COLUMBUS — As Ohio State head coach Ryan Day sat down to begin his postgame press conference following a 44-31 win over Penn State on Saturday, he did so with expressions of both relief and elation beaming across his face.
After all, his team had just secured its best win to date in one of the sport’s most hostile environments. In doing so, Ohio State also remained unbeaten and on track to play for a Big Ten title and a spot in the College Football Playoff. Indeed, there was plenty to celebrate in a locker room Day said was “on fire” following the game.
But for Day, perhaps even more rewarding than the immediate gratification associated with having just won a hard-fought game over a highly-ranked opponent was the fashion in which it was done and what it could mean as Ohio State enters the November stretch run.
After Penn State scored to take a 21-16 lead with just over nine minutes remaining in the game, Ohio State found its collective back against the wall in the final quarter for the first time this season. As a raucous crowd inside Beaver Stadium reached a crescendo following the touchdown, a sputtering Ohio State offense trotted back onto the field with a season full of goals hanging in the balance.
Three plays later, running back TreVeyon Henderson was racing 41 yards to the end zone to reclaim the lead, and Ohio State never looked back as it rattled off 28 points in the final nine minutes to stave off the upset. While there were questions to be answered about how Ohio State reached the point of near-disaster following the game, there was also plenty to be said about Ohio State’s response to the first true adversity it’s faced this season.
“It’s huge because nothing comes easy in this environment against Penn State,” Day said after the game. “And there are times when things maybe come a little bit easy for us, and that’s a different experience than this right here (today). This is totally different, and to respond the way we did and figure out what was going on is great because the last time that kind of happened was a little bit in the Notre Dame game.”
While Ohio State did trail Notre Dame at halftime in the season opener, control was quickly established in the second half and Notre Dame never truly threatened to win the game in the final quarter. A more accurate representation of what Ohio State overcame on Saturday better lies in its darkest moment from a season ago, a moment that in a lot of ways set the stage for Saturday’s triumph.
When the clock struck zero on Michigan’s 42-27 win over Ohio State in 2021, the lasting takeaways from the game were the disparity in both the physicality and, most importantly, the toughness of the two teams. As Michigan grew stronger as the game grew later, feeding off a home crowd starving for a program-defining win, Ohio State wilted under the pressure.
Subsequently, all of Ohio State’s goals that season were dashed, prompting Day to go into the offseason with cultivating toughness at the forefront of everything his team did in preparation for the 2022 season. Despite all his best efforts, however, there would be only one way to see whether or not this team was any tougher than it was a year ago.
On Saturday, Day received a rather telling answer after watching his team win a game that it likely would have lost a year ago.
“That’s what means everything to us,” Day said of his team’s toughness in the win. “Because there are a lot of things that come into play here in this game, talking about the best quarterback in the country in C.J. Stroud, J.T. (Tuimoloau)’s coming out party, the score, and what we did in the first half. But (that toughness) is everything. That’s, to me, the difference between winning a championship and reaching our goals or not. And we responded today. I think that’s why it’s so satisfying, that we did that. Can we clean things up? Yeah, but that’s football. You see it every single week, games going back and forth.”
While Ohio State’s toughness will surely be tested again at some point over the final month of the regular season, particularly in what is setting up to be a season-defining matchup with Michigan to end the season, Ohio State is now better suited than it was a week ago for what might await it in the weeks to come.
Sure, there are plenty of things on which Ohio State must improve if it’s to get back to the Big Ten Championship Game in December, but Day now knows he has a team capable of winning every style of fight it might see along the way. There’s considerable confidence to be drawn from having such knowledge, and it was written all over Day’s face on Saturday.