Staples: Ohio State should contest all games against Georgia. its identity depends on

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

“When we hear people say how physical they are, we know exactly what they mean,” Sawyer said Wednesday. “They’re trying to say that we’re not as physical. And we can’t really say anything because of what happened in the last match. But if you actually turn on that tape, you’ll see how much we Physically he played the whole game.

The “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 that the Wolverines’ win against the Buckeyes in 2021 was no fluke. It also created the early pangs of an existential crisis in Buckland. After dominating the series for years, Ohio State was punched twice in the face and forgot its plan.

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Wasserman: How Ryan Day failed Ohio State in another loss to Michigan

But that loss cost Ohio State a shot at the national title. USC’s defense could not hold up against Utah’s offense in the Pac-12 title game, and the Buckeyes were relieved. Ohio State will be guaranteed one more game in 2022 with championship stakes.

The outcome of this game can calm that existential crisis, or it can deepen it. Coach Ryan Day can either restore faith in his administration or completely shatter it.

If you’re not an Ohio State fan, this is the part where you yell “wow” and let me remind you that Ohio State had an amazing 45-5 day. He’s lost exactly two Big Ten games — those two Michigan games — in four seasons. The Buckeyes face Georgia, the team expected to win the national title this season after eliminating Oregon in Week 1. Shouldn’t Ohio State be happy with this season no matter what Saturday’s result is?

Absolutely not.

The standard is different in the state of Ohio, just as the standard is different in Georgia. The Buckeyes should never be happy just getting anywhere. They are expected to dominate the inferior and go toe-to-toe with the elite. They have never been considered a less physical team. Ohio State’s ideal is best summed up by strength coach Mickey Marotti’s definition of “Buckeye football” as passed by Sawyer on Wednesday.

drive the damn ball

stop running the damn thing

Play good special teams.

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

That’s what Georgia does now.

Can Ohio State do it?

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

Can they drive it when it counts? Trevion Henderson will miss Saturday’s game due to injury. Mia Williams, the Buckeyes’ other key forward, is recovering from an ankle injury but is expected to play. Even with the back hobbled, Ohio State averaged 4.9 yards against Michigan, but then gave up a run in the fourth quarter as the Buckeyes could not complete another task on Marotti’s list.

Remember how Ohio State’s Sawyer said that Michigan’s physicality didn’t deter the Buckeyes’ defense? Someone else who cracked that game recently agreed.

“If you cut to film, they’re physical guys,” Georgia center Cedric Van Praan said Wednesday. “Watching them play against Michigan, they were really, really physical. Guys hit blocks. Guys flew around and got tackled. Just some unfortunate things happened at the end of the game.”

The “unfortunate things” were the 75- and 85-yard Donovan Edwards touchdown runs. This happened because Michigan blockers overwhelmed some defenders while others filled inaccurate gaps. This blocked the way for Edwards to be his teammates and allowed him to burst through holes to find open ground. But those two plays don’t tell the whole story. The earlier drive set the table for those plays, and all but the first long touchdown run prolonged Ohio State’s suffering.

Michigan blockers began to eat away at the Buckeyes’ spirits late in the third quarter on a 15-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that extended into the fourth. On a four-play stretch early in the drive, Michigan gained 35 yards on the ground. What had been difficult up to that point — Michigan was averaging 3.1 yards per carry before that drive — suddenly seemed easy. The Buckeyes managed some resistance in the red zone, but when Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy converted a QB power play into a 3-yard touchdown, the Wolverines had rushed 10 times for 47 yards on the drive, and they Executed his will effectively and took 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 was hauled down 15 yards on that first long touchdown, chances are Michigan would simply march down the field in the remaining seven minutes and convert five yards at a time on the ground. Because while Ohio State spent three and a half quarters clearing blocks and tackles, the final quarter-and-a-half-day was filled with plays where seemingly every silver helmet disappeared behind a winger.

This cannot happen on Saturday. The problem is that Georgia has a more explosive passing game than Michigan — which still hit Ohio State with three long, wide-open touchdown passes — but Georgia has the NFL’s better prospects along the offensive line and at tight end. There are monsters (Darnell Washington and Brock Bowers) that can devastate second-tier defenders in the run game.

If we were to compare the weekly practice schedules of Georgia, Michigan and Ohio State, the two would probably look almost identical. The second would be from Ohio State. This is not always the case. Georgia tailback Kenny McIntosh used a phrase Wednesday that probably sounded familiar to some long-serving Ohio State beat writers. McIntosh was discussing the intensity of Georgia’s practices when he mentioned “Bloody Tuesday”.

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

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Wasserman: The line between perfection and horror makes it hard to be an Ohio State fan

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

So, like Smart, Harbaugh and Nick Saban still do, Meyer’s teams chased it down on Tuesday and Wednesday.

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

The question now is whether Day and his staff have pushed this team far enough to find “more” on Saturday. Day said this week that the Buckeyes got very physical during early bowl preparation. (Georgia did the same, which it always does.) It’s possible that a few weeks of getting back to fundamentals of blocking and tackling combined with the Buckeyes’ off-the-charts athleticism could coincide with Georgia Will produce capable team. Unlike most sports the Buckeyes and Bulldogs play, recruiting rankings and projected NFL draft slots look eerily similar on both sides. We know Maroti knows the hard work it takes for a team to reach National Title level. He has done so three times, twice in Florida and once in Ohio State.

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Georgia vs. Ohio State breakdown as Peach Bowl week begins

When Meyer handed over Ohio State’s program to Day after the 2018 season, he handed over the keys to a tank. The 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 bad. Chase Young and Jonathan Cooper come off the sidelines. Davon Hamilton and Tommy Togiai rotated at defensive tackle. Pete Werner and Malik Harrison roamed the second level.

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

But maybe we are rushing to judgement. Ultimately, Ohio State’s schedule doesn’t offer many real challenges. Maybe we’re overreacting to 23 bad minutes. On Saturday we should give the correct answer.

“It’s an opportunity a lot of people don’t get,” said edge rusher JT Tuimolou, who should be Ohio State’s next defensive superstar. He is not wrong.

But beyond having a chance to compete for a national title, this is 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 should be.

If they can’t?

it’s going to be a loooooooooong off season.

(Top photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

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