ATLANTA — Ohio State defensive end Jack Sawyer hears you praising Georgia’s physique ahead of a Buckeyes-Bulldogs showdown in the Peach Bowl, and Sawyer isn’t fooled by your attempts to turn a insult in compliment.
“When we hear people talk about their looks, we really know what that means,” Sawyer said Wednesday. “They’re trying to say we’re not that physical. And we can’t say anything because of what happened in the last game. But if you really turn on this tape, you’ll see how physically we played this whole game.
The “last game” was a 45-23 loss to Michigan at home. It cost Ohio State the Big Ten East title and the Big Ten title. It proved that the Wolverines win over the Buckeyes in 2021 was no fluke. It also produced the first pangs of an existential crisis in Buckeyeland. After dominating the series for years, Ohio State had taken two punches to the face and forgotten their plan.
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But that loss didn’t cost Ohio State a chance to win a national title. USC’s defense couldn’t resist Utah’s offense in the Pac-12 title game, and the Buckeyes were given a reprieve. Ohio State would be guaranteed one more game with championship stakes in 2022.
The result of this game can calm this existential crisis, or plunge it deeper. Coach Ryan Day can either restore trust in his administration or shatter it altogether.
If you’re not an Ohio State fan, this is the part where you yell “Whoa” and remind me that Day is an incredible 45-5 at Ohio State. He’s lost exactly two Big Ten games — those two Michigan games — in four seasons. The Buckeyes take on Georgia, the team expected to win the national title this season since dismantling Oregon in Week 1. Shouldn’t Ohio State just be happy with this season regardless of Saturday’s result? ?
Of course not.
Ohio’s state standard is different, just like Georgia’s standard is different. The Buckeyes are never meant to be just happy to be anywhere. They are supposed to dominate the inferior and face the elite. They are never meant to be the least physical team. Ohio State’s ideal is best summed up by coach Mickey Marotti’s definition of “Buckeye football,” as conveyed by Sawyer on Wednesday.
Run the damn ball.
Stop this fucking race.
Play good special teams.
A team loaded with elite rookies who do these three things will win most games. That’s what Alabama did by winning six national titles between 2009 and 2020. That’s what Clemson did by winning two national titles in three seasons a few years ago. That’s what Ohio State did when it won the national title in the first season of the College Football Playoffs in 2014.
That’s what Georgia is doing now.
Can the State of Ohio do this?
We know the Buckeyes can throw the ball. Marvin Harrison Jr. might be the best receiver in the nation, and he leads a deep group that catches passes from CJ Stroud, a potential first-round NFL pick who ranks No. 3 in the nation in yards per attempt.
Can they run it when it counts, though? TreVeyon Henderson will miss Saturday’s game through injury. Miyan Williams, the Buckeyes’ other fullback, is recovering from an ankle injury but is expected to play. Even with the backs hobbled, Ohio State averaged 4.9 yards per carry against Michigan but then gave up the run in the fourth quarter because the Buckeyes couldn’t complete the second task on Marotti’s list.
Remember how Ohio State’s Sawyer said the Buckeyes defense didn’t get weak because of Michigan’s physique? Someone else who recently broke this game agreed.
“If you cut the film, they’re physical guys,” Georgia center Sedrick Van Pran said Wednesday. “Watching them play against Michigan, they were really, really physical. The guys hit blocks. The guys were stealing and tackling. There were just some unfortunate things that happened at the end of the game.
The “unfortunate things” were touchdown passes from Donovan Edwards for 75 and 85 yards. They happened because Michigan blockers overwhelmed some defenders while others filled incorrect gaps. This obstructed their teammates’ path to Edwards and allowed him to burst through gaping holes to find the open field. But these two plays don’t tell the whole story. Earlier practice set the stage for those plays, and all the first long touchdown run did was prolong Ohio State’s agony.
The Michigan tacklers began to eat the soul of the Buckeyes late in the third quarter on a 15-play, 80-yard touchdown that extended into the fourth. On a four-play streak early in practice, Michigan gained 35 rushing yards. What had been tough up until then — Michigan was averaging 3.1 yards per carry before this drive — suddenly seemed easier. The Buckeyes had some resistance in the red zone, but when Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy turned a QB power play into a 3-yard touchdown, the Wolverines had rushed 10 times for 47 yards on the drive, and they had effectively applied their will and taken a 31-20 lead.
