The Ohio State University Buckeyes return to the Valley for the first time since 2016 with a first-year coach and quarterback that have rewrote the record book in Columbus.
The Buckeyes (13-0) enter this year’s College Football Playoff semifinal contest against Clemson on a 16-game winning streak, thanks in large part to sophomore quarterback Justin Fields and a defense led by junior defensive end Chase Young.
Both Fields and Young will be led on the field at State Farm Stadium in Glendale by first-year coach Ryan Day, who was named the coach in the offseason after Urban Meyer resigned due to health complications.
The results from his first season have been outstanding by any measure, with the Buckeyes winning all 13 of their games by double-digits, including a 34-21 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship.
Much of that success has come from players like Fields on offense and Young on defense, with the former putting up 2,953 passing yards, to go with 471 yards on the ground, to go with 40 offensive touchdowns in 13 starts.
Young, meanwhile, has been a revelation on the defensive line, leading the nation in sacks (16.5), while forcing six fumbles this year.
The Buckeyes led the nation in points per game (48.7), while finishing tied for second in the nation in points allowed (12.5).
Day attributed much of his team’s success this fall to the collective’s ability to train and prepare, both in practice and during film room and weight room sessions.
A key to success, according to Day, is a team’s willingness to accept the responsibility and preparation that the game requires.
“When you have a mature team, you give them what you think is happen in the game and you play it out so you can prepare for that,” Day says. “And I think any time you play this game you have to prepare for that, and I think in any type of game you have to prepare physically, you have to get your body ready. You have to prepare mentally, to know what you’re doing. But you also have to prepare emotionally and spiritually.
Part of this is understanding the electricity that come with the game, and it will be in hyper-speed for the first quarter, and just prepare for that and understand that that’s how it’s going to go down and being able to respond to that.”
Another reason for the team’s success this season, according to second-year offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, is Day’s ability to live up to the standard that previous coaches at Ohio State have left.
Wilson cited the fact that all four of the coaches in this year’s CFP semifinal, including Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, were promoted from within when they were hired as head coaches, as proof that this year’s four-team playoff will be special.
“All four have been internal hires at four of what many would call the strongest programs in the nation,” Wilson says. “They had the infrastructure with those internal hires where recruiting is in place, strength and conditioning is in place, medical, academic support, so when you’re at a strong place and you have a lot of things.
And then you feel internally the president and the athletic directors feels there’s a strong internal guy who can maintain some continuity, build on a great program and be an elite leader, and that’s what we have in coach Day.”
Day believes the school’s decision to hand him the reigns in the offseason, which was made by Athletic Director Gene Block, speaks to the courage and conviction that the school’s leadership had in his leadership style.
“It goes to show you how important continuity is, and I think that even when you lose someone in your staff, it’s important to promote from within, I think that’s important,” Day says. “Because you learn, not just in football, but with most successful corporations that when you have that foundation in place, it helps create a seamless transition.
“But everything has to be right and you have to have a leader in place like Gene Smith that’s willing to make that call. And that was a brave move, you’re talking about a first-time head coach that had never done it before in a place like Ohio State, and that took a lot of guts, and it’s worked out. So, there’s so many things that have to go right for something like that, but the blueprint’s there, and I’m just happy that I had an opportunity.”
Avenging the 2016 Fiesta Bowl
Neither Day nor Wilson were in Columbus the last time Clemson and Ohio State met, when the latter fell to the former, 31-0, in the CFP semifinal, held at the Fiesta Bowl.
There’s a sense of confidence around the program, however, that this year’s contest will be much more competitive than their previous encounter, thanks to the depth and skill that the Buckeyes have built at virtually every position on the field.
Wilson believes this year’s Fiesta Bowl could be a matchup to remember, with so many excellent coaches and players squaring off on Saturday night in Glendale.
“They’re very talented and very multiple. I know their coaches and it’s going to be a phenomenal challenge,” Wilson says. “And it’s going to be a great game with great players, going against one of the best-coached teams in the country, it’s going to be an awesome challenge.
To have this in the biggest arena, it’s an awesome challenge, because they bring in a hot team with a lot of success, a lot of talent, great coaches, great adjustments, it’s going to be a hell of a matchup.”
That confidence was apparent when junior running back J.K. Dobbins, who finished the regular season with 1,829 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns, both of which ranked in the top-10 nationally.
Dobbins, who was a high schooler in La Grange, Texas in 2016, believes this year’s game should be one that will go down in the record books.
“It excites me a lot, because to be the best you have to go against the best, and they’re definitely the best right now,” Dobbins said. “And hopefully we can come out with a win. It’ll be a great challenge though.”