Buckeyes pivoting from disappointment of not playing Michigan to preparing for title game

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State defensive players get ready for warm-ups before the game against Rutgers on Nov. 7. Instead of playing Michigan on Saturday, the Buckeyes will have a light practice and watch Northwestern’s regular-season finale against Illinois.

Mickey Marotti chuckled at the question, only because that was the most appropriate response to describe Ohio State’s emotional roller coaster this week and this season.

On Tuesday, the Buckeyes’ game against archrival Michigan was canceled because of a rash of COVID-19 cases among the Wolverines. On Wednesday, the Big Ten rescinded its rule requiring teams to play six games this year to qualify for its championship game. That pits the Buckeyes against Northwestern for a chance to win their fourth straight conference title.

Marotti is the Buckeyes’ head strength and conditioning coach. He was Urban Meyer’s right-hand man, and that role has continued under Ryan Day. No one has the pulse on the Buckeyes more than he does.

“I laugh because nothing really surprises me through this last eight months,” Marotti said on Day’s radio show Thursday on WBNS-FM. “We've been the highest of high. We've been the lowest of low.”

He said players, coaches, staff and even fans have become almost numb to all of the twists and turns of the 2020 season.

“You just show up for work and 'OK, let's see what happens today,' ” Marotti said. “Obviously, there's disappointment (about not playing Michigan) because we prepare for this game 365 days a year.

“And then the next day, (we learn) we're going to be able to play the championship game. So, once again, you've just got to keep these guys on an even keel and moving forward and do the best job you can to keep their emotions in check.”

Day said his team quickly pivoted from the disappointment of not getting to play Michigan to excitement about the Big Ten title game.

“They were very devastated that we're not playing that (Michigan) game,” Day said. “We've been really looking forward to playing these guys, all of us.”

He said it’s a sign of the team’s maturity that it was able to transition quickly to Northwestern.

“I just really feel in my heart this is going to pay off somewhere down the line for us,” Day said.

Day, three assistant coaches and close to 20 players, including five starters, didn’t make the trip to Michigan State last week because of positive COVID tests. Day and the coaches have all returned, and he sounded optimistic about having most players back for the Northwestern game. Linebacker Tuf Borland and safety Josh Proctor were shown in a practice photo released by the team Wednesday.

“We're in a pretty good place right now with that, but it's day-to-day,” Day said. “The good news is the guys who were affected with it the last week or so are starting to get back in the room.

“We're getting them back in practice, and they should be ready to roll for the game. But everyone else has to be on top of their game (with COVID safeguards) and really be careful.”

The Buckeyes began their preparation for the Big Ten championship game with a practice Wednesday and were to work without pads on Thursday. On Friday, Day said, practice will include a mock game. The team will have a light practice Saturday and watch Northwestern’s regular-season finale against Illinois while socially distanced in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

Watching Northwestern wasn’t what Ohio State wanted to be doing at noon Saturday. The rivalry with Michigan never takes a day off, and even as Day was informing his team about the cancellation, Marotti was thinking about next year’s clash. He had one of his operations staffers reset the countdown clock for the 2021 game in Ann Arbor.

‘It might have brought some fear into some guys like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we have 300-whatever days,’ ” Marotti said. “For guys that are trying to decide whether they should come back to school, maybe I helped them a little bit like, ‘Nah.’

“The older players were laughing, and the younger players were like, ‘Jeez, here we go.’ But it's a part of their daily routine every day they come to Woody.”