• A closing interception when the quarterback and receiver miscommunicated for the quarterback’s third pick out of 354 attempts that season.
• A crucial roughing-the-punter call.
• A pivotal (and accurate) targeting call that rearranged momentum in a 16-0 game.
• A transcendent opposing quarterback stomping 67 yards on a remarkable run that seemed to shake the cactuses outdoors.
• A late and brilliant 94-yard drive (in four plays!) by a big-game Godzilla of an opponent.
There’s probably more, and if you sit around late at night with Ohio State fans even in some distant year such as 2050, they probably would recite all 169 plays of Clemson’s 29-23 win in a spiral of excruciation and maybe even beer. Ohio State outgained Clemson 516-417 that evening, but that’s not the measurement they use for gauging who wins.
As the national championship game approaches next Monday with a field full of wow players and a head coach (Nick Saban) so omnipresent in those that he seems almost like a topographical formation on the sideline against a head coach (Day) making a debut, there’s a curious second question.
The first goes: Can Day beat Saban? That one always seems to rise to maybe at best.
The second goes: Can Saban beat Day? And that one carries a trace more mustard than you might expect, seeming almost similar to, Can Saban beat Urban Meyer?, which always seemed freighted with a bit more doubt than most such questions.
Day went 3-0 as a pinch coacher in 2018 when Ohio State stuck Meyer in a three-game hoosegow after his baffling bungling of a crisis involving an assistant. Day went 13-0 in 2019 before that rapid-eye-movement haunt in Arizona. He has gone 7-0 this time, with the haunt already avenged in the 49-28 soar over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl.
It all conjures September 2018 in Arlington, Tex., when and where Ohio State beat TCU, 40-28, at the cusp of Meyer’s return and somebody achieved a fine puckishness by asking Day whether he might want to retire at 3-0.
“Sure,” he said, playing along in a way stolid coaches so often have failed to do through time.
It also conjures December 2018, when Meyer announced his retirement and told of the strain of going to work every day in fear of letting down his home state. (What a burden to haul around, the seventh-most-populous state. At least Saban knows when he fails, he has let down only the 24th-most-populous state, minus even the considerable Auburn portion he has just delighted.) Meyer continued: “I hired Ryan Day [as co-offensive coordinator in 2017], because I thought he was a very good coach. I knew he was. He was with me before [with Florida, in 2005]. What I found out, that he’s far past those thoughts. He’s elite. And in trying to build the most comprehensive, premier program in America, you also want to hand it off to someone, at some point, so that it can get even stronger. My witnessing of the work Ryan has done made this decision not as difficult as I thought.”
So Day has gone 23-1 to start off. That’s .958.
Meyer went 83-9 in seven seasons, or .902.
What a slacker.
It’s another funny reminder that we are all questionable in our cranial marbles, considering all the attention and thought that go into choosing college football coaches and the way fans develop their own campaigns that sometimes bombard athletic departments with incoherent spite. Clemson plucked its dynastic coach from the sub-coordinator realm of its staff — Dabo Swinney coached wide receivers — and at least some of the fans had to be saying, What? It takes some careful study of Day’s path — and probably even acquaintance — to see 23-1 lurking in there.
He played quarterback at New Hampshire at the turn of the century in the mad laboratory of offensive coordinator Chip Kelly. Then he coached tight ends at New Hampshire (2002) and graduate-assisted at Boston College (2003-04) and Florida (2005) before a little-known ricochet from Temple to Boston College to Temple to Boston College. Kelly hired him to coach the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterbacks in 2015. Kelly hired him to coach the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterbacks in 2016. Meyer hired him to coach the Ohio State quarterbacks and other people Jan. 3, 2017.
Come the 2019 season, Justin Fields began as a full-on starting quarterback while Day began as a full-on head coach and the former of the two threw 41 touchdown passes against three interceptions. His passer rating wafted in the clouds at 181.43. He has wobbled some this year but still stands at 21 touchdowns, six interceptions and 186.68 with the whopping six touchdown passes against Clemson.
So the evidence suggests that Day knows how to do the most important thing a man in a college town can know how to do according to the American public: hone a quarterback. That very capacity factored into a tectonic recruiting shift that helped cause a tectonic coaching shift.
The quarterback at Southlake Carroll High in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs, Quinn Ewers, the No. 1 player in the 2022 recruiting class, originally committed to Texas before de-committing from Texas and opting for Ohio State. Shortly after Texas measured the momentum around Tom Herman and fired him Saturday morning, Ewers threw for 450 yards and six touchdowns in a Texas state playoff win with the 21st-century football score of 59-35. As Mike Craven of the Austin American-Statesman reported, Ewers said: “I’ve heard the news [about Herman]. I’m rocking with my guys at Ohio State. Obviously, success comes into account, and they’ve had a lot of success. I want to be a part of something like that.”
Here we get into the imbalance that might threaten college football at the moment, but here we also get into Day’s gathering reputation. Just Friday night in New Orleans, he had had himself a night getting to 23-1 and 1-1 against Clemson, saying the loss had been “something that weighed heavily on us” and saying: “A lot of guys left that field [in Arizona] feeling like they let one get away. And so in life you don’t typically get an opportunity to have a second chance. You can’t miss the second time. I don’t know what we’re more excited about, the fact that we have a chance to play for the national championship or the fact that we avenged that loss.”
That loss, after all, was so odd.