Hartman: Buckeyes’ failure to reach 2021 goals starts at the top

Credit: Carlos Osorio

Credit: Carlos Osorio

After my five reasons Ohio State’s Big Ten title streak was snapped piece went up, someone pointed out to me I did not mention coaching.

This is true, and I had that thought, too, right before it went live online.

Before I put that together I had already written about 1,500 words on the coaching but hadn’t figure out how to make that fit into the paper yet.

Here is my best effort:

1. Overall, the 2021 season can only be viewed as an overall failure for Ohio State football, and that starts at the top.

High standards are a reality for the Buckeyes, as is the fact they accomplished none of their stated goals this season. Everything that went wrong (aside from injuries) goes back to coaching, and Ryan Day has quite the mess to clean up. But the good news is he has a lot of options, and he still has a talented roster that should get better with age — at least with the proper guidance.

2. Ohio State just never seemed comfortable in this season.

They never really fixed the defense, never got the running game going consistently and it’s debatable how much the four-tackle offensive line really worked. The secondary wasn’t as bad as last season, but that is not saying much.

I would not be surprised if there was just a general COVID hangover on this team, which had the dual problem of being very young and not seeming to get much production or leadership from the older guys. The latter is something that happens in college football from time to time, and it is not hard to see how guys who went through the hardships of last year would feel like they needed a deep breath when it was over then had a hard time refocusing. Can’t blame them if they did. But that comes back to a challenge the coaching staff couldn’t meet even if it is a big ask.

3. At the end of the day, this team just wasn’t physical and wasn’t tough enough.

Day talked all offseason about making up for lost time as far as fundamentals and physicality, but his solutions don’t seem to have worked.

The pandemic presented an unprecedented situation so I’m not casting judgement, but it seems like it has to be pointed out when searching for solutions. You have to know what the problem is to fix it. Maybe just having a normal offseason and the typical attrition will do wonders for this group.

4. In looking to retool the defense (again), I would suggest a scheme that is less reliant on high-end talent.

Of course you must have many good and some great players to win a national championship, but teams with much less raw talent play much better defense than Ohio State has most of the last decade.

Jim Tressel’s defenses of course had good players but not as many high draft picks, and his units were much better overall than what Ohio State has done on balance since he left.

Putting good players in position to be good is the No. 1 goal, but I’ve been thinking for a while this defense might be too player-centric. Just trying to win every matchup seems like a good strategy if you can pull it off, but it has let them down time and time again since 2013.

And the best part about having a defense that is hard to play against structurally is when you do have super talented players, it just gets better.

5. The offense also got away from its DNA.

Quarterback C.J. Stroud had a great season, not only for a redshirt freshman but a player of many age, but he threw way too many passes. That Ohio State’s lowest-scoring games were the ones he threw the most is not a coincidence.

The puzzling thing about that is Day has acknowledged many times — even this year — running the ball offers invaluable fringe benefits, and maintaining balance is important. It’s not as if he is Andy Reid, who openly disdains running the ball.

Day ignored his own wisdom throughout most of November and found himself unable to trust the running game when he needed it, a very predictable outcome after watching the Buckeyes slog through the Nebraska game by making things harder than they needed to be despite getting 4 yards a carry.

Missed blocks and pre-snap penalties hurt Ohio State, but this still goes back to the coach for not having fortitude to trust the big fellas up front with enough opportunities to build chemistry and find their stride instead of putting too much on the young quarterback.

6. How much will this hurt Day in the long run?

Not much if he makes the right decisions in the next few weeks, but one could see the tide turning on him quickly if he has another season like this, especially if he seems more interested in being a Big 12 team than winning the way the Buckeyes have forever: By blunt force.

Ohio State fans like seeing their team light up the scoreboard, but only if they are winning.

The relative dearth of Ohio recruiting could also hurt his standing if next season is more of the same. Day talked a good game about the state being important when he was hired, but there’s not a lot of evidence that it is.

To that end, he re-invigorated the running game by diversifying it, but that also waned this season, and his defensive fix in 2019 lasted only one year.

Are these trends or blips on the radar?

This is still a first-time head coach without a long track record to look back on for answers.

The house is still standing, but there are some cracks in the foundation that could lead to much larger problems if not fixed soon.

7. The good news is they have a great starting point for next year.

Ohio State has a quarterback, receivers and all the offensive scheme answers it needs. Talented freshmen running backs TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams should be more durable with another year under their belts. There are guys to build around on the line, but plenty of work to do with that unit.

Defensively they had to do something after the Oregon game, but the danger with changing schemes in the middle of the year was not being good at anything, and that is how it worked out. The same thing happened in 2013.

But no scheme works if the line gets blocked and the linebackers can’t find the ball, shed blocks or make tackles.

Big staff changes made a difference in 2014, but so did a lot of new faces on the field. Some NFL guys moved on from the very disappointing ‘13 defense, and unproven ones formed a better unit.

8. Mindset matters.

It’s amazing to think I went to Big Ten media days every year for more than a decade and listened to Michigan players and coaches go to great lengths to say beating Ohio State was important while also trying to keep it in perspective with other big games on their schedule. Then this year the Wolverines actually put an emphasis on beating the Buckeyes and it happened. Crazy, huh? How much this gives the whole program a jolt remains to be seen, but it could be significant.

Michigan finally learned from all those years of losing to Ohio State — especially the embarrassing fashion of the last two.

What will Ohio State learn from finally losing to Michigan?

About the Author