ATLANTA — Ohio State defensive end Jack Sawyer heard them praise Georgia’s physicality before the Buckeyes-Bulldogs showdown in the Peach Bowl, and Sawyer isn’t fooled by their attempts to turn an insult into a compliment.
“When we hear people talk about their physicality, we know exactly what it means,” Sawyer said Wednesday. “They’re trying to say we’re not that physical.” We can’t say anything because of what happened in the last game. But if you turn on that tape, you’ll see how physically we played that entire game.
The “last game” was a 45-23 loss at home to Michigan. Ohio State claimed the Big Ten East title and the Big Ten title. In the year The Wolverines’ win over the Buckeyes in 2021 proved it was nothing. It also created the first pangs of an existential crisis in Buckyland. After years of dominating the series, Ohio State got punched in the face twice and forgot about the plan.
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But that loss didn’t cost Ohio State a shot at a national title. USC’s defense couldn’t handle Utah’s offense in the Pac-12 title game, and the Buckeyes got a break. Ohio State will be guaranteed one more game in the championship stakes in 2022.
The outcome of this game could calm that existential crisis, or deepen it. Coach Ryan Day could either restore faith in his management or destroy it completely.
If you’re not an Ohio State fan, this is the part where you’ll scream “Wah” and remind me that day was an impressive 45-5 by Ohio State. He has lost exactly two Big Ten games — those two Michigan games — in four seasons. The Buckeyes are facing Georgia, the group expected to win the national title this season since the demolition of Oregon in week 1. Shouldn’t Ohio State be happy with just no results this season on Saturday?
Just as the standard in Georgia is different, so is the standard in Ohio State. The bookies are not supposed to be happy just because they are anywhere. They must control the inferiors and go toe-to-toe with the elites. They should never be a small physical group. Ohio State’s idea is best encapsulated by strength coach Mickey Marotti’s definition of “Buckeye football,” as relayed to Sawyer on Wednesday.
Run the damn ball.
Stop the damn run.
Play good special teams.
A team loaded with elite recruits that does those three things will win more games. That’s what Alabama did when it won six national titles between 2009 and 2020. That’s what he did when Ohio State won the College Football Playoff national title in his first season in 2014.
Now, that’s what Georgia is doing.
Can Ohio State do it?
We know the Buckeyes can throw the ball. Marvin Harrison Jr. might be the nation’s best receiver, and he leads a deep group that catches passes from C.J. Stroud, the first-round NFL draft pick No. 3 in the nation at one test site.
But can you run it when needed? Treveon Henderson will miss Saturday’s game with an injury. Mian Williams, the Buckeyes’ other leader, is recovering from an ankle injury but is expected to play. Despite the back looming, Ohio State averaged 4.9 yards per carry against Michigan but gave up a run in the fourth quarter as the Buckeyes couldn’t complete the second task on Marotti’s roster.
Remember how Ohio State’s Sawyer said he didn’t want the Buckeyes’ defense because of Michigan’s physicality? Another person who recently cracked that game agreed.
“If you cut the film, they’re physical guys,” Georgia center Cedric Van Pran said Wednesday. “Watching them play against Michigan, they were really physical. Guys hit blocks. Guys flew all over the place and made tackles. There were some unfortunate things that happened late in the game.”
The “unfortunate things” were Donovan Edwards’ 75- and 85-yard touchdown runs. They happened because Michigan’s blockers overpowered some defenders and others filled the wrong gaps. This allowed him to break through gaps to find the open field after blocking teammates’ route to Edwards. But those two dramas don’t tell the whole story. A drive earlier set the table for those plays, and his first long touchdown run extended Ohio State’s woes.
Michigan’s defenders began to eat away at the Buckeyes late in the third quarter with a 15-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that stretched into the fourth. Michigan gained 35 yards on a four-play stretch early in the drive. What was difficult about that score — Michigan had averaged 3.1 yards per carry before that drive — suddenly seemed easy. The Buckeyes managed some resistance in the red zone, but when Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy converted a QB power play into a 3-yard touchdown, the Wolverines ran 10 times for 47 yards on the drive to take a 31-20 lead.
