Analysis: Short-handed Buckeyes ace Spartans test, but future is uncertain

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State strength coach Mickey Marotti leads players in "quick cals" warm-ups before the game at Michigan State.

Ryan Day admitted he was an emotional wreck having to watch his Ohio State football team play Saturday at Michigan State while he was home in COVID-19 quarantine.

The coach would have felt a lot worse if the Buckeyes hadn’t played as well as they did in their 52-12 victory at Michigan State.

“That was not easy to watch,” Day said in a postgame Zoom interview. “But I was really proud to see it.”

Day had to stay home after testing positive for COVID-19 before the canceled Illinois game a week earlier. The Buckeyes were also without starting offensive linemen Thayer Munford, Josh Myers and Nicholas Petit-Frere, starting middle linebacker Tuf Borland and several key backups, as well as assistant coaches Greg Mattison, Matt Barnes and Corey Dennis. 

The game followed a week during which everyone chipped in. Quarterback Justin Fields said he felt like a coach at times without Day and Dennis, his position coach. Quality control coach Keenan Bailey stepped in to fill the void.

“What a great statement about who we are as a culture, as a program,” Day said. “Just hats off to everybody there.”

As expected, it wasn’t always pretty. Offensive linemen Dawand Jones, Max Wray and Matthew Jones started for the first time, with Enokk Vimahi sharing time at left guard with Matthew Jones.

Even with a makeshift offensive line, the Buckeyes dominated from the start. Fields used his legs as much as his arm, running and throwing for two touchdowns each. Running back Trey Sermon had a breakout game by running for 112 yards.

The defense, particularly against the run, was swarming. And except for one quick Michigan State touchdown drive, the Buckeyes averted having a third straight second-half defensive meltdown.

The timing couldn’t have been better. The College Football Playoff selection committee kept the Buckeyes in the final spot for the semifinals last week but made it clear that Ohio State’s position was precarious. A lopsided victory on the road while shorthanded should solidify Ohio State for now.

Sure, Michigan State is hardly the program it was at the height of coach Mark Dantonio’s run in East Lansing. He left a largely empty cupboard for Mel Tucker. But the Spartans did beat previously undefeated Northwestern the previous week for their only win other than a victory over Michigan.

Ah, the Wolverines. Coach Jim Harbaugh’s team was reeling even before being hit last week by its own COVID outbreak, which forced cancellation of its game against Maryland.

That has put Saturday’s traditional regular-season finale in jeopardy. Though Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said on his podcast last week that he was optimistic about the Wolverines being able to play, there seems to be more pessimism up north.

If Michigan can’t play, that would leave Ohio State with five games, one short of the Big Ten’s minimum of six required to qualify for the conference championship game. Would the conference change that rule? Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who has plenty of clout, suggested last week that it should.

If not, would the Big Ten juggle its schedule to give Ohio State a sixth game? Minnesota hasn’t been able to play its past two games because of a COVID outbreak. The Golden Gophers are scheduled to play Nebraska this week. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck has expressed optimism about playing, but if they can’t, the Big Ten could change the schedule by having the Cornhuskers play Rutgers instead.

The Scarlet Knights are supposed to play Maryland, which had a rash of coronavirus cases four weeks ago, forcing cancellation of its Nov. 14 game against Ohio State. That game could be made up Saturday if Rutgers replaced Minnesota as Nebraska’s opponent.

Such a scheduling change would have to happen quickly, though. Coaches have already started game-planning for next week’s opponent.

The best scenario, of course, is for Michigan to be able to play. The Game has been played every year since 1918 and has been the Buckeyes’ regular-season finale since 1935. Ohio State fans would love another crack at Harbaugh’s beleaguered team.

Day is expected to return from quarantine Monday, and he probably won’t be alone.

“I'm hoping we start getting some guys back,” Day said. “We had a big number there. We get some of the coaches back and some of these (players) back in the building. I think that's huge.”

The Buckeyes staved off COVID for months until two weeks ago. After missing two games in three weeks, Ohio State entered East Lansing with genuine trepidation. To come through with one of their best performances of the season was worth celebrating before turning attention to whatever comes next.

“We take a lot of pride in being Buckeyes,” Day said. “There's so much emotion into the season and to see the team rally together in this moment … Certainly, we have a lot more football to play. But we live to see another day. With the kind of challenges and the adversity that we've been through, I think it's a moment that everybody needs to enjoy tonight.”