On Saturday, the scandal that earned Urban Meyer his three-game suspension to start this season and potentially cost him his coaching legacy will resurface during one of Week 3’s biggest games. ESPN’s College GameDay has set up shop in Fort Worth, Texas ahead of Ohio State’s clash with TCU (which will be played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington at 8 p.m. ET) and the dominant storyline is almost certain to be the head coach who won’t be on the sidelines for one final game.
While that’s understandable to an extent, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the Buckeyes have been doing just fine without Meyer under the direction of offensive coordinator Ryan Day (on game days, that is; since Week 1 Meyer has been allowed to be with his team every day but Saturday). Ohio State has outscored its first two opponents—Power 5 minnows Oregon State and Rutgers—by a combined score of 129–34 and outgained them 1,300 yards to 526. First-year starting quarterback Dwayne Haskins has vaulted into the Heisman Trophy conversation by completing 79.2% of his passes to more than a handful of experienced receivers and is averaging 273 yards per game with nine touchdown passes. The Buckeyes have two tailbacks, J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, both averaging around 100 yards per game. And the defensive line is proving to be lethal on passing downs, with end Nick Bosa already leading the country in sack yardage (three for 31).
Heading into the season, many believed that Ohio State’s roster boasted more talent than any team in Meyer’s first six seasons in Columbus. What direction would the program go without his leadership for the first three games? His ability to motivate is part of what makes him one of the best coaches in college football, with a 73–8 record since 2012 that includes a national championship and two conference titles. Sitting at No. 4 in the AP Poll heading into their biggest test of the season Saturday against TCU, the Buckeyes have proven they were built to survive Meyer’s absence all along.
It has helped to have a surplus of gifted players, but credit also goes to Day, who will be a top candidate for the head coaching vacancies that may come open this offseason. Day has experience at every level of football from FCS to the NFL but had never been a head coach anywhere. Yet two days before training camp, he was selected by athletic director Gene Smith to replace Meyer instead of other top assistants Greg Schiano and Kevin Wilson, who have extensive (albeit checkered by controversy) head-coaching experience.
Day compared his initial days as acting head coach to “drinking through a fire hose,” and he wasn’t too proud to lean on Schiano and Wilson for guidance or help. He receives daily text messages from coaching mentor Chip Kelly, whom he played for at New Hampshire and coached with in San Francisco and Philadelphia, that say: “You’re built for this.”
“If you know Ryan and you know how he was brought up, it’s about his preparation,” says Sean McDonnell, who coached Day at New Hampshire and hired him for his first assistant job after graduation. “He’s been watching throughout his coaching career how people do things. It’s just a natural progression for Ryan to take over something like this.”
Day has been organized from the start, and he has kept players motivated and focused when the locker room could have potentially gone the other way after a dramatic preseason in which seemingly every day brought new updates from the school’s investigation into Meyer’s handling of domestic abuse allegations against former assistant coach Zach Smith.
“I think Ryan has a confidence and awareness about himself to do things the right way,” McDonnell says when asked why players would respond well to him stepping into this situation. “His system, his beliefs, his teaching is always an up-step. What I mean by that is he’s always upbeat when he’s talking to them, he’s always pointing out things and kids believe in him because of the journey he’s had and he brings that knowledge with him.
“I just think he was put in a situation and he was ready for it.”
Meyer could return next week to a 3–0 record with one last non-conference matchup against Tulane to prepare for before getting into the thick of Big Ten play, starting with a trip to Penn State on Sept. 29. If Ohio State continues to roll, wins the Big Ten and makes the College Football Playoff, how will the quarter of the regular season in which Day ran the show be remembered within the year's larger story? The higher-stakes games ahead may play a more significant role in the Buckeyes’ postseason résumé, but that shouldn’t totally mask Day’s success in keeping the machine Meyer built operating at full power during uncertain times.
Day has worked under Meyer for almost three seasons (one as a graduate assistant at Florida). The last few weeks have shown he’s ready for the next step, and steering Ohio State past TCU in primetime would only raise his profile outside Columbus.
“I think this audition he’s had he’s been pretty good,” McDonnell said. “He’s had a couple midterms. We’ll see how he does on the final here.”