Thursday, February 22

Ohio State’s Ryan Day loses sight of who he is when he coaches against Michigan

Every Saturday night, Ari Wasserman and David Ubben react to the weekend’s slate of games on “Until Saturday.” On Mondays, they revisit the biggest takeaway from Saturday night’s instant reaction. This week: Ari wonders why Ryan Day changes his coaching style when Ohio State plays Michigan. 


Kalen DeBoer sent the punt team out, but he wasn’t punting. This is a man who never doubts himself or his team.

The Apple Cup was tied with 1:15 remaining. Washington faced a fourth-and-1 from its own 29 yard-line. DeBoer called on the punt team to try to draw Washington State offside. When it didn’t work, he called a timeout — not to give up on gaining a first down, but to organize the perfect play.

Washington ran a triple-option concept. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. had the option to hand the ball off on a dive, keep it or choose the wrinkle. Star receiver Rome Odunze came around the backside in an orbit motion, and Penix — with his back to the line of scrimmage — tossed him the ball.

The cameraman got fooled. With the shot focused on the running back being stuffed without the ball, Odunze was running down the sideline for a 23-yard gain. It was the perfect call at the perfect moment. Seven plays later, the Huskies won on a field goal.

It’s incredible what happens when a coach puts the ball in his best players’ hands and trusts them to go make a play.

That’s who Ryan Day is supposed to be for Ohio State.

But that’s not who he is when the Buckeyes play Michigan. Day loses sight of that and what he has on his roster during The Game. And as a result, Ohio State has unthinkably lost three in a row to Michigan.

It wasn’t long ago that Day was a brilliant, up-and-coming offensive mind who was going to run this program ruthlessly. He was going to go for it on fourth down when others wouldn’t. He was going to make decisions based on who is on his sideline — not who is on the other one. He was going to design perfect play concepts to catch his opponents napping.

So why, on the stage where winning is supreme, has he been so prone to making safe calls that prevent mistakes rather than trusting his superior athletes to win the game? Why is he never taking a shot or trying to step on the throats of the opposition? Why does he lack imagination and the gumption to use it?

GO DEEPER

Ohio State final thoughts: How Ryan Day must change, Kyle McCord and more after Michigan

Nothing illustrated that more than a key sequence before halftime of Ohio State’s 30-24 loss to Michigan on Saturday. Ohio State got into a 14-3 hole early in the game but fought back to make it 14-10 in the second quarter. It got a stop and had the ball with 3:23 left in the half at its own 2-yard line. Then, seven plays later, the Buckeyes were at the Michigan 34-yard line.

Instead of trying to go for a gut-punching touchdown — or even a more manageable field goal attempt — Day inexplicably ran the clock down and attempted a 52-yard field goal. In a crucial moment, Day was more concerned about what danger Michigan may have presented rather than trusting his team to make a play.

With a kicker who had a career long of 47 yards, Day set up for a 52-yard field goal in the freezing cold. Jayden Fielding missed it, of course, which shouldn’t be surprising given Ohio State’s special teams have been terrible this year. So the Buckeyes came away with nothing — the same thing they would have come away with had they gone on fourth down and failed.

Failing, actually, would have been better because at least the Buckeyes would have tried something. Anything.

The sickest part? Day would have gone for it if he were playing Maryland or Minnesota. But he got spooked and changed who he was in the biggest game of the year. That’s what gets you beat.

Some may argue that it was a prudent decision, but coaching is deeper than using a blackjack helper card. You don’t make decisions that impact your team like deciding whether to hit or stay based on the book’s recommendation. Decisions, big and small, impact your team and reveal how a coach feels about his players. It permeates.

Day had Marvin Harrison Jr. It is now probably the last game he’ll ever play for Ohio State. Instead of weaponizing him and going for the jugular, Day got conservative and gave up a scoring opportunity he most certainly would have taken against any other Big Ten team.

He took the ball out of Harrison’s hands and put it on the foot of a kicker who had never made a field goal that long. It missed, just as the field goal missed at the end of the Georgia game in the College Football Playoff semifinal last year. The difference here was all of Ohio State’s weapons were healthy. He had Harrison, TreVeyon Henderson, Cade Stover and Emeka Egbuka — a few of the many elite players Ohio State has convinced to come to Columbus to win in these moments. Day, instead, took the ball out of their hands.

