COLUMBUS — Since losing in stunning fashion to Oregon in week two, No. 6 Ohio State has rebounded well to enter its bye week with some momentum as the college football season hits the halfway mark of the regular season. The Buckeyes have reeled off four consecutive wins, albeit against poor competition, and will enter late October still firmly in the College Football Playoff conversation.
On Tuesday, head coach Ryan Day spoke with the media to reflect on the first half of the season and to discuss how he’ll handle the bye week as the Buckeyes look to sustain momentum heading into their game against Indiana on Oct. 23.
“We’re keeping it as game-like as we can, so Tuesday is going to be a padded practice. Wednesday will be a padded practice, and then we’ll take the pads off on Thursday,” Day said. “We’re going to try to keep that momentum going because I think our guys have gotten into a rhythm with that.”
Like every coach faced with mapping out an off week for his team, Day said he certainly wants to get players off their feet and let them “recharge” for the second-half run, but the team also can’t afford to stop improving throughout the bye week.
“There’re things about the bye week you really enjoy, but there are other things you kind of wish you could continue with the routine because we have gotten into a rhythm here. But I think it’s come at the right time,” Day said.
Originally thought to be devastating to Ohio State’s playoff hopes in September, the loss to Oregon continues to fall further and further behind in the rearview mirror as the Buckeyes have stacked impressive performances. Day said there is some confidence growing in the locker room, but still so much remains to be seen if the Buckeyes are going to be players in late November.
“We still have a lot of football left,” Day said. “We haven’t done anything yet. But I think there is some confidence being built. You can see that some guys are starting to settle into some roles and that’s a good thing. We’re not doing everything for the first time, and I think when we walk on the field, we’re expecting a high level of execution in all three phases. Because of that, there’s just a confidence about the team right now that’s good.
“But the competition is going to increase. We’re gonna have to go on the road here, a night game at Indiana, and play well here pretty soon. Then the games are just going to get bigger and bigger. We still have a young team and that hasn’t changed, but having six games under our belts, I do think we’re in a better place than we were six games ago.”
Among the biggest sources of confidence for Ohio State is the play of its redshirt freshman quarterback, C.J. Stroud, who has shaken off some early-season inconsistencies as well as a shoulder injury to put up prolific numbers over the past two weeks. Since missing the game against Akron on Sept. 25, Stroud has thrown for 736 yards, 10 touchdowns, and no interceptions in Ohio State’s two most recent wins.
With far better defenses awaited him in the back half of the schedule, Stroud’s growth is sure to be tested in the weeks to come, Day said.
“I don’t know if there have been any super surprises,” he said of Stroud. “I think there are some really good things in there that’s he done. The last couple of games, he’s made good decisions, he’s seeing it pretty well, he’s preparing at a pretty high level. He’s shown some toughness along the way.
“But as these games get tighter and they get tougher, he’s going to get challenged in different ways. So the focus just has to be on the process of getting better every day, preparing and taking one game at a time, because certainly in this league and what we’re about to go through, every week is its own story. Nothing the week before matters at all, and understanding that is going to be important for him.”
On the other side of the ball, Ohio State’s defense has been under construction for seemingly all of the first six weeks. A shakeup in responsibilities among the defensive coaching staff, including Matt Barnes taking over playcalling duties, along with a simplified approach has produced positive results lately for the much-maligned group. Asked his thoughts on the defense’s evolution, Day expressed a cautiously optimistic approach.
“We’ll see. It’s still very early in the process, but I think the overall chemistry, the confidence, and really, so far, the results have been trending in the right direction,” Day said. “Again, we have some bigger challenges coming, but as I sit here today, I think we’re in a different place than we were back then.”
As for where the Buckeyes stand in the national landscape, Day acknowledged the favorable position his team finds itself in despite the early loss. But before the Buckeyes can begin thinking about the bigger picture and what’s happening with other teams, Day said his team can’t lose sight of what allowed them to recapture momentum after the last few weeks.
“It’s been a strange year so far, and I think the teams that just continue to get better week in and week out are the ones that are going to show up in November,” he said. “But you have to take care of right now. You can’t worry about that stuff. The good news for us is we hold our own destiny in our hands, you just have to continue to get better. And that’s all you can ask for. That’s not something we were talking about four weeks ago, but you’re starting to see a little bit of it now, the guys are starting to believe, but have to go out and play really well against Indiana next week, get that win, and keep moving from there. There are still a lot of things that need to get done before we start considering what’s coming next.”
Day went on to say, “This is what you want right now. You want a team that’s building momentum, that has a couple scars on them, and is starting to get a little calloused, a little tougher. That’s what this thing is all about, building towards October and November.