Coach Ryan Day's conservative bent in Ohio State win was surprising
One day after each Ohio State football game, beat reporters Joey Kaufman and Bill Rabinowitz discuss the lasting storylines and other key developments. Their latest back-and-forth follows the Buckeyes' 28-17 win over Penn State on Saturday that clinched the Big Ten East title.
Kaufman: This was a classic Big Ten slugfest. Ohio State ran 61 times to beat Penn State, equaling the most carries its offense had logged in a game since 2014. It ran the ball 73.5% of the time. Even quarterback Justin Fields ran a career-high 21 times. The game against the Nittany Lions ended up as the first opportunity to see how first-year coach Ryan Day, also the primary offensive play-caller, might handle a tight contest in the second half, and it wasn't dramatically different from either of his predecessors as far as the emphasis on the ground game.
Rabinowitz: Day playing it close to the vest was pretty surprising. Until Saturday, his inclination has been to be aggressive. The Buckeyes didn't completely go into a shell. The 28-yard touchdown pass from Fields to Chris Olave was a huge play. But you got the sense that the Buckeyes were just trying to steady themselves for most of the second half instead of trying for the knockout. My guess is that when Day and coaches re-watch the game, they'll conclude the same thing and probably think twice about using that approach again.
Kaufman: Some more aggressiveness is likely going to be needed should they reach the College Football Playoff. But the penultimate regular-season game is always a tricky stretch on the schedule for the Buckeyes. It falls a week before the game against archrival Michigan. Last season, they were caught in the wild 52-51 win at Maryland and also escaped with a 17-16 win at Michigan State in 2016, the week before playing the Wolverines. Or it could've been like 2015, when they were dealt a 17-14 loss to the Spartans at home, costing them a shot at the playoff. So, while their offensive game plan got a bit conservative, they fumbled three times and were unable to rout a team like they had so many others, they know there are far worse fates for a Saturday in late November.
Rabinowitz: Absolutely. An 11-point victory over the No. 8 team in the country is no cause for alarm. If not for the fumbles, it would have been a much more comfortable victory. I tend to agree with Day and OSU players that this might be the best thing that could have happened to them. Any sense of invincibility is gone now. They know they have to play well against an improved Michigan team, and they won't have the home crowd to lift them up. But I still like the way the Buckeyes match up against Michigan, particularly because I think their defense can harass quarterback Shea Patterson into making mistakes.
Kaufman: The defense is what will make Ohio State such a tough team to beat, whether it's Michigan or another upcoming foe. Penn State managed only one extended scoring drive, when it went 75 yards to score a touchdown on the opening series of the second half. A later touchdown and field goal only followed fumbles by the Buckeyes that gave them favorable field position. Their defense was so stifling that it contributed to James Franklin opting to punt twice on the Buckeyes' side of the 50-yard line in the first half. A fourth-down attempt is less inviting when your team is averaging less than 3 yards per play.
Rabinowitz: I still question Franklin's decisions to punt from the OSU 42 and 36. Against an offense as potent as the Buckeyes', you have to take advantage of every possession you have. Back to Michigan: This game is a lot more interesting than it looked like it'd be after the first half of the Michigan-Penn State game. Give credit to the Wolverines for turning their season around. If Patterson can avoid costly mistakes, Michigan certainly has a chance. Its defense is excellent, though not as good as it was last year before OSU put 62 points on them. The X's and O's battle between Day and Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown will be a key. Of course, Ohio State's defense is a tad different than last year's as well.
Kaufman: A downside to the conference expansion era is this rivalry has less at stake on Saturday. While it matters significantly to the fan base and the legacy of Day's first season, the reality is it might not have a significant effect on Ohio State's standing for the playoff. The Buckeyes have already clinched the Big Ten East, so even if they lose to Michigan, they can still win the conference title game and finish 12-1 overall, a strong case to make the four-team field. Granted, they don't want to jeopardize their chances. An undefeated Big Ten champion is basically a guarantee to make it. But it's hard not to think that the game is diminished a little.
Rabinowitz: I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a hardcore Buckeyes fan to agree with you. Michigan is a season unto itself. There would be fans who'd view a CFP championship with an asterisk if the Buckeyes made the playoff despite losing to Michigan. I agree with you that OSU could still make the CFP if it loses next week and wins the Big Ten title. But plenty is at stake, aside from the accomplishment of defeating an archrival. The No. 1 spot in the playoff could be crucial this year because that would almost certainly mean avoiding Clemson in the semifinal. OSU would much rather play the No. 4 seed, whoever that is, and it needs a victory over Michigan to keep alive its hopes of overtaking LSU for the top spot.