Staples: Ohio State must compete all game against Georgia. Its identity depends on it

ATLANTA — Ohio State defensive end Jack Sawyer hears you praising Georgia’s physicality ahead of a Buckeyes-Bulldogs showdown in the Peach Bowl, and Sawyer is not fooled by your attempts to tuck an insult into a compliment.

“When we hear people talking about how physical they are, we really know what that means,” Sawyer said Wednesday. “They’re trying to say we aren’t that physical. And we can’t really say anything because of what happened last game. But if you really turn on that tape, you’ll see how physical we played that whole game.”

“Last game” was a 45-23 loss to Michigan at home. It cost Ohio State the Big Ten East title and the Big Ten title. It proved the Wolverines’ win against the Buckeyes in 2021 was no fluke. It also produced the initial pangs of an existential crisis in Buckeyeland. After dominating the series for years, Ohio State had been punched twice in the face and forgotten its plan.

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But that loss did not cost Ohio State a shot at a national title. USC’s defense couldn’t hold up against Utah’s offense in the Pac-12 title game, and the Buckeyes got a reprieve. Ohio State would be guaranteed one more game with championship stakes in 2022.

The result of this game can calm that existential crisis, or it plunges it deeper. Coach Ryan Day can either restore confidence in his administration or completely shatter it.

If you aren’t an Ohio State fan, this is the part where you scream “Whoa” and remind me that Day is an astonishing 45-5 at Ohio State. He has lost exactly two Big Ten games — those two Michigan games — in four seasons. The Buckeyes are facing Georgia, the team expected to win this season’s national title since a dismantling of Oregon in Week 1. Shouldn’t Ohio State just be happy with this season no matter the result Saturday?

Of course not.

The standard at Ohio State is different, just as the standard at Georgia is different. The Buckeyes are never supposed to just be happy to be anywhere. They are supposed to dominate the inferior and go toe-to-toe with the elite. They are never supposed to be the less physical team. The Ohio State ideal is best encapsulated by strength coach Mickey Marotti’s definition of “Buckeye football” as passed along by Sawyer on Wednesday.

Run the damn ball.

Stop the damn run.

Play good special teams.

A team loaded with elite recruits that do those three things will win most games. That’s what Alabama did while winning six national titles between 2009 and 2020. That’s what Clemson did while winning two national titles in three seasons a few years back. That’s what Ohio State did when it won the national title in the College Football Playoff’s first season in 2014.

That’s what Georgia does now.

Can Ohio State do that?

We know the Buckeyes can throw the ball. Marvin Harrison Jr. might be the nation’s best receiver, and he leads a deep group that catches passes from CJ Stroud, a potential first-round NFL draft pick who ranks No. 3 in the nation in yards per attempt.

Can they run it when it matters, though? TreVeyon Henderson will miss Saturday’s game with an injury. Miyan Williams, the Buckeyes’ other lead back, is recovering from an ankle injury but is expected to play. Even with the backs hobbled, Ohio State averaged 4.9 yards a carry against Michigan but then abandoned the run in the fourth quarter because the Buckeyes couldn’t complete the second task on Marotti’s list.

Remember how Ohio State’s Sawyer said the Buckeyes’ defense didn’t wilt because of Michigan’s physicality? Someone else who recently broke down that game agreed.

“If you cut on the film, they’re physical guys,” Georgia center Sedrick Van Pran said Wednesday. “Watching them play against Michigan, they were really, really physical. Guys hit blocks. Guys flew around and made tackles. There were just some unfortunate things that happened at the end of the game.”

The “unfortunate things” were 75- and 85-yard Donovan Edwards touchdown runs. They happened because Michigan blockers overwhelmed some defenders while others filled incorrect gaps. This clogged their teammates’ path to Edwards and allowed him to burst through gaping holes to find the open field. But those two plays don’t tell the whole story. An earlier drive set the table for those plays, and all the first long touchdown run did was prolong Ohio State’s agony.

Michigan blockers began eating the Buckeyes’ souls late in the third quarter on a 15-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that stretched into the fourth. On a four-play stretch early in the drive, Michigan gained 35 yards on the ground. What had been difficult to that point — Michigan had been averaging 3.1 yards a carry prior to that drive — suddenly seemed easier. The Buckeyes managed some resistance in the red zone, but when Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy turned a QB power play into a 3-yard touchdown, the Wolverines had run 10 times for 47 yards on the drive, and they had effectively enforced their will and taken a 31-20 lead.

