DURHAM — It was a football shootout as wild as wild could be.
The University of New Hampshire football team was in deep trouble at No. 2 Delaware when the Blue Hens kicked a field goal with nine minutes left in the third quarter of the game on Nov. 4, 2000.
Not a problem for Ryan Day, then a junior quarterback for the Wildcats and today the newly installed head coach at Ohio State, one of the most high-profile posts in all of college football.
Down 31-3 at Delaware, Day and the UNH offense went to work. First, the Wildcats scored a couple of rushing touchdowns and the lead was down to 31-17 going into the fourth quarter.
Day then teamed with Ime Ekong and Kamau Peterson for a pair of touchdown passes and there was no lead at all. Delaware scored on a 62-yard pass play to grab the lead again with 4:22 to play.
Day connected with Randal Williams for a 53-yarder with just 42 seconds left and it was tied at 38.
Delaware scored a touchdown to open overtime.
Day and Brian Mallette matched that with a 7-yard TD pass play. Shawn Maclean kicked the conversion and the Wildcats had themselves a 45-44 overtime triumph.
UNH coach Sean McDonnell laughed at the mention of the improbable comeback the other morning in the team’s offices in the Field House.
“There were a lot of guys who made plays in that game,” McDonnell said. “It was just one of those games. Every step of the way there was more coming from everybody in the program, none more than Ryan and Brian Mallette and those guys.”
McDonnell smiled often as he rattled off stories and memories of Day, who was the sophomore quarterback the day the coach — with Chip Kelly as his offensive coordinator — made his debut as the boss with a win at Rhode Island in 1999.
When his playing career was over, Day owned nine of the school’s offensive records.
McDonnell calls Day, who began his coaching career as a UNH assistant working with tight ends during the 2002 season, one of the most competitive guys he’s ever been around, and always a leader.
“What made him such a good player here was his competitive nature and his ability to understand things,” McDonnell said. “He was a smart kid, a smart player. I don’t care what sport it was. We followed this kid from about his sophomore, junior year in high school, watching him play quarterback, watching him play point guard in basketball, watching him be a catcher on the baseball team. He was always in a leadership spot, being the team guy that was running the show.”
Did it in high school at Manchester Central. Did it in Durham.
“Here, in competitive situations, in scrimmages, in seven-on-seven matches, in matt drills and that stuff, Ryan would always get the guys to win either the match the game or the individual thing,” McDonnell said. “I’m not surprised where he’s at right now.”
There was a memorable Class L basketball tournament game when Day and his Manchester Central Little Green buddies went up against a loaded Concord High and Matt Bonner – bound for a long NBA career – in what most everyone figure was a huge mismatch.
“The game they stalled the whole time,” McDonnell said. “I was up in the gym watching it. It was a very tough game to watch. Unbelievably great coaching by Mike Fitzpatrick, having them stall in their only way to win. They shoulda, coulda won the game and they lost. You watched Ryan upset about not winning, but walking away knowing they gave it their best shot and had their best shot to win.”
The whole mismatch thing? The idea Central had no chance to win?
“You couldn’t tell that to Ryan and the Manchester guys, I’ll tell you that,” McDonnell said.
Ahh, the Manchester guys.
“That’s the great thing about that city, that environment that I was exposed to when I was teaching and coaching up there,” McDonnell said. “There was a very competitive nature in the whole town, especially in their high schools and their Babe Ruth baseball sports and all that stuff. You had great coaches and good people who could identify people and Ryan was one of the guys.”
He had caught the eye of the late Bo Dickson, a UNH Hall of Famer.
“Bo was a Manchester guy who was very adamant that we should be taking Ryan Day,” McDonnell said. “I remember coach (Bill) Bowes and us sitting here talking about it and we took him on a partial scholarship and he earned a full scholarship and he’s starting quarterback my first game.”
Day, who was in his second season as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Ohio State, opened this season as the interim head coach of the Buckeyes when Urban Meyer was under suspension and guided the team to wins over Oregon State, Rutgers and Texas Christian.
“I talked to Ryan at the beginning of the season when all that stuff was going on,” McDonnell said. “He knew it was an audition. He’s a smart enough guy and he took it and ran.”
Now he’s leading one of the most prestigious programs in the country.
He joins an illustrious fraternity of head coaches that includes fellow Manchester guys Chip Kelly at UCLA – for whom Day was a quarterbacks coach in the NFL with both the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers — and Dan Mullen, who played at Trinity High School in Manchester and is now at the University of Florida.
“Wow,” McDonnell said “The three guys that are coaching, the places that they’re coaching at right now. There’s got to be something in the water in Manchester.”