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COLUMBUS — As Ohio State aims to win the Big Ten for the fifth consecutive season, the Buckeyes face perhaps their most compelling back-to-back tests amid that stretch during the next two weeks.
No. 4 Ohio State hosts No. 7 Michigan State on Saturday and travels to No. 6 Michigan next week. The results of those games will determine the Big Ten East champion and will be expected to yield a playoff bid.
Ryan Day is in his third full-time season as Ohio State’s coach, he’s 32-3 overall and has yet to lose a league game. Day’s first regular-season loss came against Oregon earlier this year, which has ultimately shaped this young Buckeye team for this finishing kick.
“When you're Ohio State, you're expected to win every game,” Day said. “But when that doesn't happen, it's easy for the wheels to fall off.”
The wheels looked wobbly after a shaky 41-20 victory over Tulsa, as the Buckeyes led by a touchdown in the fourth quarter. But since that point, Ohio State has grown up, rounded into form and appears poised for the final push. “When you come to a place like Ohio State,” senior receiver Chris Olave said, “it's unacceptable to lose.”
Day recently reflected to Yahoo Sports on the reasons for Ohio State’s resurgence after Oregon gouged the Buckeyes for 505 yards in a 35-28 win in Columbus. There’s been a change at defensive play caller from Kerry Coombs to Matt Barnes, the precipitous learning curve of young star quarterback C.J. Stroud and tailback TreVeyon Henderson, and, really, the ascendance of a young team that needed players to emerge to help form an identity.
“One of the problems was just inexperience, just getting guys reps and playing, but trying to get the right guys at the right spot,” Day said. “Figuring out what schemes best fit our guys. But in the meantime, just making the guys understand that you can't flinch in moments like this. You can't splinter. You have to stick together because this is life, and you're gonna experience things in life that are great. You're also gonna experience things that aren't so great.”
As game reps grew, so did confidence. And that’s where the Buckeyes have found themselves after rattling off eight straight victories, five of which have featured more than 50 points. Any progress, however, will be viewed through the referendum of a pair of top-10 matchups.
“I'm proud of the staff and the leaders of this team because there really wasn't a lot of finger-pointing at that time,” Day said. “We did come up with solutions, so we've made progress but we still have a lot of football left.”
Here are the three main overhauls that have positioned the Buckeyes for this finishing kick.
TreVeyon Henderson’s march
In the running back room that doubles as an office for Ohio State assistant head coach Tony Alford, legends of Buckeye past are papered onto the walls. Everyone from Howard Cassady to Zeke Elliott and Keith Byars to Carlos Hyde loom every day.
“There’s probably some that need to be there that aren’t, but TreVeyon will be up there,” Alford said, admiring the tailback collection. “I think he has an opportunity to go down as probably one of the greatest ones that’s played here. However, there’s a lot of work to do.”
Henderson has already run for 1,035 yards and 17 touchdowns, and it’s feasible with a strong closing kick and postseason that he can break J.K. Dobbins’ freshman record of 1,403 yards from 2017 and Maurice Clarett’s freshman record of 18 total touchdowns.
Henderson’s emergence has not only provided the sport one of its most scintillating young players, but it has also unlocked the Buckeyes offense. Day points out that the collection of resplendent outside skill — Olave and Garrett Wilson are projected first-round NFL picks — has prompted teams to play a lot of “two-shell” defense. That’s opened up things for Henderson and marked a shift in how OSU is playing.
“They're clouding the outsides, and so that's opening up a lot of things inside and allowing us to control the game,” Day said. “I think when you look at the way we've played in the past, it was all fast, tempo, how many plays can you get, where now you're seeing us control the game a little bit more — which helps our defense.”
Henderson’s averaging 7.3 yards per carry and his 277 rushing yards against Tulsa broke Archie Griffin’s OSU single-game freshman record. Day admires Henderson’s unique ability to change direction without changing speed. “His top-end speed, he can hit a home run, but a lot of guys, when they go to make a guy miss, they kinda have to slow down and they can get caught from behind,” Day said. “He can make a move and really not lose much momentum.”
What’s helped Henderson through this early surge has been a preternatural poise. He’s quiet, mature and generally unfazed. Immediately upon arrival in January, he and fellow freshman back Evan Pryor found their way into the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on a Sunday night to do pass protection drills by themselves. They called Alford with a question to see if they were doing them right.
“It made an amazing impression on me, I still don’t know how they got into the building, right?” Alford said with a laugh.
