COLUMBUS, Ohio – Scouts from 14 NFL teams lined the sideline in pre-game on Saturday night here, clad in their slick windbreakers, custom coaching pants and logoed dry fits.
They came from every corner of the NFL universe to see Ohio State and Michigan State, with Miami’s Chris Grier the only general manager of the bunch. The robust showing offered some clarity to the proceedings on the field, where Ohio State simultaneously sputtered through its first modest challenge of the season yet managed to dominate No. 25 Michigan State, 34-10.
How can you explain a team looking listless for parts of two quarters and still muddling its way to eventual dominance? Well, those scouts weren’t in town to go to the Short North or see the Blue Jackets’ blueliners. “I’ve seen both Ohio State and Clemson,” a veteran scout told Yahoo Sports this week. “Ohio State would definitely beat Clemson.”
We’ve crossed the threshold in the college football season where talent and performance need to cancel out the biases of expectations and brands. We’ve hit the juncture where wins can be gauged against the opposition’s performance in other games, and there’s just enough flavor from conference play for identities to have formed.
Ohio State’s aura of infallibility faded amid the brisk fall evening, as they’d been ripping apart teams at an unsustainable clip. But considering Alabama’s youth, Clemson’s puzzling offensive struggles and the questions about Georgia’s skill on the outside, it’s not unreasonable to make an argument that the Buckeyes are the best team in the country. LSU fans could argue themselves in the conversation, Oklahoma has a prove-it game against Texas in Dallas next week and Wisconsin has the same here at the Horseshoe in three weeks.
But halfway through Ryan Day’s first season, the highest compliment to the re-jiggered staff, juiced-up defense and evolved offensive identity he’s brought is that the Buckeyes are a heavy favorite to return to the College Football Playoff for the first time since the 2016 season.
The story of Day’s 6-0 journey through the first half of the schedule begins with talent. This is a team that’s flush on both sides of the ball, with defensive end Chase Young and cornerback Jeffrey Okudah projecting as top-10 NFL draft picks. (Defensive back Shaun Wade could join them in the first round if he keeps progressing.) On offense, tailback J.K. Dobbins showcased his continued evolution on Saturday, rushing for 172 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown burst that Day termed a "home run" that "really changed the game." Some of the credit needs to go to Urban Meyer and the robust recruiting operation that director of player personnel Mark Pantoni built under Meyer’s watch. “This is the most talent that Ohio State has had since 2015,” another NFL scout told Yahoo Sports. “They’re talented, they’re deep and they play really hard. This team is a monster.”
And that’s where the credit needs to be shifted to Day, as there are plenty of teams where the sum doesn’t become greater than their parts. He’s fast-forwarded the development of quarterback Justin Fields and overseen the resuscitation of a defense from historically bad to top five under new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley. Perhaps more importantly, he’s kept a program that spent 2018 ensconced in drama without a single tense moment on or off the field. The highest compliment to Day is that this Ohio State team has taken on his personality – focused, understated and highly competitive.
In a quiet moment as Saturday night merged into Sunday morning, Day went through the identity of his team through six games. And it turned out the identity is that there are a lot of identities.
The offense is diverse, as Day rattled off “the combination of run-pass 12 and 11 personnel, QB run, spread run, heavy run, play-action, dropback pass, there’s a lot going on there with tempo.” The defense can play both man and zone, and he lauded Drue Chrisman as perhaps the country’s best punter (48.2 average on Saturday).
Day gave the Michigan State game ball to old sage strength coach Mickey Marotti, Meyer’s longtime wingman, for keeping the program’s ethos of toughness. (Ohio State’s defense held Michigan State to 285 yards total offense on 65 plays.)
“My biggest thing coming in was, what was it going to look like when we faced some adversity, when it’s hard,” Day told Yahoo Sports. “I thought we worked through that tonight. It wasn’t clean. It’s pretty exciting when it’s not clean and you have the numbers that you have.”
His recruiting chops have helped, including luring Fields on transfer and bringing in stud freshman receiver Garrett Wilson, as both have flashed the potential for gilded NFL futures of their own. (Day has also assembled the No. 4 class for 2020, again assuring the Buckeyes will have the most talent in the Big Ten.)
But what’s emerged in this Ohio State season is a team that’s playing as the best version of itself. It all starts with Fields, who looked limited in spots at Georgia, and his sporadic struggles in the spring in Columbus didn’t portent inevitable success. But Day’s offense, with the help of coordinator Mike Yurcich and assistant quarterback coach Corey Dennis, has turned Fields from a quarterback with an isolated run-first package at Georgia to one of the country’s best.
Fields threw the first interception of his college career on Saturday night, but he’s still got an 18-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and finished 17-of-25 passing for 206 yards and two touchdowns. He’s also rushed for eight touchdowns and has kept the quarterback run threat a lethal option in the Ohio State offense.
Day admitted that he’s in a constant battle with himself over how much he should run Fields, as they are playing this season without a comparable available backup on the Buckeye roster.
“Every second of my night,” Day said when asked about how much he ponders the risk/reward of running Fields. “That's constant. And we called some [QB runs] when we needed them. When he needed to, he did a good job with his feet. He had 84 yards rushing [61 after accounting for sacks]. Those were big yards. The impact he can have is huge, as you can see.”
Why has he developed so quickly when he looked limited at times at Georgia? Noted quarterback tutor Quincy Avery, who works with Fields, said that the quarterback reads in Ohio State’s offense are pure progression reads that are simpler than the safety-based reads in Georgia’s offense. Avery also works with Dwayne Haskins, the former Buckeye standout, and said that Day’s offense is quarterback friendly in the way that “it really ties your feet with your eyes to work the progressions.”
Avery adds: “There’s a lot of NFL teams that run the offense the same way as Ohio State. That way guys are prepared for NFL, but also in position for success.”
The progression of the defense has been even more distinct. Ohio State shut out Michigan State in the second half on Saturday night, forced three turnovers and looked every bit of the top-five defense the statistics say the Buckeyes are. (Ohio State’s points per game on defense will actually be worse after giving up 10 tonight.)
“They are playing a completely different scheme,” said Lane Kiffin, who coached FAU against the Buckeyes in the opener. “There’s much more of an NFL influence, with Cover 3 match-up. They really fixed what had been the issue.”
On a Blackout night in Columbus, the Buckeyes sleepwalked their way to a blowout. They had enough adversity to at least be tested, and showed enough mettle and flashed enough talent where they stated a strong case for being considered the nation’s best team.
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