Even though Ohio State won 52-51 in overtime, last Nov. 17 was no fun at Maryland. Actually, many games Ohio State played in 2018 felt more like survival than celebration.
The Buckeyes lived in a world where every drill, practice and meeting was treated like fourth-and-1. Urban Meyer wanted his players and coaches to feel uncomfortable, the idea being that keeping them on edge promoted an ultra-competitive mindset and guarded against complacency.
Mostly, it worked. In seven seasons under Meyer, the Buckeyes were 83-9, including one national championship, and 7-0 against Michigan.
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What’s not for college athletes to love? Well, the sport itself, when it loses some of its playful pleasure. College football is big business, and few corporations carry out a “let’s have fun” strategy. The goal is to make money, not merry.
Similarly, at Ohio State the goal is to win games. If that happens, everyone has fun, right? Not always. The Buckeyes finished 13-1 last season, which made a lot of people happy. But happiness is more closely associated with contentment than fun.
Cue up Ohio State’s 2018 defense. Not a lot of fun for the players. The Buckeyes set a school record for points allowed (25.5), and the 5.8 yards per play were highest under Meyer. The Sliver Bullets looked especially thin against Maryland, which gutted the defense for 535 yards and seven touchdowns.
It looked like Terrapins running back Anthony McFarland was carrying a chainsaw instead of a football as he gained 298 yards, including touchdown runs of 81 and 75 yards, against a defense that resembled soon-to-be horror movie victims hiding behind a shower curtain.
One year later, Ohio State plays Maryland again, this time in the Horseshoe. Don’t expect McFarland to gain 100 yards, much less nearly 300. The roles have reversed, with the Buckeyes putting the Terps offense on the defensive. How will the suspension of Chase Young affect that? Not a ton. Ohio State’s pass rush may not be as stout, but even OSU’s second-team defense would create problems for Maryland.
Much speculation has occurred about what went wrong defensively last season. Was it the coaching staff? Yes. The scheme? Yes. But one assumption — lack of talent — proves faulty when considering that most of the players who struggled to get stops last year are the ones who collectively lead the nation in scoring defense (7.9 points a game) and rank second behind Wisconsin in total defense (224.3 yards). Ohio State’s run defense, 56th last season (158.2), is ninth this year (91.5).
The players did not change, and yet they did. Same bodies, different embodiment; fun has worked its way through the roster.
“One thing about this team from previous years. I feel like we were so stiff, whereas this year we’re playing loose and letting the bullets fly,” defensive tackle Jashon Cornell said. “We’re just having a lot of fun out there and enjoying playing together. What we have in the locker room now is really different.”
As college sports become more about money, pressure increases and fun becomes almost a dirty word. Fun suggests a softer attitude than what fans expect from their weekend warriors. But there’s a reason we play games, not work them.
Coach Ryan Day addressed the balance between fun and serious business. In doing so, he revealed a key difference between him and Meyer, which is to say Day operates with a lighter touch. Not lighter as in weaker, but more married to mirth than Meyer’s no-nonsense approach.
“You can go through this profession, this life, go through seasons and all of a sudden you wake up in 10 years and you realize maybe you didn't have any fun,” Day said. “You have to wake up and smell the roses, enjoy what you’re doing. That's a big part of it.”
This is not meant to dump on Meyer. Different dudes with different personalities. Meyer’s methods worked. Day’s approach also is working wonders.
“We always want to make sure guys always leave here wanting more,” Day continued. “That they enjoy coming through the building, feel confident about their relationships here and it’s an environment where they feel safe and want to come in and have fun every day, enjoy that. If you’re vested into it that way, you’re going to show up with energy. I think it makes for a better environment.”
Lest you think Day is running Romper Room (Google it, kids), he stressed that preseason frivolity differs from November fun.
“This time of year, fun is a little different. Fun is winning. Fun is being part of a team working towards a goal, working through adversity, those type of things. Not silly, goofy fun. There’s a difference,” he said. “We’ve worked hard to get ourselves to this point. We owe it to each other to make sure we’re locked in on that. It is time to grind. It is very serious now.”
Just not as serious as last season. The defense is smiling. It feels like a game again.