Ryan Day and Ohio State now sit at a high-stakes crossroads

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — There are few college football fan bases that compare to that of Ohio State.

As a massive flagship institution of a populous state, the Buckeyes churn out tens of thousands of alumni annually and inspire plenty more to don the scarlet and gray. Part of it is the simple fact that they win at a level few can compare to; another is that they belong to the select group of schools without which you can’t tell the history of the sport. Expectations around town are measured by rings and national championship banners.

To say being the head coach of such an enterprise is as daunting as it can be rewarding would be an understatement. 

If you’re looking for a gig to win it all, few can measure up to the one which has endured just one losing season in 35 years and remains one of the few teams that has successfully challenged college football’s nucleus in the South. 

At the same time, few coaches will get scrutinized as sharply and frequently as the one who occupies the big chair in Columbus. Every decision from recruiting to low-level staff hires to meaningless (or critical) third-down calls will be endlessly dissected.

This is where Ryan Day finds himself, at the center of a cauldron of angst, despair and anger. It is the job he willingly signed up for, and it is now, following Ohio State’s 30-24 loss to Michigan on Saturday, the one he might need to fight to keep — if he wants.

“Just sick,” Day said from the bowels of the Big House when asked what he felt after the third-straight loss to the Buckeyes’ most bitter rival, a defeat that once again sent his team to the outskirts of the national title chase and away from the Big Ten title game.

“We’re all disappointed,” he continued. “We know what this game means to so many people. To come up short is certainly crushing. Not just because you invest your whole year in it, we know at Ohio State what this game means. There’s a locker room in there that’s devastated.” 

[Michigan beats Ohio State for third straight year, first time since 1995-97]

As emotionally distraught as the players on the field may have been wading through a sea of maize and blue amid an epic field-storming at the biggest stadium in the country, fans far beyond the reaches of the Big House were rapidly going through the seven stages of grief. 

Except they stopped at anger. 

There will be neither bargaining nor acceptance from the Buckeyes faithful, just distrust in the head coach who is 40-0 against the rest of the conference but 1-3 against the team up North.

As the 45-year-old New Hampshire native ponders how Ohio State has lost three straight to Michigan for the first time since late 1997, he’ll also have to reckon with the fact that on Saturday he was out-coached by a stand-in who isn’t even a head coach while Jim Harbaugh was able to sit at home and savor how his creation was perfectly capable of rising to the moment.

It wouldn’t be surprising at all if, deep down after stripping away all the attachment, Ohio State fans were more likely to admire Sherrone Moore — the emotional Wolverines offensive coordinator thrust into the spotlight as the result of Jim Harbaugh’s two suspensions this season. In a contest that has so often been defined by who is the more physical and aggressive team, Day’s Buckeyes were neither.

[‘You’re not tough’: Michigan’s Roman Wilson calls out Ohio State after win]

“Coach Moore said from the get-go that he was going to call the most aggressive game he’s ever called,” Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy said after finishing with 148 yards passing and a touchdown.

“Coach Moore said he was not going to call this game scared,” added tailback Blake Corum, who set a school record with his 21st and 22nd touchdowns, which he did against a top-two defense. 

Nothing encapsulated the dichotomy more than the moments in which head coaches truly earn those nine-figure salaries, either coming into or out of breaks late in the first half or in the fourth quarter.

Early on, Day was fully conservative, opting to punt in lieu of going for it on fourth-and-short or getting creative with a manageable third down. In contrast, the Wolverines were 3-of-3 on fourth down. 

Will Ryan Day stay with Ohio State?

Will Ryan Day stay with Ohio State?

Then there was a notable sequence before halftime, with Ohio State taking over in the shadow of its own end zone with over three minutes until the break. After several nice throws from quarterback Kyle McCord, and a key third-down conversion, there was plenty of time on the clock and the Buckeyes were suddenly at midfield. 

Instead of pressing the foot down at the very moment there was momentum to seize, the reins were pulled back. The head coach and play-caller ordered several short passes and wound up burning some clock that didn’t need to be burned, leading to a field-goal attempt that Jayden Fielding which was good as Michigan called timeout, but which sailed wide left on the ensuing try that counted.

