Did a botched fake punt change game for Ohio State against Michigan?




Perhaps none of Ryan Day's game management from Ohio State's second straight loss to Michigan has drawn more scrutiny than a situation that occurred midway through the third quarter.

While the Buckeyes were facing a fourth-and-5 at the Wolverines' 43-yard line, trailing by four points, Day chose against letting the offense stay on the field to attempt to pick up a first down.

The decision seemed to miff quarterback C.J. Stroud at first as he looked toward the sideline and waved off the punt team. They already recovered from 25 yards of penalties at the start of their drive. What were a few more?

"I wanted to go for it really bad," Stroud said following the game. "I'm still one of the best players in the country, and I feel like I can make that play. In those type of moments, I want the ball. But I have to trust Coach Day, and I do."

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At a second glance, it appears as if the Buckeyes were, in fact, going for it, though with a bit of trickeration.

After being flagged for a snap infraction on the first punt attempt, the unit lined up on fourth-and-10 at Michigan's 48-yard line with three upbacks positioned behind the line of scrimmage. In left to right order in front of punter Jesse Mirco were linebacker Tommy Eichenberg, fullback Mitch Rossi and tight end Cade Stover.

The ball looks designed to be hiked to Rossi, who moves toward his left as if to follow a block by Eichenberg and seize on plenty of open turf. On the right side, Stover lets in three of Michigan players from punt coverage to rush Mirco, leaving fewer Wolverines downfield.

None of them are protecting Mirco, who caught a high snap and got off a punt that was nearly blocked. It resulted in a touchback.

Had the ball gone to Rossi, he likely would have picked up a first down with enough of an opening toward the left side of the ball and put Ohio State in a position to retake the lead, moving deeper within Michigan's territory.

Momentum might have shifted back in the Buckeyes' direction.

Instead, it'll remain as another missed opportunity from Saturday. Once the Wolverines took possession, they went on their longest scoring drive of the game that continued into the early portion of the fourth quarter, spanning 80 yards over nearly eight minutes. A 3-yard touchdown run by quarterback J.J. McCarthy to cap the series gave them a 31-20 lead.

Nov 26, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes punter Jesse Mirco (29) gets off a punt over wide open tight end Mitch Rossi (34) during the second half of the NCAA football game against the Michigan Wolverines at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State lost 45-23. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch
Nov 26, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes punter Jesse Mirco (29) gets off a punt over wide open tight end Mitch Rossi (34) during the second half of the NCAA football game against the Michigan Wolverines at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State lost 45-23. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch  

Day addressed the decision after the game and said a punt was called as if to give the Buckeyes better field position. He referred to it as the right thing to do.

"In games like that, you have to play the field position game," Day said.

He did not mention if it was instead scripted as a fake punt.

A day later, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said the Wolverines were fortunate the fake punt never went off.

Speaking on a Big Ten championship game coaches webinar, he said they got "so lucky."

"Nobody on the field saw it, and they had us cold," Harbaugh said. "I think their snapper snapped to the wrong guy, snapped it to the punter instead of to the faker, but it would have been a huge gain. We got extremely lucky. They actually were going for it and would have pulled off a big fourth-down conversion."

Joey Kaufman covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at jkaufman@dispatch.com or on Twitter @joeyrkaufman.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Did botched fake punt change game for Ohio State against Michigan?

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