The Wolverines scored on a couple of big plays, but those could be attributed to a missed tackle in the open field and busted coverage, things that could no doubt be fixed at halftime.
Only they weren’t.
Michigan had four scoring plays of 65 yards of more, and while it wasn’t quite the bullying that it put on the Buckeyes last year in Ann Arbor, it hurt just as much. It was the first time since 1999-2000 that the Wolverines have won back-to-back over the Buckeyes, who saw their hopes of a possible Big Ten title dashed in the second half.
“When you looked at the first half, physically, we were playing really well up front. They had those two long plays but not a whole lot else,” OSU coach Ryan Day said. “There were too many big plays in the second half. When you look at the game, there were way too many big plays.”
Last year Michigan simply lined up and fired off the ball, rushing for 297 yards and six rushing touchdowns. The Wolverines had just 10 rushing yards at halftime, and without star back Blake Corum, it looked like it might be a long day at the office for a team that loves to play ground and pound. That mindset was taken to an extreme as UM tallied 242 rushing yards after halftime – including a pair of long touchdown runs (75 and 85 yards) by Donovan Edwards.
Ohio State was selling out to stop the run and playing man on the edges, and when a team does that, it is vulnerable to a big play if it misses a tackle in space. That became a running theme in the second half as Michigan found holes in the Buckeyes defense and exploited them.
“I have to look and see where all the breakdowns were, but it wasn’t just one thing,” Day said. “It was a missed tackle on the first play, we got beat on a double move on the second play, and then there were some missed fits in the run game. A few plays on the back end and a few of the runs. The first thing we need to do in games like this is play great defense, and other than the two plays in the first half, I feel we did. Not in the second half.”
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy completed just 50 percent of his passes, but many were for big gains or drew pass interference penalties that kept drives going. It was a poor effort all around from the secondary, from coverage to tackling, and it cost the Buckeyes dearly.
“There were breakdowns in the back end, that was clear to see,” Day said. “When you do that in big games, you saw what happened. The margin for error is so tiny, and all of a sudden the floodgates open up and the game gets out of control. It should have never happened.”
Off Kilter Offense
After opening the game converting four of its first five third downs, Ohio State was successful once more in the game and ended making just five-of-16. Nine penalties didn’t help either, including a couple of crucial false starts that put the Buckeyes behind the chains and throttled drives that looked promising.
“On offense, we had too many penalties that got us off schedule and didn’t do a good job converting on third down,” Day said. “All those things together, it gets out of hand at the end.”
One of the big problems last year was the Buckeyes having to settle for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns. That happened once in the first quarter when a drive stalled at the UM 6, ending with a Noah Ruggles field goal to put Ohio State ahead 10-3. It could have been a much different game plan had OSU punched it into the end zone at that point.
OSU scored a touchdown just once on four trips to the red zone, with two field goals and an interception. With the field condensed, sometimes it is a disadvantage for a team that loves to hit explosive plays.
“We spent a lot of time trying to come up with things we think can get us into the end zone, sometimes it’s execution, sometimes it’s other things,” Day said. “Those were opportunities for us to jump ahead early in the game, and it didn’t happen.”
CJ Stroud finished the day 31-of-48 for 349 yards and two touchdowns, but also tossed two picks in the fourth quarter. After the game he took accountability, saying, “I could have been better. I feel like I let my teammates down.”
Where To Go From Here
While talk of Day being in danger of losing his job sounds silly, it isn’t wrong to question whether the Buckeyes have the proper mindset heading into the rivalry game.
You always knew with Urban Meyer that the effort was never going to wane, that if you got hit in the mouth, you would hit back. Two years in a row now the Buckeyes were confronted by a bully and backed down. So it isn’t wrong to question Day’s methods leading into the game.
“We’ll figure out what’s next,” he said. “I’m not sure what is next right now but that’s life at Ohio State. I certainly know what this game means to everybody, and when you lose it all comes back to me. I’m the head coach. That’s what probably hurts the most.”
The last OSU coach to begin his career 1-2 against Michigan was John Cooper, and it didn’t end well for him. Prior to the consecutive victories, Jim Harbaugh had been winless in five meetings with the Buckeyes, then reinvented himself.
Maybe that’s what it will take for the Buckeyes to regain control of a rivalry they were dominating until recently.
“I thought we had a great week, emotionally we came into this thing swinging,” Day said. “But we came up short. I have to get my mind wrapped around why that happened and why we didn’t finish this thing the right way.”
The loss killed whatever chance Ohio State had of a Big Ten title, and while it isn’t completely out of the College Football Playoff picture, it will need a lot of chaos to sneak in through the back door.