From that drive to the end of the game, Michigan ran 17 times for 232 yards. And if Edwards had been hauled 15 yards downfield on that first long touchdown, Michigan would have easily run out the remaining seven minutes and converted five yards on the ground at one point. Because while Ohio State spent three and a half quarters shedding blocks and fumbles, the final quarter and a half was full of plays that seemed to make the Silver Helmet disappear behind the wing.
That can’t be Saturday. The problem is that Georgia has a more explosive passing game than Michigan — still hitting Ohio State for three long, wide-open touchdown passes — but Georgia has better NFL prospects on the offensive line and monsters at tight end (Darnell Washington and Brook Bowers). ) who can destroy secondary defenders in the running game.
If we were to compare the weekly practice schedules of Georgia, Michigan and Ohio State, the two might look similar. The other would be Ohio State. It wasn’t always like that. Georgia tailback Kenny McIntosh used a phrase Wednesday that probably sounds familiar to some longtime Ohio State beat writers. McIntosh was discussing the intensity of Georgia’s practices when he mentioned “Bloody Tuesday.”
“Everybody knows this day and we’re basically going to be physical and we’re going to bleed,” McIntosh said. “We want it to be tough.”
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Many programs over the years have referred to their Tuesday practice as “Bloody Tuesday.” This makes sense because Tuesday is past the last game and is enough to catch the most physical practice of the week before the next game. But the reason it should ring so well for the Buckeyes is what Urban Meyer called Tuesday’s practices. Like Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Meyer believed that hitting was the only way to be good at hitting — and to stay good as he struggled through a long season.
So, as Smart, Harbaugh and Nick Saban still do, Meyer’s teams stayed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Some of those 2014 Buckeyes, like defensive end Michael Bennett or offensive tackle Taylor Decker, may feel the same way some of these Georgia players feel about their actions. “It’s more of a mental thing,” Van Pran said. “Everybody has something where you get to a point where you’re like, ‘Man, do I want to do this?’ And you get more.
The question now is whether Day and his staff will push this team to get that “extra” when it matters Saturday. Day said this week the Buckeyes held very physical practices during early bowl preparations. (So does Georgia, always does.) A few weeks into the fundamentals of blocking and tackling, combined with the Buckeyes’ off-the-charts athleticism, could produce a team capable of matching Georgia. Unlike most games the Buckeyes and Bulldogs play, the recruiting rankings and projected NFL draft spots are very similar on both sides. We know Marotti knows how much a team has to push to reach the national title. He did it three times at Florida and once at Ohio State.
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When Meyer left Ohio State’s program following the 2018 season, he handed over the keys to the tank. Day had Georgia transfer Justin Fields back at quarterback, but Fields was protected by a line that included four current NFL starters. Ohio State’s 2019 defense, meanwhile, was positively hideous. Chase Young and Jonathon Cooper went off the edge. Davon Hamilton and Tommy Togiai rotated at defensive tackle. Pete Werner and Malik Harrison moved in the second round.
While Ohio State’s offense remained strong throughout the day, the defense was unable to get back to that team’s level. Firing Kerry Combs and bringing in Jim Knowles as defensive coordinator doesn’t seem to solve the problems, at least judging by what happened with the Wolverines.
But maybe we’re too quick 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 correct answer.
“It’s an opportunity that a lot of people don’t get,” said tight end JT Tuimolow, who should be Ohio State’s next defensive superstar. He is not wrong.
But beyond being a chance to compete for a national title, it’s a chance for Ohio State to embrace who it is as a program. If the Buckeyes can compete with the Bulldogs, they’re still the place to be.
What if they can’t?
It will be a. looooooooong season
(Top photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)