Henderson has been quiet and low-maintenance, not showing much interest in media. He handled the adversity of a brutal sequence in Ohio State’s game with Penn State. On a third-and-2 play on the goal line in the third quarter, he failed to execute the run properly, cut back and missed out on a touchdown. On fourth-and-1, he fell out of his shoes pre-snap and got flagged for a false start. Ohio State settled for a field goal, and Alford told him on the sidelines: “This is the first adversity you’ve had in seven weeks, so we’re gonna find out how you deal with it.”
He responded on the next drive by bursting through the right side of the line for 68 yards, and in many ways he’s just taking off. “The kid can become,” Alford said, “whatever he wants to become.”
A defensive shift
The biggest takeaway from Oregon’s win at Ohio State in Week 2 was that things came too easily for the Ducks on offense. It’s a self-fulling prophecy of defensive doom when a quarterback can quickly read a defense and easily distribute the ball. That renders the pass rush impotent and allows offenses to operate downhill.
“It all goes together, where early in the season, the ball's kind of coming out of the quarterback's hand fast,” Day said, “and we weren't getting home.”
Ohio State began playing more two-high defense. And the biggest change Barnes brought was a nimbleness to change what the quarterback sees. As Ohio State became less predictable, it gave time for talented ends like Tyreke Smith (three sacks, five hurries) and Zach Harrison (four sacks) to apply pressure.
“We just want to make the reads for quarterbacks not as easy,” said Cody Simon, a sophomore linebacker who is second on the team in tackles. “I think every quarterback will struggle when they don't know what the defense is gonna give them.”
Simon is one of the many promising young OSU defenders to emerge this year. Day singled out sophomore safety Ronnie Hickman as “probably the most productive guy on our defense” and sophomore linebacker Steele Chambers played 52 snaps against Purdue after playing nine against Oregon. Freshman Denzel Burke has emerged as OSU’s best corner, and it can’t be overstated how much accumulated game reps have helped these young players grow up.
The Buckeyes haven’t turned into the 1985 Bears under Barnes, but the ability to play complementary football, confuse offenses and find the right personnel has helped them return to Big Ten favorites.
Ultimately, enduring the Oregon game, Simon said, helped Ohio State in “realizing our talent.” Simon added: “I thought that we needed to experience that because it scarred us and it gave us perspective. It's kinda hard to grow without taking a beating, especially because of the young guys.”
C.J. Stroud rising
Day emphasized how much growth Stroud has made since that first Thursday night at Minnesota, as he’d never thrown so much as a collegiate pass.
“He had never thrown a touchdown, he had never thrown an interception, he just had never done it, had never been hit,” Day said. “So we were just working through all the firsts, and he's done a very good job of preparing.”
Stroud led an offense against Oregon that racked up 612 yards, so it wasn’t like he sputtered in that game. But he completed 35-of-54, and OSU was just 2-for-5 on fourth downs, as the Buckeyes sputtered on their final two full possessions of the game with a chance to tie.
Day said everything changed for Stroud when he sat out the Akron game. He’d been trying to play through a shoulder injury, and the time away from the field led to better perspective. “I think that helped him mentally, just to take a step back and take a look at it from a different perspective, and the mental part or the physical part, I think that was the turning point,” Day said.
Things have turned pretty drastically, as Stroud leads the Big Ten in average passing yards per game (337.3), touchdown passes (30) and efficiency (179.4).
The key metric against Michigan State on Saturday will be Ohio State’s ability to score touchdowns in the red zone. Michigan State’s red-zone defense has forced more field goals than any team in the country: 17. And the Spartans — 18.5-point underdogs at BetMGM — have also yielded just six rushing touchdowns in the red zone, which means that Stroud and his receivers will need to find creative ways to score.
Day credited the patience of Olave (11 TDs), Wilson (nine TDs), star tight end Jeremy Ruckert and rising star Jaxon Smith-Njigba (17.5 YPC) for getting in sync with Stroud as he’s fought through the inevitable growing pains.
“In order for us to be great, we have to be unselfish,” Day said. “And the way we can do that is if we're a team, if we're together on this thing, but to your point, there has to be some patience, there has to be some deep breaths for all of those guys, because they're highly motivated.”
As Stroud took off in consecutive blowouts of Rutgers, Maryland and Indiana — Ohio State scored a combined 172 points in those games — it became clear that his development was coming rapidly. His accuracy (68.8%) has been sporadic at times. But he’s shown the ability to prepare, compete and learn from missteps.
“He's intelligent, he can take the meeting to the practice field and the practice field to the game well, and I think he understands he's got a lot around him,” Day said. “And he relies on the guys around him, but he's done a good job, he's had good poise and he's getting better, and we need him to play well down the stretch here.”