Ohio State football: Tough losses motivate Buckeyes

COLUMBUS — A lot of college football programs would look back at a season in which they won 11 games and came within a play or two of playing for a national championship and think it was a successful season.

But that’s not how it works at Ohio State. As the Buckeyes prepare for the 2023 season after going 11-2 and reaching the semifinals of the College Football Playoff last season they are talking about what they could have done better a year ago and how that motivates them this year.

While there was a trip to the playoff, for the second year in a row there was no Big Ten championship and there was no win over Michigan. And last season’s Michigan game and the 42-41 loss to Georgia in the playoff semifinal both highlighted OSU’s season-long struggle to defend against big plays.

Ohio State led 20-17 at halftime against Michigan last year but was outscored 28-3 in the second half. Four huge scoring plays for Michigan — touchdown passes of 69 yards and 75 yards from J.J. McCarthy to Cornelius Johnson in the first half and touchdown runs of 75 yards and 85 yards by Donovan Edwards late in the fourth quarter of UM’s 45-23 win — gave the Wolverines a second consecutive dominating win in the rivalry.

OSU led Georgia 38-24 going into the fourth quarter but lost 42-41 when the Bulldogs scored on a 76-yard touchdown pass and on a 72-yard drive late in the fourth quarter.

It was a lot to think about. And Ohio State has thought about it a lot since last season.

“Explosive plays certainly is what really was our Achilles heel,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said at Big Ten Football Media Days. “We know that. We’ve talked about it. How much do we talk about the rivalry game and winning at the end of the season? We talk about it every day. We do. We’re not going to sit there and let it beat us twice, but it is a motivating factor for sure,” he said.

Wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. said, “It’s no secret about it. You have to win that game (the Michigan game). If you come to Ohio State that’s the one game you have to win, you must win and we haven’t done that the past two years.

“We went back to the drawing board this offseason to try to get tougher in the weight room and how we approach the game on the field. You have to run the ball and stop the run. It all goes from there.”

So, can Ohio State beat Michigan, win the Big Ten championship and make a run at a national championship?

Here are five reasons it can and five reasons it can’t.

Five reasons Ohio State will win the Big Ten championship, will beat Michigan and will make a run at the national championship:

1. Ohio State will be OK whoever plays quarterback.

Ryan Day has worked with Ohio State’s quarterback since 2017 when Urban Meyer hired him as an assistant coach.

Every OSU quarterback who played a full season from 2017 through 2022 — J.T. Barrett, Dwayne Haskins, Justin Fields and C.J. Stroud (twice) — has passed for at least 3,000 yards and 35 touchdowns. Fields also would have done it twice if the 2020 season hadn’t been shortened to eight games by Covid-19. Every one of those players has been the first-team All-Big Ten quarterback.

Kyle McCord was a 5-star recruit and Devin Brown was a 4-star who flipped from USC to Ohio State, so Day will have some good raw material to work with whoever is in the game.

2. Ohio State has arguably the best receivers in college football.

Ohio State was the only team to have two receivers, Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka, in the top 10 nationally in receiving yards last season and to have two receivers in the top 13 nationally in touchdown catches. If Julian Fleming stays healthy he could give OSU a third wide receiver who makes opposing defensive coordinators nervous.

3. Help is on the way in the defensive backfield.

Cornerback was a trouble spot for the Buckeyes last year. Some cornerbacks just didn’t play up to expectations. At least part of the reason was that two of the best players at that position struggled with injuries much of last season.

Denzel Burke, who started as a freshman in 2021, suffered a preseason shoulder injury last year. Then he had surgery on his hand in September and also had ankle and finger injuries and played through all those challenges. Jordan Hancock was idled for eight weeks because of a hamstring injury.

Talented sophomore safety Sonny Styles is a player defensive coordinator Jim Knowles says has proved he has to be on the field. OSU also brought in two defensive backs through the transfer portal — cornerback Davison Igbinosun, who started as a freshman at Ole Miss last season, and safety Ja’Had Carter, who was honorable mention All-ACC at Syracuse last season.

4. Ohio State might have the second-best group of running backs in the Big Ten after Michigan.

If TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams stay healthy OSU could have two running backs approach or go over 1,000 yards rushing. Dallan Hayden rushed for more than 100 yards against Toledo, Indiana and Maryland last season.

Chip Trayanum ended his linebacker experiment and ran for 83 yards against Michigan last year. And Evan Pryor was highly regarded before a preseason knee injury sidelined him all of last season.

5. Ohio State’s front seven on defense can be elite.

Defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau is one of the best in college football at that position and OSU is expecting a huge year from Jack Sawyer at the other end. Defensive tackle Mike Hall dominated early last year before injuries greatly reduced his impact the second half of the season. Linebacker Tommy Eichenberg was first-team All-Big Ten and a second-team All-American. The other linebacker, Steele Chambers, was honorable mention All-Big Ten.

Five reasons Ohio State won’t win the Big Ten championship, won’t beat Michigan and won’t make a run at the national championship:

1. Way too much uncertainty about its offensive line.

Guards Donovan Jackson and Matthew Jones are returning starters. The rest of the offensive linemen have combined for one career start for Ohio State, by Josh Fryar at right tackle against Indiana last season. He was regarded as the likely starter at left tackle since spring practice. But recently Josh Simmons, a transfer from San Diego State who was a starter there at right tackle, has taken over at left tackle and Fryar has gone back to right tackle. Sophomore Carson Hinzman is the probable starter at center. Day has consistently said good things about freshman Luke Montgomery of Findlay.

2. Whoever plays quarterback for Ohio State will be inexperienced and will be starting for the first time in the rivalry game against Michigan. Meanwhile, Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy will be in his second year as a starter.

3. What if Jim Knowles’ defense takes more than one season to install or just isn’t as good as it was built up to be?

When Ohio State held six of the first seven teams it played in 2022 under 300 yards total offense and none of those teams scored more than 21 points, everything was sea shells and balloons, as Al McGuire used to say.

But when the Buckeyes faced the four best offenses they played all season in their last six games it was a different story. Penn State gained 482 yards total offense and scored 31 points. Maryland had 402 yards total offense and 30 points. And then Michigan and Georgia really turned up the heat.

The Wolverines gained 530 yards and scored 45 points and Georgia had 533 yards and 42 points.

The questions that were raised by those four games haven’t gone away and will be heard again the first time OSU’s defense struggles.

4. Injuries. Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s hamstring injury last year showed how one injury can change a team’s season. Was there any team in college football last season who had a defense that could have handled Marvin Harrison Jr., Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Emeka Egbuka on the field at the same time if Smith-Njigba hadn’t suffered a hamstring injury in the season opener against Notre Dame that ruined his season?

5. The Game is in The Big House this year. Historically Michigan isn’t unbeatable at home but it has been the last two seasons when it has won 15 consecutive home games.

Jim Naveau has covered local and high school sports for The Lima News since 1978 and Ohio State football since 1992. His OSU coverage appears in more than 30 newspapers. Naveau, a Miami University graduate, also worked at the Greenville Advocate and the Piqua Daily Call. He has seen every boys state basketball tournament since 1977. Reach him at [email protected] or 567-242-0414.