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Ohio State’s last game without Urban Meyer will be its toughest

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  • Tom VanHaarenESPN Staff Writer
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    • ESPN staff writer
    • Joined ESPN in 2011
    • Graduated from Central Michigan

To say that Ryan Day’s time as interim head coach at Ohio State has gone smoothly would be an understatement. The Buckeyes are 2-0 with Day at the helm and have beaten Oregon State and Rutgers by a combined score of 129-34.

His first-year starting quarterback Dwayne Haskins has thrown nine touchdowns to only one interception. The backup quarterback, Tate Martell, even produced the highest completion percentage in a single game for an Ohio State quarterback by completing all 10 of his passes for 121 yards against Rutgers.

On the outside, it looks like there isn’t much more this team could have done right. On the inside, however, Day is very aware of how easily his good fortune could turn playing against a team with experienced coaches and a stifling defense. A team much like Ohio State’s next opponent, No. 15-ranked TCU (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC).

“[TCU] Coach [Gary] Patterson has done a great job,” Day said Monday. “They have all the answers. … They have adjustments, they make quick adjustments, they know exactly how you’re trying to attack them. … So they just, they’ve been together such a long time that you’re not going to get anything free.

“You’re going to have to earn everything that you get.”

Those in-game adjustments could prove to be the biggest difference for Day from the first two games of the season.

In the first two contests, things went so well, the game plan didn’t need to change much from one half to the next. Against TCU, there is a good chance it won’t be so easy, so once the team is off-script, Day is going to be challenged to manage much more than just his offensive coordinator duties.

The Buckeyes are second among all FBS teams in points margin per game, while TCU is ranked No. 8 in the same category, outscoring opponents (Southern and SMU) by an average of 39 points per game with a mobile quarterback in Shawn Robinson.

The sophomore quarterback has accounted for 512 yards and seven touchdowns through the air with 271 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Day is going to need to rely on defensive coordinator Greg Schiano to manage that dual-threat in what will be the team’s biggest challenge to date.

“We recruited [Robinson],” Schiano said. “He’s a really good player who is multi-dimensional, who can throw; he’s a strong-arm guy. He’s a huge test for our defense. This is a very athletic, fast, productive offense.”

Schiano’s defense gave up 196 yards through the air and 196 on the ground against Oregon State in the first game of the season, but mistakes were quickly corrected against Rutgers, which gained 134 combined rushing and passing yards.

That should come as no coincidence since the coaching staff has worked meticulously to fix those mistakes during the week under the direction of head coach Urban Meyer, who is running practices and game-planning with his staff while serving out his three-game suspension at home on Saturdays.

Haskins said not much has changed with Day as acting head coach, that they still have the same relentless attitude on offense, and Day is still preaching execution from his young quarterback. Day gives Haskins a lot of leeway when it comes to running the offense in terms of making reads at the line, sliding protection and making any necessary checks because of the trust he has in his young quarterback.

But that responsibility can lead to mistakes if the right reads aren’t made or the right checks aren’t employed at the line of scrimmage.

“When the games get tighter, every play matters even more,” Day said. “The mistakes are still there, we talked about that in the meeting yesterday, the mistakes are still there. We can’t, for instance, have the interception in the red zone two games ago, or the play where we’re false starting, or the sack on third down.

“Those plays in a big game are going to show up even more.”

This match against TCU would qualify as a big game, and once the whistle blows, Day will be the one calling all the shots on the sideline. He has acquitted himself well thus far, but the national spotlight against a ranked opponent at a neutral site in Arlington, Texas, is a whole different challenge.

Day was already considered for head-coaching jobs in the past, including reportedly the Mississippi State position after last season. But if Day and the Buckeyes come out of his stint as interim head coach undefeated, making minimal mistakes with a well-balanced team, more of those opportunities could come knocking.

Once Meyer comes back and takes over his old post, he’ll finish out the season as head coach. But a win on Saturday will mean Day has made his mark on the season in an impactful way.

“If you don’t think it’s a big game, try losing it,” Day said. “They’re all big. You have to play hard every game, you have to be prepared, you have to do a great job. That’s just one of the things when you come to Ohio State, or you play at the highest level of college football, you gotta bring you’re A-game every week, and that’s not any different this week.”

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