If Ohio State coach Ryan Day had decided to hand out the game ball to one of the players after a 34-10 win over Michigan State on Saturday night, there would have been no shortage of candidates.
Quarterback Justin Fields had three touchdowns against the Spartans, tailback J.K. Dobbins picked up 172 rushing yards, and defensive end Chase Young made a sack for the eighth straight game.
But Day settled on someone else.
He presented the game ball to Mickey Marotti, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, crediting him for instilling toughness in preparation for this season.
“He’s the guy this whole thing is built upon,” Day said. “He’s the backbone. And he’s the blood that runs through this whole program. And to say we’re tough, it’s because of him and his strength staff and all the work that they put in with these guys.”
Michigan State presented one of the more demanding matchups for the Buckeyes. Its defensive line was stingy, especially in the opening moments, pressuring Fields and stuffing Dobbins on a handful of carries.
For the first time this season, Ohio State did not score a touchdown in the first quarter, challenged by the Spartans, who had ranked in the top 10 in the nation in total defense through September. Then points followed, amassing 24 points in the second quarter to build a comfortable lead.
“It was hard, it was a grind, it was gritty,” Day said, “and it was great to see the guys respond.”
It took a couple of big plays, including a 67-yard touchdown run by Dobbins, as the Buckeyes began to wear down the Spartans.
Day thought teams could find success against Michigan State once they started to find success on the ground.
“If you can start to run on them, you can maybe start to crack some,” he said.
Ohio State’s starters played most of the game as well. In previous games, most were replaced by backups midway through the second half.
Most players attributed the conditioning and resolve to Marotti.
“You talk about toughness, you talk about consistency,” linebacker Tuf Borland said. “Everything we want this program to be is embodied by coach Mick.”
Marotti arrived in his role at Ohio State along with former coach Urban Meyer, who took over for the 2012 season, and was retained by Day.
As with previous offseasons, he led the team through winter conditioning workouts before spring practice in March and April and then the summer workouts before preseason camp in August.
“We talked about toughness, really since the beginning,” Borland continued.
“He preaches it, summer workouts, winter workouts,” Young said. “Toughness, that's how we're going to win this year.”
“Without coach Mick, we wouldn't be the team we are,” linebacker Baron Browning said.
The message of toughness had been uttered by Day throughout this season, one of the key reasons that the Buckeyes had moved to 6-0 overall heading into the first off week of the season.
Day was pleased with their progress.
“They’re taking a lot of pride in being tough,” he said.