(Editor’s Note: Caleb Lynn of the Sports Capital Journalism Program at IUPUI described how Ohio State came from behind to become Big Ten champions last December. Several key members of that team were at the National Football League Scouting Combine this week.)
By Caleb Lynn | @CalebLynn1
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — The coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes was nervous.
“Yeah, I was a little nervous,” Ryan Day said.
In his first Big Ten Football Championship Game as a head coach, Day’s Buckeyes were trailing Wisconsin, 21-7, at halftime. His quarterback, Justin Fields, had been limited in practice because of an injured knee. For Ohio State to clinch a record third consecutive outright Big Ten championship, the Buckeyes would have to match Penn State’s 2016 comeback from a 14-point halftime deficit, the largest in the eight previous title games. So at halftime, the message was clear. He saw his team wanted to win.
“We had a group of guys in that locker room who were barking at each other that they were not going to leave this place without a win,” Day remembered.
To earn the victory and secure Ohio State’s first spot in the College Football Playoff since the 2016 season, when Day was quarterbacks coach with the San Francisco 49ers, the Buckeyes’ nation-leading scoring offense and fourth-ranked rushing offense needed to get back on track.
Fields, the Big Ten Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year, was continuing to heal a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. On Saturday, he completed 19 of 31 passes for 299 yards. In the second half Fields was 12 for 17 for 172 yards and three touchdowns to become the Grange-Griffin Most Valuable Player.
“He did not get a chance to practice as much as he would have liked to this week,” Day said. “I think early on it was a combination of our protection and maybe him just being a little rusty.”
The Buckeyes also have a Heisman-level candidate in J.K. Dobbins. Dobbins on Saturday finished the game with a Big Ten title game record 33 carries for 172 yards (97 in the second half) and a touchdown.
“We just did not execute in the first half,” Dobbins said. “We had one of the worst first halves ever. We knew we had more in store for the second half.”
At halftime, the message from running backs coach/assistant head coach Tony Alford was to stay in it because it will come. He understands that Dobbins wants to be great and he does not have to motivate him too much.
“As a coach, you don’t have to motivate him because he is intrinsically motivated,” Alford said. “And I love him like my own son.”
The entire offensive unit contributed. Senior K.J. Hill had been limited to two catches for 38 yards at halftime. In the second half, he caught five receptions, two for touchdowns) for 49 yards.
For Hill, the second half was special. His seven catches made him Ohio State’s all-time leading receiver with 195 to surpass David Boston’s previous record of 191. Hill has caught one pass in 47 straight games.
Hill remained focused on the bigger picture for himself and he will not hear as much questions for how close he is to the record.
“I get asked this every week, and now I finally got it,” Hill said. “… I worked hard for it and I am trying to make a legacy here.”
However, performances from Dobbins, Fields, and wide receivers could not have happened without the offensive line. Senior left guard Jonah Jackson, transfer from Rutgers, earned his first Big Ten championship. He feels that overcoming the 14-point deficit can help his teammates down the road.
“A little adversity never hurt nobody,” Jackson said. “That is something that is kind of needed to wake you up and I felt like we responded very well, and we were able to come out victorious.”
Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst when seeing the comeback that Ohio State put together starting in the second half, spoke on how that came together for the Buckeyes.
“They did a good job in their opening drive of the second half,” Chryst said. “…Football is always a game of momentum and how do you get that momentum back? It is executing and they executed better than we did on enough plays to make the difference.”
Ohio State’s victory gave Day a record of 16-0 as a head coach with all of the wins by double digits. “If there is anything else that shows what this team is made of, you saw it here today,” Day said. “The fact that we went down and played the way we did in the first half, but then to come back and play the way we did in the second half not only shows you our talent but shows you the heart of this team.”