One coaching decision doesn’t win or lose a game. Attitude does. And that was a window into how Day was feeling in a big moment in the game he’ll ultimately be judged by.

Day says he spends 364 days a year preparing for Michigan. Wouldn’t that fourth down have been a nice time to try something new? What did he have stored specifically for the Michigan game that could have helped in that moment? Where was the play like the memorable 2006 touchdown reception by Ted Ginn Jr., where he lined up hidden as a tight end and beat the Wolverines over the top? Isn’t the Michigan game the stage where you empty the bag and present new things the opponent hasn’t seen on tape? Isn’t that what preparing all year long means?

Day did some things formationally that a smarter football mind would be able to easily identify. But the most ironic part about it was Michigan — the smashmouth program that is supposed to be all grit and no tricks — had its longest passing play of the day thrown by a running back. Its second-longest run was out of a package designed for backup quarterback Alex Orji.

Sherrone Moore, a 37-year-old who was filling in for the suspended Jim Harbaugh, took more shots in this game than the offensive guru even had in his bag. Day didn’t even try. He wanted to make fewer mistakes.

GO DEEPER

Mandel: Sherrone Moore outcoaches Ryan Day as Michigan flexes once again

Ohio State has elite-level players, but where was the gamesmanship? The creativity? The bravado to do something you wouldn’t normally do? Even the bravest coaching soul may be terrified by what DeBoer did, but Day didn’t even attempt one fourth-down conversion in the game. In the first quarter, he elected to punt on fourth-and-1 from the OSU 46-yard line.

Day assumed Ohio State had better players, and the Buckeyes just did what they always do. Michigan game-planned Ohio State and hit the Buckeyes where it hurt. Day got outcoached by a 37-year-old fill-in.

This isn’t to say the Buckeyes should fire Day or that he should be looking for another opportunity. Ohio State has a lot going for it. And yes, despite the Michigan problem, Day is 56-7 and had Ohio State on the edge of winning a national title a year ago.

You don’t just fire people on a whim. That’s what dysfunctional programs do. The problem, though, is those seven losses are in games Ohio State fans care about the most. Nobody cares about beating Rutgers or Minnesota. And nobody cares when you’re aggressive against teams that can’t beat you.

Day spent the entire year trying to build a tough team with a great defense that could compete better in a Michigan-style game. Ohio State was tougher, sure, but it still lost.

Almost isn’t good enough in this rivalry.

It’s not good enough for Ohio State.

Day coached scared. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t looking across the field at Harbaugh. It didn’t matter Michigan had the weight of the world on its shoulders during this illegal scouting scandal. Day sees Michigan’s helmets and considers what could go wrong before thinking about what his team could do right. Playing not to lose results in losing.

GO DEEPER

No matter how much Ryan Day wins at Ohio State, losses to Michigan will control his legacy

When the cameras zoomed in on his face after the game, you could see the inner turmoil. It’s hard to encapsulate what he must’ve been feeling. It had to be agony. The dread, the regret, the nervousness, the pressure, everything. This isn’t just losing a game. This is losing The Game. Again.

How does Day fix it? It’s not flipping a coordinator or recruiting better. It’s a complicated and deep-rooted issue.

He has to figure it out fast because winning a bunch of Big Ten games is never going to be good enough at Ohio State. Ohio State has failed to reach any of its goals in each of the past three years because it couldn’t win The Game. Ohio State’s coaches — fair or not — will always be judged through the lens of how they perform against Michigan.

Jim Tressel is a legend. Urban Meyer is a legend. The duo won national titles, but the biggest source of pride is being a combined 16-1 against the Wolverines. Day, in fairness, has played Michigan at its best, and it’s unreasonable to assume he’ll never lose. Sometimes teams just lose to really good teams.

But whatever this is? It’s unacceptable. That’s the type of pressure you sign up for when you cash the eight-figure checks.

The pressure can’t keep eating Day alive or it will get him fired.

Just ask John Cooper.

(Photo: Aaron J. Thornton / Getty Images)