Game week is here for the 2019 Ohio State Buckeyes as they prepare to take on the Florida Atlantic Owls Saturday in Ohio Stadium. With that, head coach Ryan Day spoke with the media on Tuesday to discuss the task at hand and what he is seeing out of his own team as they put camp behind them and prepare for the Owls.
“I think they bring a really good coaching staff here,” Day said of FAU. “Coach (Lane) Kiffin has coached at all levels in the NFL, SEC. He’s got a great background of football and understanding. And he’s going to bring a challenge to our defense.”
Day said FAU can do a lot of things for defenses to have to handle, including creating mismatches and playing with tempo, and he called Kiffin “innovative” in his approach to the offense.
Defensively, Day said he expects FAU to change their looks often, from fronts to coverages, and without having been able to see FAU on film yet, making adjustments during the game will be important for the Buckeyes.
Asked about some of the things he is most curious to see on Saturday, Day started by listing the fundamentals: tackling, taking care of the football, blocking, and playing a clean game.
Day said fall camp can get “stale” when the team is seeing the same looks and the same players each and every day. He said seeing new schemes against new players will allow him to “figure out where we get better.” He added, “Because it’s a journey, (we’re) not a finished product by any stretch of the imagination.”
Sophomore quarterback Justin Fields is sure to dominate talks leading up to the game in what will be the first start of his college career. Day said after so many practices, he can get a feel for what to expect out of a player in a game, although there will be a difference in how Fields was handled throughout camp and what he will see on Saturday.
“We haven’t taken (Fields) to the ground,” he said. “So, that will be new. And we have to see how a lot of guys respond. We haven’t done a ton of tackling with the ones. We have with the twos. It’s been a very physical camp. But until you really tackle and you get out there, that’s when you figure things out.”
Day acknowledged there are always jitters that come with the first game but expects to see his players perform the way they have practiced throughout camp.
Asked how he plans to balance getting Fields as much experience as possible while also trying to ensure he comes out of the game healthy, Day said he has to approach every game with the expectation that the game will be on the line in the fourth quarter.
“I think you have to go into a game expecting to go win the game in the fourth quarter,” he said. “You have to go into games thinking that way. If you start getting ahead of yourselves down the road — these (opposing players) are good. They’re well-coached, and we have to make sure we’re ready to win the game in the fourth quarter. If you go down a different road, you go down a bad path … We can’t be walking on eggshells. We can’t go into a game worrying about people getting hurt. Our guys have to do a good job protection wise.”
He went on to say that while the first priority is to win the game, “whatever it takes,” the coaching staff isn’t going to put someone out there “in harm’s way” unnecessarily.
As for whether there will be an added emphasis in the game plan on Fields throwing the ball in order to get him as much experience as possible, Day said the emphasis will be on calling whatever gives the offense the best opportunity to score points.
“I think we try to find the plays that give us the best schematic advantage to score,” he said. “And then as we start to play these games I think we’ll get a feel for his creativity as plays break down, what he can handle in terms of route combinations, his progressions, the way he sees things in a game.
“I think we got a good feel for that in practice, but we have to take a look to see what are the plays that best fit the defense we’re going to see, that give us the best chance, and go from there. The good news for Justin, he throws it just as good as he runs it, and vice versa. So, if that means we need to throw the ball, we need to throw the ball, and guys need to protect and catch the ball and get open, and we’ve got to deliver the ball.”
Day said he expects seven to eight offensive linemen to play in Saturday’s game. He said every player who has earned the right and proven to be starting caliber will have that opportunity.
Right tackle has been the only position along the offensive line where there was still competition to decide the starter. Day announced Tuesday that fifth-year senior Branden Bowen will start after battling it out with Nick Petit-Frere. Day called Bowen’s attitude this year “as good as I’ve been around,” and he has been practicing at a high level.
Day said Petit-Frere and Josh Alabi have both earned reps on Saturday and will be in the mix. He also mentioned freshman center Harry Miller as a player who could get some time on Saturday as well.
Defensively, Day said he will have “very little” involvement in the defensive game planning. “That’s why we hired the guys that we did,” he said. “There’s so much experience there. I have a lot of trust in those guys. If I see something, I’ll go down and ask why. Usually, they have a quick answer … I think anytime you want to go run your offense or run your defense, I think if someone comes in meddling around then it’s hard …”
Co-defensive coordinators Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison will be split between the press box and the sideline, Day said, with Hafley up in the booth. As for offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and passing game coordinator Mike Yurcich, both will coach from the press box.
Prior to Day’s press conference, Ohio State announced an injury “status report,” as well as the two-deep depth chart, will be given on Fridays before games that will list whether players are out or game-time decisions. Day has declined to speak on the injury status of players throughout camp.
Defensive end Jonathon Cooper has been rumored to be injured dating back to two weeks ago, although Day nor any of the coaches have confirmed he will miss Saturday’s game. Fellow defensive lineman Robert Landers, during his time with the media on Tuesday, seemed to at least confirm Cooper is dealing with an injury, saying his status is being taken “day by day” and that other guys will need to step up and “fill the void of him not being there, probably.”
When asked about who would be in line to play should Cooper not be able to go on Saturday, Day said Javontae Jean-Baptiste “has come along” and that “Zach Harrison will play this year.” Those guys are in addition to Tyreke Smith and Tyler Friday, he said.
Day was asked about where he is at mentally and what his excitement level is as his first season as the head coach at Ohio State is finally upon him.
“Even when you say that it fires me up,” he answered. “I can’t wait for the season to start. I can’t wait for these guys to start playing to kind of see where we’re at. I can’t wait to run out of the tunnel.”
Throughout Urban Meyer’s tenure at Ohio State he had said the playing of “Hang on Sloopy” following the third quarter was always a moment where he would take everything in and appreciate the opportunity he had to coach at Ohio State. Day said that moment, for him, will be running out of the tunnel prior to the game.
“I tried to figure out when that’s going to be for me, and that’s when I run out into the stadium,” he said. “When I’m with the team in the tunnel, looking up to see the Horseshoe and everybody that supports the Buckeye Nation — how cool that is, take it in, take a deep breath, because you can go through a whole game and not ever recognize anything that’s going on because you’re so caught up in the moment … What an unbelievable opportunity this is. It’s an opportunity to be around a great group of players and coaches at an unbelievable university. It’s time to start playing some games.”
Day later said Ohio State was the only program he would have considered leaving the NFL for, “because this is just the greatest organization in all of America.”
Asked to follow up on that statement and whether other signature programs would have had a similar draw, Day doubled down.
“Only Columbus,” he said.