Ohio State’s Ryan Day Loses Sight of Who He Is When Coaching Against Michigan

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


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

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

Washington applied a triple option concept. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. had the option of handing off the ball on a jumper, keeping it or choosing the wrinkle. Star receiver Rome Odunze circled the backfield in an orbital motion, and Penix, with his back to the line of scrimmage, threw the ball to him.

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

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

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

But that’s not the case when the Buckeyes play Michigan. Day loses sight of that and what he has on his list during The Game. And as a result, Ohio State has lost three straight games to Michigan, something unthinkable.

It wasn’t long ago that Day was a brilliant, promising offensive mind who was going to run this program mercilessly. He was going to try it on fourth down when others wouldn’t. He was going to make decisions based on who was in his gang, not who he was in the other. He was going to design perfect game concepts to surprise his opponents.

So why, in the scenario where winning is supreme, have you been so prone to making safe decisions that prevent mistakes instead of trusting your superior athletes to win the game? Why does he never shoot or try to step on the opposition’s neck? Why do you lack imagination and common sense to use it?

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Nothing illustrates 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 the score 14-10 in the second quarter. They got a stop and had the ball with 3:23 left in the half at their own 2-yard line. Then, seven plays later, the Buckeyes were at Michigan’s 34-yard line.

Instead of trying for a commanding touchdown, or even a more manageable field goal attempt, Day inexplicably ran out the clock and attempted a 52-yard field goal. At a crucial moment, Day was more concerned about the danger Michigan might have presented than trusting his team to make a play.

With a kicker that had a career total of 47 yards, Day set up for a 52-yard field goal in the bitter cold. Jayden Fielding missed it, of course, which shouldn’t be surprising given that Ohio State’s special teams have been terrible this year. So the Buckeyes were left with nothing, the same thing they would have gotten if they had gone on fourth down and missed.

In fact, failing would have been better because at least the Buckeyes would have tried something. Anything.

The sickest part? Day would have taken it if they were playing Maryland or Minnesota. But he got scared and changed who he was in the most important game of the year. That’s what wins you.

Some may argue that it was a prudent decision, but coaching goes deeper than using a blackjack side card. You don’t make decisions that affect your team, such as deciding whether to bat 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 is impregnated.

Day had Marvin Harrison Jr. This is probably now the last game he will play for Ohio State. Instead of weaponizing it and going for the jugular, Day went conservative and missed a scoring opportunity that he surely would have taken advantage of 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. He missed, just as he missed the field goal at the end of Georgia’s game in the College Football Playoff semifinal last year. The difference here was that all of Ohio’s weapons were in good condition. It had Harrison, TreVeyon Henderson, Cade Stover and Emeka Egbuka, some of the many elite players Ohio State was convinced was coming to Columbus to win at the time. Day, on the other hand, took the ball out of their hands.

A coach’s decision does not win or lose a game. The attitude yes. And that was a window into how Day was feeling in a big moment in the game for which he will ultimately be judged.

Day says he spends 364 days a year preparing for Michigan. Wouldn’t that fourth attempt have been a good time to try something new? What did he have in store specifically for the Michigan game that he could have helped in that moment? Where was the play like Ted Ginn Jr.’s memorable 2006 touchdown catch, where he lined up hidden at tight end and beat the Wolverines to the top? Isn’t the Michigan game the scenario where the purse is emptied and new things are presented that the opponent hasn’t seen on tape? Isn’t that what it means to prepare all year round?

Day did some things formatively that a smarter football mind could easily identify. But the most ironic part was that Michigan, the big-mouth program that’s supposed to be all guts and no gimmicks, had its longest pass play of the day thrown by a running back. His second-longest run was on a package designed for backup quarterback Alex Orji.

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

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Ohio State has elite players, but where was the playing ability? The creativity? The bravery to do something you normally wouldn’t do? Even the bravest coach can be terrified by what DeBoer did, but Day didn’t even attempt a 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 did. Michigan game-planned the Ohio State game and hit the Buckeyes where it hurt the most. Day was surpassed as coach by a 37-year-old substitute.

This doesn’t mean the Buckeyes should fire Day or that he should look for another opportunity. The state of Ohio has a lot to offer. And yes, despite Michigan’s trouble, Day is 56-7 and had Ohio State on the brink of winning a national title a year ago.

People are not fired simply on a whim. That’s what dysfunctional programs do. The problem, however, is that those seven losses are in the games that matter most to Ohio State fans. Nobody cares about beating Rutgers or Minnesota. And no one cares when you’re aggressive against teams that can’t beat you.

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

He’s almost not good enough in this rivalry.

Not good enough for Ohio State.

Day trained scared. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t looking at Harbaugh across the field. It didn’t matter that Michigan had the weight of the world on its shoulders during this illegal scouting scandal. Day looks at 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.

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When the cameras focused on his face after the game, you could see the internal turmoil. It’s hard to summarize what she must have been feeling. It had to be agony. The dread, the regret, the nervousness, the pressure, everything. This is not just losing a game. This is losing the game. Again.

How does Day solve it? It is not about changing a coordinator or hiring someone better. It is a complicated and deeply rooted issue.

He has to figure it out quickly because winning too many Big Ten games will never be good enough at Ohio State. Ohio State has failed to achieve any of its goals in each of the last three years because it failed to win The Game. Ohio State’s coaches, fair or not, will always be judged through the lens of their performance against Michigan.

Jim Tressel is a legend. Urban Meyer is a legend. The duo won national titles, but the biggest source of pride is their combined 16-1 record against the Wolverines. Day, to be fair, has played against Michigan in his prime and it is unreasonable to assume that he will never lose. Sometimes teams just lose to really good teams.

But what is this? It is unacceptable. That’s the kind of pressure you put yourself under when you cash eight-figure checks.

Pressure can’t keep Day alive or it will get him fired.

Ask John Cooper.

(Photo: Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)