COLUMBUS, Ohio — There are more than 100 players on Ohio State’s roster. The coaching staff numbers 12, same as the number of games on the schedule.
Yet it would be reasonable to say this season is about one player, one coach and one game — Justin Fields, Ryan Day and Michigan.
“The expectations are so high here that if you don’t win them all, the minute you lose a game, you can’t just come crumbling and fall apart,” said Day, a former star quarterback at Manchester Central and UNH. I’m in this thing for the long haul, and I know our staff is, too.”
Urban Meyer never crumbled, no matter how dire it sometimes appeared. A 35-21 home loss to Virginia Tech in 2014 was Ohio State’s third loss in four games, sparking message board furor and questions about the game passing Meyer by. All the Buckeyes did was win the national championship four months later, while Meyer produced victories in 56 of the next 62 games.
In 2015, Ohio State followed a loss to Michigan State — and a “the world is ending” reaction from the fan base — by beating Michigan and Notre Dame by a combined score of 86-41. A loss at Penn State in 2016 led to a playoff berth. The 2018 season included an off-field scandal, a three-game suspension for Meyer, a 49-20 loss at Purdue, the worst defense in program history, and, oh, by the way, the seventh straight win over Michigan, a Big Ten championship, and a win in the Rose Bowl.
“To our credit, last year we lost that bad game, but we were able to fight ourselves out of it,” Day said. “It was ugly. But we kind of clawed back and had an unbelievable season.”
The Buckeyes always found a way under Meyer. Part of it was superior coaching. Part of it was intimidation. Part of it was talent. Part of it was Ohio State’s quarterback. And part of it was the belief on OSU’s sideline that it was going to win the game.
The names on the roster are the same, but it doesn’t mean the culture can’t change. There’s a new guy in charge, a new coaching staff, and new attitudes. When Ohio State is losing in the fourth quarter, will the mood be different? Will the same swagger be present?
“I don’t ever remember any year in the 13 years we’ve done the August bus tour where I didn’t say Ohio State is the most talented team in the conference,” Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said. “I suspect that’s going to be true. That’s a good place to start if you want to win 11 or 12 games.”
Fields comes to Ohio State after a charmed high school career, in which the five-star recruit threw for 4,187 yards and 41 touchdowns and rushed for 2,096 yards and 28 touchdowns as a two-year starter. He shoulders the same expectations as his head coach.
The quarterback shall win every game — and do so impressively.
“You just shut that out and worry about the team,” Fields said. “Coach Day also talked about how the team shouldn’t look at the outside voices, because we’re the guys on the field actually playing. We’re the only ones that completely know what’s going on. I’m just going to go about it as doing my best on the field and making the smartest decisions and trying to help the team win.”
Debut seasons for Ohio State coaches are a jumbled bag of spectacular, mediocre, middling, and epic failure. Meyer, Earle Bruce, and Carroll Widdoes were unbeaten in the regular season. The norm, however, is multiple losses. Jim Tressel was 7-5, Woody Hayes was 4-3-2, John Cooper was 4-6-1 and Wes Fesler was 2-6-1.
Obviously what Day inherits isn’t your typical regime change when the previous coach is fired for not getting the job done. The Buckeyes are ranked No. 5 in the preseason AP top 25 and are on par with Clemson, Alabama, and Georgia in the talent department.
But history says OSU will have to navigate speed bumps.
“There is going to be adversity along the way. I don’t know what it’s going to be,” Day said. “But you think back on the last few years even at Ohio State, there’s adversity that hits and a journey that starts that you never thought would happen. There’s obstacles, there’s challenges, there’s things that come in the way. So building relationships and building some of the expectations on the front end helps you deal with them so it doesn’t just all come caving in.”
There are seven games on Ohio State’s schedule that qualify as difficult games — Cincinnati, at Nebraska, Michigan State, at Northwestern, Wisconsin, Penn State, at Michigan. The last one, of course, is what makes or breaks the head coach’s career.
Hayes, Tressel, and Meyer all had tremendous success against the detested rival to the north, cementing their hero status as much for that as winning national championships. Fesler and Cooper were shown the exit door with a combined record of 2-13-2 against Michigan.
Day is an outsider who has no connection to Ohio State. He gained a quick understanding, though, from Meyer on what the rivalry means to people from the state of Ohio and just how important it is for 365 days a year.
“The thing I learned from Urban right from the minute I got there is you’ve got to work The Game every day, and the way to honor the rivalry and to respect the rivalry is to work it every day, and we do,” Day said. “It’s a part of what we do, whether it’s recruiting or every day we have periods we have in practice we call ‘The Team Up North’ drill, so we live it every day.”
For two years, Day sat in the press box, surveying the field and calling plays for a record-setting offense. His title and game day location have changed. What hasn’t is the presumptions of the 100,000 fans who fill Ohio Stadium each Saturday — that they’ll leave the Horseshoe that day in a good mood.
The stress in Day’s life is about to increase. Of course, it will be more manageable if Fields lives up to his five-star billing and the Buckeyes beat Michigan.
“I feel great about the team,” Day said. “I love our team. I love our players. But we have a lot to prove. This is a new staff. This is a new team. We haven’t done anything, and we need to do that.”