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Staples: Ohio State must face the entire game against Georgia. Your identity depends on it

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ATLANTA — Ohio State defensive end Jack Sawyer hears you rave about Georgia’s physicality ahead of a Buckeyes-Bulldogs matchup in the Peach Bowl, and Sawyer isn’t fooled by his attempts to turn an insult into a compliment.

“When we hear people talking about how physical they are, we really know what that means,” Sawyer said on Wednesday. “They are trying to say that we are not so physical. And we can’t say anything because of what happened in the last game. But if you actually turn the tape on, you’ll see how we physically played the entire 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’ victory against the Buckeyes in 2021 was no fluke. It also produced the initial pains of an existential crisis in Buckeyeland. After dominating the series for years, Ohio State took two punches to the face and forgot their plan.

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But that loss did not cost Ohio State a shot at a national title. USC’s defense couldn’t hold out against Utah’s offense in the Pac-12 title game, and the Buckeyes got an overtime. Ohio State would have one more game guaranteed with championship betting in 2022.

The outcome of this game could calm that existential crisis, or sink it further. Coach Ryan Day can either restore confidence in his administration or completely destroy it.

If you’re not an Ohio State fan, this is the part where you scream “Wow” and remind me that Day is an impressive 45-5 at Ohio State. He missed exactly two Big Ten games — those two Michigan games — in four seasons. The Buckeyes are up against Georgia, the team expected to win this season’s national title since Oregon’s Week 1 decommissioning. Shouldn’t Ohio State be happy with this season, regardless of the result on Saturday?

Of course.

The pattern in Ohio is different, just as the pattern in Georgia is different. Buckeyes should never be happy to be anywhere. They were supposed to dominate the inferiors and face the elite. They should never be the least physical team. Ohio State’s ideal is best epitomized by strength coach Mickey Marotti’s definition of “Buckeye football,” conveyed by Sawyer on Wednesday.

Run the damn ball.

Stop the damn race.

Play good special teams.

A team filled with elite recruits who do these three things will win most games. That’s what Alabama did by winning six national titles between 2009 and 2020. That’s what Clemson did by winning two national titles in three seasons a few years ago. That’s what Ohio State did when they captured the national title in their first College Football Playoff season in 2014.

That’s what Georgia does now.

Can the state of Ohio do this?

We know the Buckeyes can pitch the ball. Marvin Harrison Jr. may be the best receiver in the country, and he leads a deep group that catches passes from CJ Stroud, a potential first-round pick in the NFL who ranks third in the country in yards per attempt.

Can they run it when it matters? TreVeyon Henderson will miss Saturday’s game due to injury. Miyan Williams, the Buckeyes’ other quarterback, is recovering from an ankle injury but is expected to play. Even with an injured back, Ohio State averaged 4.9 yards per carry against Michigan, but abandoned the drive in the fourth quarter as the Buckeyes were unable to complete the second task on Marotti’s list.

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

“If you cut the film, they’re physical guys,” Georgia center Sedrick Van Pran said on Wednesday. “Watching them play Michigan, they were very, very physical. Guys hit blocks. The guys flew and made tackles. There were just a few unfortunate things that happened towards the end of the game.

The “unfortunate things” were Donovan Edwards’ 75- and 85-yard touchdown runs. They happened because Michigan’s blockers overwhelmed some defenders while others filled incorrect gaps. This obstructed his teammates’ path to Edwards and allowed him to poke holes to find open ground. But these two pieces don’t tell the whole story. An earlier drive set the table for these plays, and all the first long touchdown run did was prolong Ohio State’s agony.

Michigan’s blockers began eating the Buckeyes’ souls late in the third quarter on a 15-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that stretched into the fourth. In a four-play stretch early in the drive, Michigan gained 35 yards on the ground. What had been difficult up until that point—Michigan was averaging 3.1 yards per carry before that drive—suddenly felt easier. The Buckeyes got some resistance in the red zone, but when Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy turned a QB power play into a 3-yard touchdown, the Wolverines ran 10 times for 47 yards on the drive and effectively reinforced their will and took an early lead. from 31-20.

From the start of that drive to the end of the game, Michigan rushed 17 times for 232 yards. And even if Edwards had been dragged 15 yards on that first long touchdown, it’s likely Michigan would have simply grounded the remaining seven minutes and moved, five yards at a time on the ground. Because while Ohio State spent three and a half quarters breaking down blocks and making tackles, the last quarter and a half was full of plays where seemingly every silver helmet disappeared behind a wing.

This cannot happen on Saturday. Trouble is, Georgia has a more explosive passing game than Michigan – which still hit Ohio State for three long, open touchdown passes – but Georgia also has better NFL prospects along the offensive line and monsters in the field. tight end (Darnell Washington and Brock Bowers) who can devastate second-tier defenders in the running game.

If you compare the weekly practice schedules of the states of Georgia, Michigan and Ohio, probably two would look almost identical. The other would be from the state of Ohio. This would not always have been the case. Georgia tailback Kenny McIntosh used a phrase Wednesday that probably sounded familiar to some of Ohio State’s oldest beat writers. McIntosh was discussing the intensity of Georgia’s practices when he referred to “Bloody Tuesday”.

“Everybody knows that on this day we are going to get physical and bleed, basically,” McIntosh said. “We want it to be difficult.”

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Many shows over the years have referred to their Tuesday practices as “Bloody Tuesday”. This makes sense because Tuesday is long after the last game and just enough time before the next game to do the biggest physical practice of the week. But the reason it must sound so familiar to the Buckeyes is that it’s also what Urban Meyer called Tuesday practices. Like Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Meyer believed that the only way to get good at hitting—and stay good at tackles as a long season wore on—was to hit.

Then, as Smart, Harbaugh and Nick Saban still do, Meyer’s teams chased him on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

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

The question now is whether Day and his team pushed this team hard enough to find that “more” when it comes to Saturday. Day said this week that the Buckeyes performed very physical practices during their initial bowl preparation. (So ​​does Georgia, which they always do.) It’s possible that a few weeks of getting back to blocking and tackling fundamentals combined with the Buckeyes’ outstanding athleticism will produce a team capable of matching Georgia. Unlike most games the Buckeyes and Bulldogs play, the recruiting rankings and projected NFL draft slots are very similar on both sides. We know that Marotti knows how much a team needs to be pressured to reach a level of national title. He did it three times, twice at Florida and once at Ohio State.

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When Meyer handed the Ohio State program to Day after the 2018 season, he handed over the keys to a tank. Day got quarterback Justin Fields as a transfer from Georgia, but Fields was protected by a lineup that included four current NFL starters. Ohio State’s 2019 defense, meanwhile, was positively unlikable. Chase Young and Jonathon Cooper went out of bounds. DaVon Hamilton and Tommy Togiai rotated at defensive tackle. Pete Werner and Malik Harrison paced the second floor.

Although Ohio State’s offense remained potent in Day, the defense was unable to get back to the level of that group. 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 perhaps we are rushing to judgment. After all, the Ohio State schedule doesn’t offer many real challenges. Maybe we’re exaggerating the bad 23 minutes. Saturday should give us the correct answer.

“This is a chance not many people get,” said edge rusher JT Tuimoloau, expected to be Ohio State’s next defensive superstar. He’s not wrong.

But beyond being a chance to compete for the national title, it’s 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 need to be.

If they can’t?

will be a beautifuleeeeeeeeeeee off season.

(Main photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)