Improvement sought during off week

Bill Rabinowitz
Ohio State coach Ryan Day [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

After an off week, Ohio State is back at work in preparation for Friday night’s game at Northwestern.

In truth, though, it wasn’t really an off week. Sure, the Buckeyes didn’t play on Saturday and players were free to leave campus for a few days. But they took advantage of a week without a game to self-evaluate and work on deficiencies.

Ohio State has outscored opponents 296-53 in rolling to a 6-0 record and a No. 4 ranking in both major polls. They are explosive on offense and have sealed the leaks on a defense that repeatedly surrendered big plays last season.

But coach Ryan Day has made combating complacency a recurring theme all season. He and his position coaches met with each player last week and gave them a midterm report card detailing three things the player did well and three things he needs to improve.

“We just have to be critical, and I think the players have to understand that as coaches we're not being overcritical,” Day said. “It's just that we understand as talent equates and we start getting into these games like we do this week, those issues are still there.

“As we start to get tighter and tighter competition, they're going to show up more and more.”

The challenge, he said, is for the players to have the maturity to understand the urgency for improvement.

On paper, Northwestern wouldn’t seem to pose much of a threat to the Buckeyes. The Wildcats, who lost to the Buckeyes in last season’s Big Ten championship game, are 1-4. They are averaging 14.4 points per game, worst in the conference other than Rutgers.

With a showdown next week against undefeated Wisconsin, Day is already on guard against any notion that the Buckeyes might look past Northwestern.

“We all know what happens if you start to lose focus, and we cannot do that,” he said. “So this week, we've talked about having a white belt mentality, which is a mentality that you're starting right from scratch and that you don't take anything for granted. You don't make any assumptions, and if we do that, then we'll be fine."

That focus on the present was a big part of last week’s self-assessment. Defensive co-coordinator Jeff Hafley didn’t deny that his unit has played well. But he said it has been far from perfect.

“There's a lot of little things we need to do better," Hafley said. “To me, defense is about all the little things. It's about taking the right step. It's about lining up with the right leverage. It's about being in the right gap. It's about having your eyes in the right place.”

He said that good results can mask mistakes. An interception might conceal the fact that the Buckeyes blew a coverage on the other side of the field, for instance.

“You need to clean up the little things so the big ones don't get you later,” Hafley said. “The players need to see that, and the coaches need to see it.”

And so they did.

“I think it's always good to take a step back,” safety Jordan Fuller said. “During the week, you're really focused on the opponent. During the bye week, you can look in the mirror.”