From the beginning of that drive to the end of the game, Michigan ran 17 times for 232 yards. And even if Edwards had been dragged down 15 yards into that first long touchdown, it’s likely Michigan simply would have ground out the remaining seven minutes and change, five yards at a time on the ground. Because while Ohio State had spent three-and-a-half quarters shedding blocks and making tackles, the last quarter-and-a-half was full of plays where seemingly every silver helmet disappeared behind a winged one.

That can’t happen Saturday. The problem is Georgia has a more explosive passing game than Michigan — which still hit Ohio State for three long, wide-open touchdown passes — but Georgia also has better NFL prospects along the offensive line and monsters at tight end (Darnell Washington and Brock Bowers ) who can devastate second-level defenders in the run game.

If we compared the weekly practice schedules of Georgia, Michigan and Ohio State, two probably would look almost identical. The other would be Ohio State’s. That wouldn’t have always been the case. Georgia tailback Kenny McIntosh used a phrase Wednesday that probably sounded familiar to some of the longer-serving Ohio State beat writers. McIntosh was discussing the intensity of Georgia’s practices when he referred to “Bloody Tuesday.”

“Everybody knows on this day that we’re going to be physical and get bloody, basically,” McIntosh said. “We want it to be hard.”

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Lots of programs through the years have referred to their Tuesday practices as “Bloody Tuesday.” This makes sense because Tuesday is far enough past the last game and long enough before the next game to hold the most physical practice of the week. But the reason it should ring so familiar to Buckeyes is that it’s also what Urban Meyer called Tuesday practices. Like Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Meyer believed that the only way to get good at hitting — and stay good at tackling as a long season progressed — was to hit.

So, like Smart, Harbaugh and Nick Saban still do, Meyer’s teams got after it on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

It’s highly likely some of those 2014 Buckeyes like defensive tackle Michael Bennett or offensive tackle Taylor Decker felt the same way some of these Georgia players felt about their practices. “It’s more of a mental thing,” Van Pran said. “Every human has something where you get to a point where you’re like, ‘Man, do I really want to do this?’ And you will find some more.”

The question now is whether Day and his staff have pushed this team enough to find that “more” when it matters Saturday. Day said this week that the Buckeyes held very physical practices during early bowl preparation. (So ​​did Georgia, which always does.) It’s possible that a few weeks of getting back to the fundamentals of blocking and tackling combined with the Buckeyes’ off-the-charts athleticism will produce a team capable of matching up with Georgia. Unlike most of the games the Buckeyes and Bulldogs play, the recruiting rankings and projected NFL draft slots look awfully similar on both sides. We know Marotti knows how much a team needs to be pushed to reach a national title level. He has done it three times, twice at Florida and once at Ohio State.

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When Meyer handed Ohio State’s program to Day following the 2018 season, he turned over the keys to a tank. Day landed quarterback Justin Fields as a transfer from Georgia, but Fields was protected by a line that included four current NFL starters. The 2019 Ohio State defense, meanwhile, was positively nasty. Chase Young and Jonathon Cooper came off the edge. DaVon Hamilton and Tommy Togiai rotated at defensive tackle. Pete Werner and Malik Harrison roamed the second level.

While Ohio State’s offense has remained potent under Day, the defense has not been able to get back to that group’s level. Firing Kerry Coombs and bringing in Jim Knowles as defensive coordinator did not seem to solve the problems, at least judging by what happened against the Wolverines.

But maybe we’re rushing to judgment. After all, Ohio State’s schedule does not offer many actual challenges. Perhaps we’re overreacting to 23 bad minutes. Saturday should give us the correct answer.

“This is a chance that not many people get,” said edge rusher JT Tuimoloau, who should be Ohio State’s next defensive superstar. He’s not wrong.

But beyond being a chance to compete for the national title, it’s a chance for Ohio State to reclaim its identity as a program. If the Buckeyes can compete with the Bulldogs, they’re still where they need to be.

If they can’t?

It’s going to be a loooooooooooooong offseason

(Top photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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