July 23, 2024

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—The Ohio State Buckeyes filed silently out of the Michigan Stadium tunnel and grabbed to-go boxes of Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken off of a table, food for a glum ride home. Outside, friends and family were on the other side of a row of barriers across from the idling buses. Echoes of Michigan’s celebration could be heard, but this was a scarlet-and-gray island of solemnity.

Kyle McCord was one of the last out, eye black still streaked across his cheeks and right ankle still taped. Hood up, earphones wrapped around his temples, his countenance was misery personified.

The Ohio State quarterback is a world-class stoic, but when he saw his family waiting, a sad sigh escaped him. McCord leaned down to hug his mom, Stacy, for a long time. His shoulders heaved. He hugged a few other family members, one with tears streaming down her face. There was nothing much to say, no words to fix the broken feeling that came with the final score: Michigan 30, Ohio State 24.

So much rides on this game every year and so much is invested into it. The price of defeat is steep. McCord, who was 11-0 as the starter after inheriting one of the most prestigious positions in college football, threw two interceptions against the Wolverines—the first set up Michigan’s initial touchdown and the second (thrown while taking a hit) ended the game.

McCord remains oh-for-Michigan as a collegian, now 0-3. So does all-world wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. And defensive ends J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer. And running back TreVeyon Henderson. And wideout Emeka Egbuka. They were the nucleus of a 2021 Ohio State signing class that ranked No. 2 in the nation, behind only Alabama, a group that was expected to take swings at national championships—and to continue the program’s dominance of its bitter rival.

It hasn’t happened. And many of those star players will leave school in the spring for the NFL with that glaring, galling hole on their resumes. No gold pants for you.

The coach who signed them, Ryan Day, now finds himself 1-3 against Michigan. He’s been blown out twice as a favorite and, now, he’s been beaten by an interim coach. Not only that, the interim coach (offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore) beat Day after losing his best defensive player (cornerback Will Johnson) and his best offensive lineman (guard Zak Zinter) during the game.

Coming on the heels of Urban Meyer’s 7-0 record against the Wolverines, this qualifies as a crisis. Day is 56-7 overall as Ohio State’s coach. He is 38-0 against Big Ten teams not named Michigan. He is a wildly successful coach except for one day a year, and it just so happens to be the day that matters most to Buckeye Nation.

“We know what this game means to so many people, so to come up short is certainly crushing,” Day said after the game. “The locker room is devastated.”

Day looked so wrecked that when I asked him if he thought he still had a playoff team, after losing an outstanding game on the road to a fellow unbeaten, he legitimately sounded too beaten down to even contemplate it.

“I haven’t even thought that far,” he said. “Everything was so focused on this game. I’d have to kind of process that. We have a very good team, we came up short today, it was devastating, but I believe in our players. I’d have to see what else is out there … but I do believe we can play with any team in the country.”

 

The previous two losses to the Wolverines were humiliations—Ohio State was pummeled in the second half of both, beaten by 14 points in 2021 and 22 in ’22. This one was closer, but some of the same elements were present yet again. The Buckeyes couldn’t stop Michigan after halftime, couldn’t get off the field defensively, couldn’t match up in the trenches.

The Wolverines did not punt in the second half Saturday. They punted just once in seven possessions last year in the third and fourth quarters. They also did not punt in the second half in 2021. The ghastly second-half tally for the OSU defense: nine touchdowns allowed, three made field goals, one missed field goal, one punt, three times running out the clock on the game.

The pattern is as subtle and undeniable as a fist to the face: Michigan has exerted its will upon Ohio State three straight times. Fans can and will criticize Day for not going for a pair of fourth-and-short plays in the first half Saturday, but the real issue was being pushed around once more.

There are plenty of ways to lose games, and none are very fun when the stakes are this high. But a complete failure to stop an opponent, year after year after year, is particularly humbling.

This is why the “soft” label has been attached to Day’s program, a label he’s pushed back on with great vigor. Perhaps too much vigor, when Day tore into 86-year-old Lou Holtz after Ohio State beat Notre Dame with a last-second touchdown in September. Holtz had questioned the Buckeyes’ toughness, a barb that clearly landed with the coach of the Buckeyes.

“I’d like to know where Lou Holtz is right now,” Day said immediately after the game on NBC. “What he said about our team, I cannot believe. This is a tough team right here. We’re proud to be from Ohio. It’s always been Ohio against the world, and it’ll continue to be Ohio against the world. But I’ll tell you what: I love those kids. We’ve got a tough team.”

Well. Michigan clearly was in Day’s head then, and it will only be worse now.

In fairness, Ohio State is not soft. But neither is it as tough as Michigan. The Buckeyes cannot keep losing to the Wolverines in this manner and claim otherwise.

Coordinator Jim Knowles was hired at a high price tag last year to fix the Ohio State defense. He’s improved it. But he hasn’t fixed it come late November against the maize and blue. Everything else is simply prelude to this game, when referendums are formed.

Michigan Day is Judgement Day for Ohio State. For Ryan Day and his players, the judgement is harsh. Again. That’s why the devastation was palpable Saturday afternoon as the Buckeyes began their grim sojourn south.

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