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Ohio State coach Ryan Day passes one big test, but the biggest comes next

Ohio State receiver K.J. Hill Jr. makes a catch past Penn State linebacker Ellis Brooks (13) during the first quarter  Saturday.
Ohio State receiver K.J. Hill Jr. makes a catch past Penn State linebacker Ellis Brooks (13) during the first quarter Saturday.
(Adam Cairns / Columbus Dispatch)

In the buildup to coaching in the biggest game of his life, first-year Ohio State coach Ryan Day made a comment that appeared to betray his age and experience.

“This is a talent-equated game,” he said. “The team that’s more prepared will win the game.”

It’s unusual for a coach walking onto a stage like Saturday’s at the Horseshoe, where No. 2 Ohio State hosted No. 8 Penn State with the Big Ten Conference East title on the line, to publicly put all the pressure on himself.

Day, the 40-year-old successor to Urban Meyer, must have known something. Maybe it was that the Buckeyes have earned his trust by not letting down in a midseason game they were supposed to win easily — see Iowa in 2017 and Purdue in 2018, losses that knocked the Buckeyes out of the driver’s seat for a playoff berth. Or maybe it was that Day believed in his staff’s ability to get the team ready from Sunday to Friday and understood well whom he was going to be matching wits with on the opposing sideline Saturday.

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James Franklin has done a solid job reviving the Penn State program, the highlight coming with an improbable Big Ten championship in 2016, but regular observers of his game-day coaching know that he’s always capable of making things harder on the Nittany Lions than they need to be.

In the first half Saturday, Franklin punted the ball twice from no-man’s land in Ohio State territory, once from the 42 and once from the 36.

The first time, the score was 0-0 and the Nittany Lions faced fourth and four. The punt pinned Ohio State at the nine and the Buckeyes proceeded to run the ball on 17 of 18 plays and drive 91 yards for a touchdown, pummeling away at Franklin’s beloved field position.

In the second quarter, the score remained 7-0 thanks to the gift of a Justin Fields fumble as he crossed the goal line for a would-be touchdown, and Penn State faced fourth and seven. Franklin continued to coach as if he had bought Day’s “talent-equated” assessment hook, line and sinker, electing to pin the Buckeyes and forgetting his opponent was the team with two legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates.

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Nearing the end of the first half, Ohio State faced fourth and five from the Penn State 26. In this case, it would have been perfectly reasonable for Day to ask for the field-goal unit. Instead, he showed confidence in his players, and Fields ran untouched for 22 yards on a quarterback draw that shouldn’t have been hard to diagnose with an empty backfield.

Again that drive, on fourth and goal from the one, Day went for it, and JK Dobbins backed up his fearless coach with a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

Ohio State went on to win 28-17, withstanding a fluky 17-0 run in the third quarter that happened because of consecutive fumbles in Buckeyes territory by Dobbins and Fields. They won because they have better players and a young coach who seems perfectly comfortable as a leader of a program with national-title ambitions.

At halftime of the Harvard-Yale game, hundreds of students, alumni and faculty from both schools took the field to protest climate change, demanding that the universities divest from fossil fuels.

Day is 14-0 at Ohio State, including the three games in which he filled in during Meyer’s suspension last season. If it weren’t for Ed Orgeron’s special season bringing Louisiana State back to the same stratosphere as Ohio State and the other college football elites, Day would be a shoe-in for national coach of the year — and even with Orgeron, Day will surely garner some recognition.

Let’s take a minute to acknowledge one of the interesting developments of the 2019 season. So much hysteria is devoted every year to coaching searches — it’s already happening at Florida State and Arkansas, and could follow at USC in the coming weeks — yet the men leading the top three teams in the country were holdovers from the previous staff. Orgeron, Day and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney all took the helm under vastly different circumstances, but all three were not popular choices.

Day was the least controversial of the three, given his role in building an offensive juggernaut with Meyer, and the fact that Meyer had the program humming when he left, so there was no perceived need to blow it up. Day was handed the keys to a scarlet and gray Ferrari and also happened to upgrade the horsepower with Fields’ transfer from Georgia.

Day was Chip Kelly’s quarterback coach with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers in 2015 and 2016 before joining Meyer. Day is clearly a star, but nobody outside of Columbus, Ohio, knew that before this season. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith deserves credit for listening to Meyer and putting his faith in a pair of fresh eyes.

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The good news for Ohio State as it enters Michigan week is that Day has been around Ohio State just long enough to understand that, as crucial as the Penn State game was for the Buckeyes to check off all the boxes necessary for a berth in the College Football Playoff, Michigan will always be the one he can’t lose.

Freshman Jayden Daniels passed for 408 yards and three touchdowns to help Arizona State upset No. 6 Oregon, ending the Ducks’ College Football Playoff hopes.

It’s Michigan — “The Game” — that gets Ohio State coaches fired. Just ask John Cooper.

With the Buckeyes having won 14 of 15 against the Wolverines, it would be easy to forget that. But Day gets the reason why Meyer has included a “7-0 Room” in his new Columbus-area restaurant.

“We live it every day,” Day said Saturday. “The Team Up North is something we talk about every day.”

Ohio State could lose to Michigan and still make the playoff by winning the Big Ten championship game the next week. But that would not be according to script in Ohio, where they won’t fully accept Day as the rightful heir until he turns 0-0 against Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines into 1-0.

Nobody is going to buy “talent-equated” this week. Ohio State is unquestionably the superior team, just like it was against Penn State. So then Day’s equation shouldn’t change either. It will come down to preparation as he takes on the next biggest game of his career.

Protest at Harvard-Yale game

At halftime of the game between Harvard and Yale, hundreds of students, alumni and faculty from both schools took the field to protest climate change, demanding that the universities divest from fossil fuels.

Harvard led Yale 15-3 at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Conn., but the contest took a backseat during a 48-minute delay.

One sign read: “Nobody Wins: Yale & Harvard are complicit in climate injustice.”

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A tweet from Divest Harvard, a group that advocates for the Ivy League university to divest its endowment holdings in the fossil fuel industry, said, “demand DIVESTMENT from fossil fuels & cancel holdings in Puerto Rico debt.”

According to the Yale News, protestors chanted “OK, boomer” and “this is what democracy looks like.”

Most of the protestors reportedly left the field when asked by police, but others refused to leave. Some arrests were made before play resumed.


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