This story begins in Tokyo, of all places, where 30 years ago this February Iron Mike Tyson took a fist to the face and folded like tinfoil.
Columbus’ own Buster Douglas delivered the knockout blow that turned Tyson into a mere mortal. Until then, the heavyweight brawler was considered invincible. Just like Ohio State.
Fast forward to 2019, when the Buckeyes showed up at Ohio Stadium having pummeled their previous 10 opponents by a combined score of 515 to 98. That margin of victory alone (417) was larger than what Penn State’s entire offense (368) had produced all season.
It gets better (or worse, for teams on the receiving end of Ohio State’s beatdowns). The Buckeyes were so dominant that every win was by at least 24 points. Ohio State’s players were doing No-Close Shave September and October before No-Shave November ever arrived.
The scores were so lopsided that even Ryan Day wondered how long his maiden voyage as Ohio State’s coach would continue without ever seeing an iceberg, much less hitting one. Along those lines, how would the Buckeyes respond if/when things went sideways? Would one strong left hook knock them so silly they turned into Tyson, whose career circled the drain after Douglas gave the bully a taste of his own medicine?
The answer arrived Saturday in the eighth round of a 10-round fight, when for the first time this season Ohio State took a shot to the mouth that tested how it would react to a counterpunch.
“We haven’t really faced that before,” Day said.
Uh-oh. After jumping to a 21-0 lead that easily could have been 28-0 if not for Justin Fields’ goal-line fumble, Ohio State watched things slip to 21-17 late in the third quarter. Were they worried?
“It was a different feeling, for sure,” Ohio State center Josh Myers said.
Not unlike the feeling of wiping your nose and seeing blood. Do you panic or shrug, grab a tissue and move on?
“That was the first time I’ve really felt — well, it was a little bit in the Wisconsin game — but we were reeling right there,” Day said. “And now we had to respond; our backs were against the wall.”
Wall. Ropes. Whatever. As Buckeye Nation nerved out, Ohio State avoided collapsing under pressure, recovering from mostly self-inflicted wounds to win 28-17. Bourbon Street in January remains very much in the picture.
It’s easy to say now, but getting smacked in the kisser was the best thing that could have happened to the Buckeyes. If they had extended their 21-0 lead into a blowout — something like 35-3 — the ease of victory could have made Michigan week more like Michigan weak, with players figuring Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor would be just another step toward the playoff.
“You have their attention now,” Day said. “I know that sounds crazy — 11 weeks, 12 weeks into the season — but when you beat teams by 30 and 40 points, they kind of look at you like, ‘Yeah, Coach, we’re good.’ ”
So the Buckeyes learned two lessons against Penn State: 1. They are beatable; and 2. When the game gets close, they have what it takes to pull it out.
“When you win (blowouts), you know your team but you don’t know them in that environment … with everything on the line,” Day said, adding that things got real in the fourth quarter against the Nittany Lions.
“And the momentum’s going their way,” he continued. “At that point, how do you have the strength to turn the tide and the momentum back toward you? That’s not easy to do.”
But it must happen. Closer games are coming, maybe even against Michigan. At least now the Buckeyes know they can survive a scare.
“We talked (on the sideline) about how we knew this would happen one time this season,” fifth-year senior wide receiver K.J. Hill said. “When someone swings, we have to swing back and keep swinging until they fall out.”
Ohio State came in knowing it could deliver a roundhouse. Now it knows it can absorb a blow and remain upright.