From the start of that drive to the end of the game, Michigan rushed 17 times for 232 yards. And even if Edwards had been dragged 15 yards into that first long touchdown, it’s likely Michigan would have simply knocked out the remaining seven minutes and changed, five yards at a time on the ground. Because while Ohio State had spent three and a half quarters losing blocks and making tackles, the last quarter and a half was full of plays where seemingly every silver helmet disappeared behind a winged helmet.
It can’t happen on Saturday. The problem is, Georgia has a more explosive passing game than Michigan — which still hit Ohio State for three long, wide-open touchdown passes — but Georgia also has better NFL prospects. along the offensive line and tight-end monsters (Darnell Washington and Brock Bowers) who can devastate second-tier defenders in the running game.
If we compared the weekly workout schedules of Georgia, Michigan, and Ohio State, two would probably look almost identical. The other would be Ohio State. That wouldn’t always have been the case. Georgia tailback Kenny McIntosh used a phrase on Wednesday that probably sounded familiar to some of the older Ohio State beat writers. McIntosh was talking about the intensity of Georgia’s workouts when he referenced “Bloody Tuesday.”
“Everyone knows that day we’re going to be physical and bloody, basically,” McIntosh said. “We want it to be hard”
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Many programs over the years have referred to their Tuesday workouts as “Bloody Tuesday.” It makes sense because Tuesday is far enough after the last game and long enough before the next game to set up the most physical training of the week. But the reason it should sound so familiar to the Buckeyes is because it’s also what Urban Meyer called practice Tuesdays. Like Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Meyer believed the only way to get good at hitting — and stay good at tackling for a long season moving forward — was to hit.
So, as Smart, Harbaugh and Nick Saban always do, Meyer’s teams went after Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Chances are some of those 2014 Buckeyes like defensive tackle Michael Bennett or offensive tackle Taylor Decker felt the same way some of those Georgia players feel about their workouts. “It’s more of a mental thing,” Van Pran said. “Every human has something where you get to a point where you like, ‘Man, do I really wanna do this?’ And you find others.
The question now is whether Day and his team have pushed this team hard enough to find that “plus” when it counts on Saturday. Day said this week that the Buckeyes held very physical practices early in the preparation for the bowl. (Georgia too, which still does.) It’s possible that a few weeks back to the fundamentals of blocking and tackling combined with the Buckeyes’ outstanding athleticism will produce a team capable of rivaling Georgia. Unlike most games the Buckeyes and Bulldogs play, the NFL’s recruiting rankings and projected slots are awfully similar on both sides. We know Marotti knows how much a team needs to be pushed to reach a national title level. He’s done it three times, twice in Florida and once in Ohio State.
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When Meyer handed the Ohio State program to Day after the 2018 season, he handed over the keys to a tank. Day landed quarterback Justin Fields as a transfer from Georgia, but Fields was protected by a line that included four current NFL starters. Ohio State’s defense in 2019, meanwhile, was positively unpleasant. Chase Young and Jonathon Cooper came off the edge. DaVon Hamilton and Tommy Togiai rotated at defensive tackle. Pete Werner and Malik Harrison roamed the second tier.
While Ohio State’s offense remained potent under Day, the defense was unable to return to level with this group. The firing of Kerry Coombs and the arrival of Jim Knowles as defensive coordinator didn’t seem to solve the problems, at least judging by what happened against the Wolverines.
But maybe we are rushing to judge. After all, Ohio State’s schedule doesn’t offer many real challenges. Maybe we’re overreacting to 23 bad minutes. Saturday should give us the right answer.
“It’s a chance few people have,” said JT Tuimoloau, who is expected to be Ohio State’s next defensive superstar. He’s not wrong.
But beyond being a chance to compete for the national title, it’s a chance for Ohio State to claim its identity as a program. If the Buckeyes can compete with the Bulldogs, they’re still where they need to be.
If they can’t?
It’s gonna be a looooooooooooong out of season.
(Top photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)