“I felt like at 52 yards, it was worth the field goal there. If you don’t get it … you get no points and I felt like it was worth the opportunity,” said Day, repeating the refrain three times in a nine-minute stretch to explain his decision-making process. “Then early in the game around midfield, I just didn’t want to give them any momentum, felt like we could pin them down and play the defense that we’re playing.”

That may work when playing Michigan State, where the talent advantage is significantly pronounced. It’s another thing entirely when things are even and played at a rival’s house like Michigan.

Compounding things was how the Wolverines remained on the front foot in such an evenly matched battle, aggressive in nature when teams without their head coach tend not to be.

It was Moore who inserted backup quarterback Alex Orji on the first drive of the second half, as the little-used third-stringer turned into the Wolverines’ leading rusher for a spell on a day when every yard was hard-fought.

It was Moore who dialed up a trick play to start the fourth quarter, allowing last year’s hero, running back Donovan Edwards, to take a toss, roll right and find Colston Loveland for a 34-yard gain. The fans, if they weren’t already, rose to their feet when the tight end was eventually tackled and never sat again as they seized momentum which was never relinquished.

“I just feel like at home, we’re going to be the aggressive one. We were going to be aggressive in attacking. They went out there and played their tails off,” Moore said. “I don’t lose sleep with these guys.

“These guys don’t flinch.”

All too often in such key moments under Day, however, the Buckeyes have.

Postgame presser: Ryan Day talks Ohio State’s crushing loss to Michigan

Postgame presser: Ryan Day talks Ohio State's crushing loss to Michigan

This is just Day’s seventh loss in charge at Ohio State, but three have come against Michigan. The other four transpired in the playoff, less of a cardinal sin than it is disappointing. His greatest success since taking over for Urban Meyer came in the pandemic-impacted 2020 campaign that saw the Buckeyes get blown out by Alabama in the national title game, and this after playing a truncated schedule that now looks as much as an aberration as it seemed prophetic at the time.

There are only so many wins over the Big Ten middle class and a lackluster non-conference slate before those in charge will start to think they’re empty calories.

There are only so many times Day will walk off the field after The Game and have his massive fan base compare him less and less to his immediate predecessor and more and more to John Cooper — best known around Columbus for failing to capture those gold pants which signify a win over the Wolverines.

“At the end of the day, games like this come down to one or two plays,” McCord said. “That just goes to show the margin for error is so slim.”

[Tom Brady, others react to wild finish to The Game]

On the losing end of such a margin, Ohio State and its head coach now sit at a crossroads. 

There will soon be a new athletic director in charge of the program, as longtime veteran administrator Gene Smith retires next year. There’s a new school president set to take over as well, and many of the key players from a group long on NFL talent will no longer be running around the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. A 12-team playoff is coming and the very nature of the Big Ten itself will be changing as the league swells from 14 to 18. 

Even The Game will no longer carry the same weight as it did on Saturday, with one team’s hopes rewarded and another crushed. In the future, it’s just for seeding and pride. 

Who knows if a decision on Day’s future will actually be made by university brass as they face a fan base coming as close as possible to a full-on revolt as is possible near the conclusion of an 11-1 season. If nothing else, next year’s game against the Wolverines at the Horseshoe will carry a win-or-go-home feel. 

Conceivably, that could have been the end either way for a coach and program that may have seemed incompatible with the expectations on hand. As FOX Sports’ Bruce Feldman reported on Big Noon Kickoff, Texas A&M may come calling — seeing a 56-7 record as too good to pass up and happy to take a man with a Michigan problem off the Buckeyes’ hands.

Texas A&M interest in Ohio State head coach Ryan Day? — Bruce Feldman reports

Texas A&M interest in Ohio State head coach Ryan Day? — Bruce Feldman reports

Some NFL team could, given how good Day has been at producing offense and developing quarterbacks, offer a similar option. 

“I believe in our players, we have a veteran team. I think we have a team that is solid in all three phases,” said Day, his dejection palpable. “I do believe that this team can play with anybody in the country.”

That may be true. It’s been the case year in and year out for the Buckeyes for decades. 

But this current team, the one recruited and most importantly coached by Day, can’t beat the one that matters most.

And there’s likely nothing anybody can do about it for another year except think about it some more.

No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes vs. No. 3 Michigan Wolverines Highlights

No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes vs. No. 3 Michigan Wolverines Highlights

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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