Ryan Day tells Ohio State players they can be champs or chumps as season finally arrives

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
With Ohio State's season finally getting underway this week, coach Ryan Day wants to make sure his players stay in the moment.

The race started weeks ago, but Ohio State is only now awaiting its starting gun.

The Buckeyes’ season finally starts Saturday against visiting Nebraska, and coach Ryan Day is preaching urgency. Really, he’s preaching several types of it.

Ohio State has had about 40 practices. That’s good for honing fundamentals. It can also be irrelevant because practice reps, no matter how intense, aren’t the same as game reps.

Against an overmatched nonconference opponent like Ohio State usually faces in its an opener, that likely wouldn’t matter. Nebraska is a 26-point underdog on Saturday, but Day has plenty of respect for the Cornhuskers and coach Scott Frost.

So his message to his players was blunt.

“I told them, ‘You're going to look like a champ or look like a chump based on your preparation,’ because now's the time, and it's not just like 'OK, we'll get it the next rep,' ” Day said Tuesday in a Zoom call with reporters. “That's what happens when you practice so much. There are no real consequences for a mistake. Now there will be, and we'll have a better idea what kind of team we have Saturday night.”

The Buckeyes are ranked No. 5 and are regarded as national championship contenders. But they have ground to make up, particularly against Clemson and Alabama, which have played nine games combined.

Day didn’t want to engage in any discussion about that. He told his team 2½ weeks ago that he didn’t want to hear any conversation about a national title.

“It's all about beating Nebraska,” Day said. “If you start focusing on things like that or compare ourselves to other teams, all that's going to do is just distract us from playing the game on Saturday.

“We’ve got a good opponent coming in here, and if we don't take care of business on Saturday, none of that (championship speculation) really is going to matter. The focus has been so much on being a team and being 1-0. Because with everything going on, the easiest thing to do is get distracted. The teams that focus on what's going on down the road, they get upset. It goes sideways fast, so we cannot do that.”

Day is entering his second full season as head coach. His Buckeyes dominated last year until losing a heart-breaker to Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal.

He believes this team has a chance to be even more special, which is why he was so persistent this summer in trying to keep hope alive for a season even after the Big Ten announced that it would postpone it because of COVID-19.

Now the season is here, and Day has all the usual concerns a coach has, plus the ones related to the pandemic.

For now, he’s just happy to be back into a game-week routine.

“Now you get so focused and locked in to your work where before we had so much free time on our hands,” he said. “We were focusing on other things. So we’re back to work this week, which is good.”

But COVID is like a cloud hanging over everyone. Day said he reminds his team every day not to deviate from the strict protocols it has lived with for months.

“To look at it like it's been a success right now would be premature,” Day said, “because we still have two more months of it. This is not a week-to-week thing. It's all the way until January.

“We might be good for two, three, four weeks, five weeks, and then all of a sudden we stub our toe and have an outbreak and we're going to lose (the ability to play) games. We can't afford to do that. So it's an ongoing deal.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch