COLUMBUS, Ohio — In the end, Ryan Day’s best summation of this Ohio State season came in GIF form. Sometimes, facial contortions speak louder than words.
As Ohio State’s game-sealing field goal squeezed through the upright with just under three minutes remaining in No. 5 Ohio State’s 33-24 victory over No. 20 Penn State, Day’s face twisted through a kaleidoscope of emotions.
Day starts with a gaze of optimism. A grimace of fear quickly intersected. A lean of hope, fearful clench of teeth and distinct curse followed in rapid succession. After the field goal wobbled through the uprights, Day smiled quickly and raised his arms in celebration. A calm look returned.
Ohio State fans can relate to the emotional gamut, as they’ve surfed the wave of a Buckeyes team that can best be summed up as the perfect team for this most imperfect of college football seasons.
“If you look at college football this season, it’s about surviving and moving on,” Day said, comparing the next four games to “March Madness” with a series of one-game seasons.
And that leaves the Buckeyes (7-1, 5-0) destined to be one of the most compelling and polarizing teams when the College Football Playoff standings are released on Tuesday. Will Ohio State be in the top four? Will the committee value the head-to-head with Oregon and rank the Ducks higher? Should undefeated Michigan State be ahead of the Buckeyes? Should the Buckeyes be ahead of undefeated Cincinnati?
There’s an argument to rank Ohio State anywhere from No. 3 to No. 8 on Tuesday night. And that’s why the primary emotion around the Ohio State locker room as Saturday night met Sunday morning was relief.
“This is a gritty win,” Day said. “To win the way we did, not even playing our best ball and [not] converting in the red zone. It says a lot about where we are and how well we’ve played over the last month. I think you can see this building … as long as we keep building and staying strong, then I think our body of work is going to speak for itself.”
Is there a path for Ohio State to blitz through the rest of the Big Ten and reach the College Football Playoff? Sure. There were moments on Saturday night — bursts of TreVeyon Henderson, strikes from C.J. Stroud and pass rushes from Tyreke Smith — that teased that notion as an inevitability.
Could Ohio State sputter down the stretch and fall to Nebraska (road), Purdue, Michigan State or Michigan (road)? There were enough penalties, missed red zone opportunities and coverage apathy to portend losses in any of those four games.
So on a chilly Halloween Eve, with a Scarlet Out turning the Horseshoe into a boiling cauldron of ketchup, we’re left to ask if we’ll get Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Buckeye — if you will — the rest of the season.
Day summed up the game by calling it “certainly frustrating,” with “unacceptable” penalties and sloppy enough that this statement may best sum up the Buckeyes’ flaws and promise: “If we clean these things up, I don’t know what the score will look like.” There’s that potential undercut by reality.
Credit Penn State, which has lost to Ohio State five straight times but always seems to deliver a migraine on the way to the loss column. One week after Penn State lost in nine overtimes to Illinois and made the Illini’s run game look like the Pony Express reincarnated (357 yards), they put up a brick wall to stone Ohio State by holding them to 19 first-half rushing yards. Penn State blitzed from every angle, played with guts and a fully healthy Sean Clifford dealt all night, finishing with 361 yards.
So which Buckeyes should we expect the rest of the way?
The Stroud who finished with 305 passing yards? Or the one who missed a wide-open Chris Olave for a touchdown on a fourth-down play?
The TreVeyon Henderson who scooted for 152 yards? Or the one who made the freshman mistake of jumping offsides on a fourth-and-inches on the goal line?
Are we going to see the Ohio State defense that crunched Clifford to enable a 57-yard touchdown run by burly lineman Jerron Cage? Or the one that got picked apart by Penn State OC Mike Yurcich on a pair of 75-yard third-quarter drives?
Stroud may have best unintentionally summed up Ohio State’s role as Big Ten alpha by saying that in recent seasons Ohio State has beaten itself more than others have beaten Ohio State. The Oregon loss earlier in the year — along with a dud against Tulsa — prompted seismic changes, including the insertion of Matt Barnes as the defensive coordinator and Henderson becoming the featured back on offense.
The Buckeyes appear back on track, other than the times when they revert to their September foibles.
“We needed Oregon to happen,” Stroud said. “It sucks to say that we lost, but we learned so much from it. I feel like that the best teacher is losing, honestly. In the future, it’s going to make it better.”
Asking where Ohio State will end up ranked on Tuesday is a bit like projecting which Buckeyes will show up the rest of the season. There are compelling reasons for optimism, countered by enough hints of sloppiness to make sure that optimism isn’t unbridled.
There’s enough talent for Ohio State to end up back in the College Football Playoff for the third straight year under Day. There’s enough uncertainty that a pair of losses down the stretch isn’t unfathomable.
So until the final week of the season, expect the same range of emotions to appear on Day’s face on the sideline. The potential remains for Ohio State to soar or sink. The contortions provide the perfect portrait for both the team and the sport this season.