Ohio State football's toughness, called out by Michigan, to be Utah target in Rose Bowl

Joey Kaufman
The Columbus Dispatch

In the three weeks following its first loss to Michigan in a decade, Ohio State has confronted an unwelcomed label.

It’s been repeated by TV analysts, sports talk radio commentators and even an opposing assistant coach.

They say the Buckeyes are soft.

How else to explain the mammoth-sized gap in rushing yards in The Game, where they were outgained by 233 yards on the ground, or the overmatched offensive line that left quarterback C.J. Stroud bruised on Michigan Stadium’s turf?

Ohio State football:Ohio State is 'not a tough team,' says Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis

The Buckeyes can push back against that characterization in the Rose Bowl, which brings a matchup with Utah that doubles as a battle of perception for Ohio State.

Utah strong at line of scrimmage

“It’s kind of like a challenge,” freshman defensive end Jack Sawyer said. “People are challenging us right now, saying we're not tough, we can't stop the run and run the ball. It's definitely firing ourselves up a bit to go out and play.”

Ohio State allowed 297 rushing yards at Michigan. Said linebacker Steele Chambers (22): "I personally thought we played pretty soft. Me included."

The Utes offer a barometer for toughness. Winning their first-ever Pac-12 championship earlier this month, they did so with strength at the line of scrimmage, ranking in the top 25 nationally in both rush offense and rush defense.

Their core includes Tavion Thomas, a bruising 221-pound running back who topped 1,000 rushing yards, and Devin Lloyd, a disruptive edge rusher who was a finalist for the Butkus Award as the top linebacker in the country.  

Utah’s physical nature mirrors Michigan and was twice capable of pummeling Oregon, which beat Ohio State in Columbus in September. Over its pair of blowout wins over the Ducks, it outrushed them by 262 yards.

“Their o-line’s very good,” Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison said. “They're very athletic. That's something I've noticed, and they do a good job with what they do. They like to run the ball. They play hard, too”

Fellow veteran defensive end Tyreke Smith offered a similar evaluation.

“They're a physical team,” he said. “Downhill. And they also try to run off the edge.”

Utah running back Tavion Thomas has run for 1,041 yards and 20 touchdowns this season.

Smith said it would be important for the Buckeyes to control the edge of the line of scrimmage and clog the center to cut off holes for their ground game.

It’ll be a battle in the trenches.

Ohio State's Rose Bowl practices have been physical

Since the Buckeyes began practicing in preparation for the Rose Bowl on Dec. 10, left guard Thayer Munford said their workouts have been physical, knowing the upcoming matchup on New Year’s Day will demand grit.   

“We’re just making sure we're coming off the ball as hard as we can, just being physical like we were at the beginning of the season,” Munford said. “We've just got to have that mindset. That's all it is.”

Much of the recent negative chatter about Ohio State’s lack of toughness has followed comments from Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis a couple of days after the Wolverines’ triumph in the rivalry game.

During an appearance on the “Inside Michigan Football” radio show, Gattis referred to the Buckeyes as a “finesse team,” a trend he said they spotted early in the season after Ohio State gave up 269 yards rushing to Oregon in its first upset loss.  

Defensive tackle Haskell Garrett and the Buckeyes were outgained by 233 yards on the ground at Michigan.

“We knew that going into the game that we can out-physical them,” Gattis said, “we can out-tough them and that was gonna be the key to the game, and that's what we prepared for all year long.”

The dig didn’t sit well with Buckeyes players who were upset by another coach taking a public shot at them.

“From that coach up there, I really want to say something that I really want to say right now,” Munford said, “but I’m not going to say it.”

Others felt the label wasn’t accurate of their makeup, either.

“We're as physical as any team in the country,” Harrison said, “and I think we're going to showcase that in the Rose Bowl.”

But some were at least willing to concede the Buckeyes weren’t as tough as they needed to be at Michigan over the Thanksgiving weekend.

“It definitely stung,” linebacker Steele Chambers said, “but at the end of the day, he was right. I personally thought we played pretty soft. Me included, probably one of the bigger ones.”

Chambers added that the setback would serve as motivation not only in their preparation for the Rose Bowl, but also in the long offseason months.

“It lights a fire under us,” he said. “Hopefully can get ready for us next year.”

That won’t hurt at all.

“I don't necessarily know if we needed it, but it was kind of like a wakeup call,” Sawyer said. “Maybe we weren't playing as tough as we should. Maybe we weren't playing as hard as we could have every day in practice, taking the little things seriously.”

Joey Kaufman covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at or on Twitter @joeyrkaufman.

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