The Ohio State football team played its worst half of the season last Saturday in the Big Ten championship game.
Yet the mood in the locker room after the Buckeyes fell behind Wisconsin 21-7 wasn’t one of doom.
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The previous two years, Ohio State had one inexplicably lopsided loss to inferior teams. This looked like it could be a repeat of Iowa in 2017 or Purdue in 2018.
This Buckeyes team, however, didn’t crack, rallying for 27 unanswered points in the second half for a 34-21 victory.
Sure, talent and coaching play the biggest role. But there is an additional ingredient with these Buckeyes that appeared lacking at times in previous years: They look like they’re having fun.
It’s been obvious in blowouts, and the residue can pay off in adversity. Fifth-year defensive tackle Jashon Cornell has experienced the highs and lows in his time at Ohio State. He feels the difference.
“We’re having a lot of fun out there playing for each other,” he said after learning the Buckeyes would play Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 28 in the College Football Playoff. “That’s one big difference from the past. When we step on the field, we’re ready to play. We’re gonna play for one another, and we’re having fun while we’re doing it.”
Cornell arrived at Ohio State in 2015, the year after an improbable national championship. Expectations and pressure were immense on the ’15 team. Its mantra, “The Grind,” became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Buckeyes played as if they were burdened by extra weight and finally collapsed in a Big Ten championship loss to Michigan State that Urban Meyer considers his most painful as OSU coach.
Meyer’s methods worked; he lost only nine games in seven seasons. He has three national titles, including two at Florida.
But Meyer’s personality is laser-focused and demanding of himself and others. When Meyer was occasionally asked about “fun,” he would look quizzically and say fun was winning.
It’s not a stretch to say this team has benefited from a fresh voice this season. When new coach Ryan Day was asked about the importance of fun last month, he provided an expansive answer.
During the season, he said, fun yields to work. The season is a grind — motto or not — and game preparation is intense. But Day recognizes the importance of making it as fun as possible.
“I think 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 do that. You have to wake up and smell the roses, enjoy what you’re doing.”
Former OSU and NFL linebacker Bobby Carpenter, now a local radio host, is a regular at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. He notices a difference with Day.
“Ryan is a little bit more relational in how he deals with things,” Carpenter said. “It's not that he’s not tough. He lays out expectations, and he gives people opportunities to meet them, whereas I think Urban laid out expectations and then tried to push you to them.”
Football demands pain tolerance and sacrifice. But in the end, it is a sport.
“You’re playing a kid’s game,” Carpenter said. “It’s too hard to operate on a high level all the time if you’re not enjoying it some. Urban used to always say the fun is in the winning, and I completely agree with that.
“But I think there is fun in the process. You can have fun working hard. Fun in winning is great, but it’s so results-based. Ryan’s like, ‘Hey, let’s work hard and have a hell of a time together working hard and getting better.’ ”
Carpenter credits some of the fun quotient to the fifth-year seniors, notably defensive tackle Robert Landers, cornerback Damon Arnette and receiver K.J. Hill. This Buckeyes team has more fifth-year players than most, and they are determined to enjoy this team’s success.
“I think those guys kind of set the temperature in the room for everybody,” Carpenter said.
But the tone is mostly set by the coach. Carpenter played for Jim Tressel, who led the Buckeyes to the 2002 national title.
“Ryan is the perfect mixture between Tress and Urban,” Carpenter said. “He’s relational enough like Tress that everybody feels engaged. But he also is commanding enough to where there’s always a need to meet expectations.
“That’s the toughest thing about being a coach. It’s not the play-calling, and Ryan is one of the best play-callers in college football. It’s setting an environment where people feel comfortable but also have a desire to excel.”