in my self-appointed armchair analyst opinion — is that far too often (and far too easily), the Ohio State head coach is willing to abandon any and all plans — regardless of how well constructed and publicly discussed they might be — as soon as things get uncomfortable.

I am old enough to remember when Day openly admitted to the media that he did not get C.J. Stroud enough snaps in 2020 when he was Justin Fields’ backup, which made the transition to him starting in 2021 far more difficult than it needed to be. He said that he would learn from that and get his QB depth more action moving forward.

He did not get his QB depth more action moving forward. Last season, McCord threw 20 passes, Brown threw 0.

Another logical, responsible plan freely volunteered for public consumption, immediately abandoned as soon as Day didn’t get the exact vibes that he had been counting on. I don’t know Ryan Day, but from afar, there seems to still be a bit of imposter syndrome going on from a guy who was essentially hurtled into being a head coach at one of the most preeminent college football programs in the country before he was ready.

The second-guessing and public reversals speak to a level of self-doubt that you would never see from the likes of Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, Dabo Swinney, and especially not Urban Meyer. To a certain extent, that is understandable as some growing pains for a first-time head coach are to be expected. But Day is in Year 5 now, and he has to be able to make a plan and stick to it if his program is going to continue to make strides toward the heights where he and fans expect it to be.

But this is not just about not playing Brown as much as he had planned. In a vacuum, I think that decision made sense. But, when combined with other very public about-faces, you do start to see an uncomfortable pattern from the head Buckeye.

In the lead-up to the 2022 College Football Playoff, former Buckeye and ESPN lead CFB analyst Kirk Herbstreit reported that Day was planning to give up play-calling following the season (something that I have been calling for since the 2021 campaign). So, when Brian Hartline was named OSU’s new offensive coordinator, Day said that he would give the former wide receiver coach the chance to call plays during the spring in order to get him ready for the responsibility in the fall.

Logical? Check. Responsible? Check. Publicly stated? Check.

However, from there, Day began to walk it back and say that they would see how things went and determine the best course of action during the offseason. During his radio show last week, Day confirmed that he would retain the play-calling duties in light of the ongoing quarterback uncertainty.

So, by not playing Brown, Day clearly showed that he doesn’t trust him. By not allowing Hartline to call plays, Day clearly showed that he doesn’t trust him. By not sticking to plans that he regularly announces to the public, Day has clearly shown that he doesn’t trust himself.

Then there is the fact that despite having the greatest collection of offensive talent in college football, unless it is a CFP game, Day seems to almost always finds a way to go full Galápagos tortoise and hide in a metaphoric shell when it comes to play calling. The two best wide receivers in college football, Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka, combined for five catches on 12 targets in Ohio State’s win on Saturday. Instead of throwing to the elite wide receivers, the Buckeyes continually ran stretch plays into the boundary for little to no gain over and over and over again.

So clearly, he didn’t trust McCord — the quarterback he did decide to play 95% of the time; he didn’t trust the offensive line that he was confident enough in to completely avoid diving into the transfer portal to enhance during the more beneficial post-regular season window; and apparently, he didn’t trust his dynamic playmakers enough to believe that they could help bring McCord up to the standard required of an Ohio State quarterback.

Now, of course, not all lack of trust is created equally, and some of Day’s concern is clearly deserved, but still, some of it defies logic, and it speaks to a far more deep-seated issue at play.

In sports, you often hear about coaches and managers making decisions based on what is expected in a given situation simply in order to avoid a negative backlash, even if a more outside-the-box approach would work. That’s why it has taken so long to get “old-school” coaches to go for it on fourth down in positive territory rather than to punt for a potential net gain of 20 or so yards, even though the statistics show that it is the better play.

While I don’t think that Day makes decisions with how the public and/or media will perceive them in mind, I do believe that he is in a constant, internal battle between his head and his gut; and I don’t mean “gut” as in the gut instinct that wants you to push the envelope, I mean “gut” as in a dozen or more bleeding ulcers slowly eating away at your insides because of all of the stress that you have put on yourself trying to succeed in a high-pressure job that demands near perfection at every turn or else millions of people will instantly criticize your every decision from the stands, on social media, and in articles by completely unqualified idiots who don’t really have any idea about how much internal and external pressure there is in running a blue-blood college football program.

The thing that has kept me holding on to the Ryan Day train despite regularly scheduled disappointments is the fact that, on occasion, he proves what he is truly capable of when he gets out of his own way. The Sugar Bowl against Clemson following the 2020 season. The Peach Bowl against Georgia last year. With a month to prepare, when he was not overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being Ohio State’s head coach and could focus on crafting a plan that he was confident enough in to stick to, the results were not only impressive but damn near perfect (the defense crapped the bed against UGA last year, not Day’s offense).

If he is ever able to compartmentalize the doubt, anxiety, and nerves associated with such a high-pressure job, then I still truly believe that Ryan Day can go down as one of the best coaches in Ohio State history, but the window for making those types of massive changes is quickly closing, and I’m afraid that if it completely shuts this year, there will be no opening it up again in the future.

Fortunately, Ohio State did win against Indiana last weekend, and there is still time for the team to address the things that didn’t quite work properly on Saturday, but if the head coach keeps insisting on reversing course at the first sign of resistance, Buckeye Nation is in for a very long fall.