ANN ARBOR, Mich. — There was no reason to doubt the sincerity, urgency or emphasis that Ryan Day was putting on the rivalry in his first try at Ohio State.
But it’s still one thing to talk about it and another to actually live it when The Game arrives.
Day left no doubt about his approach when it comes to Michigan on Saturday at the Big House, starting the afternoon with an aggressive personnel decision, following that up with an incredible game plan — and then letting the emotions wash over him after a 56-27 win for the top-ranked Buckeyes was in the books.
“Ever since I took the job, this game has been on my mind,” Day said. “I know what this game means to the people of Ohio and Buckeye Nation. And coming on the heels of one of the greatest coaches in the history of college football after he went 7-0 here, those are big shoes to fill.
“I don’t know yet [what it all means]. It hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Day and the Buckeyes have had a little more time to celebrate the win and grasp what it all means for the career of the first-year coach, but it won’t spend all that long dwelling on it with the Big Ten championship looming on Saturday against Wisconsin. Before moving on to that one, Lettermen Row is also looking back again at the win over Michigan and diving into what we learned from Win No. 12 for Ohio State.
Justin Fields changed everything for Ohio State
Looking back now it seemed like everything fell into place easily after Dwayne Haskins left for the NFL Draft, but that undersells just how stressful the rebuilding of the quarterback room was — and how challenging it could have been if Justin Fields wasn’t available in the portal and eager for a chance to play for Ryan Day. Ohio State might not have known exactly what it had in the Georgia transfer back in January, even though all the tools for him to be a star have been obvious since high school. But since he stepped foot on campus, he’s exceeded every expectation with his big arm, confident approach, ability to learn the offense and now legendary toughness. The Buckeyes were disappointed to lose Matthew Baldwin, and he almost certainly would have beat out Tate Martell for the job. But either way, there’s little chance Ohio State would be unbeaten and the top-ranked team in the country without Fields.
Buckeyes have young talent in secondary, need Shaun Wade
Both the coaching staff and a handful of largely untested defensive backs adjusted to the absence of one of the defense’s best playmakers in the second half, and it’s hard to ignore the way it responded down the stretch with the game in the balance. Yes, that 14-of-17 passing start for Shea Patterson probably wouldn’t have happened with Shaun Wade out there, and the Buckeyes will need him in the postseason to reach their full potential. But with guys like Cam Brown, Sevyn Banks, Amir Riep and Marcus Hooker all seeing time in the secondary, Ohio State only gave up four more completions over the final 26 attempts — a truly staggering turnaround and a sign that the future remains bright for the Silver Bullets even if the entire starting unit leaves for the NFL Draft after the season.
Garrett Wilson already hitting another level for Ohio State
Make no mistake: Garrett Wilson can’t afford to put another football on the ground as the punt returner, and it’s mystifying that Ohio State continues to have so many issues in that facet of the game with arguably the most talented roster in the country. It’s even weirder because the freshman receiver is already making it clear that he has the tools to be a superstar for the passing attack, and his 118 yards and touchdown in The Game suggest he might have bigger things in store this postseason. Given his five-star status as a recruit, expectations were always high for Wilson’s career with the Buckeyes. But he’s tapping into his potential faster than probably could have reasonably been expected.
Jonathon Cooper gave Buckeyes all he had
There was never an expectation that Jonathon Cooper would get back to full strength this season, even when he briefly returned in the middle of the year to bolster the Rushmen. Eventually that led him to the decision to redshirt, knowing that he could at least grit through one more game before shutting it down and having as much time as he needs to get his high-ankle injury right again for next season. Cooper was hobbling around after the game when the adrenaline wore off, but he was a warrior after jumping back into the lineup to help Ohio State beat Michigan yet again. Cooper wanted to be with his brothers for the matchup that the program spends 365 days a year talking about, and it surely felt sweet for him to contribute a sack to help clinch his fourth set of Gold Pants. That play also is a reminder of why Cooper will be so important to the Buckeyes next year as he chases a fifth.
Ohio State got meaningful contributions from everywhere
The superstar Heisman Trophy candidates always command the spotlight, and they’ve certainly earned it. But Ohio State also continues to get significant plays from guys who happen to be considered role players just because there is so much other talent around them. Pete Werner made a huge play setting the edge on a tackle for loss on the play before Michigan’s first half fumble — which veteran grinder Robert Landers scooped up. Tight end Luke Farrell snagged a 14-yard pass for a key fourth-quarter first down. Senior wide receiver Austin Mack flexed on one of the toughest run-after-catch plays of his career. Rutgers transfer Jonah Jackson was a monster in the middle of the offensive line, at one point driving a helpless defender all the way across the field. That’s just a sample of a list that is much longer. All of those guys might be considered stars if they played somewhere else — but it’s their talent that is helping push Ohio State to greatness.