But Day sees value in having something tangible to take home from an unusual season.
That is one of five things to know about the game set for noon Saturday in Indianapolis:
1. Day wants to make sure the Buckeyes have something to show for this season — starting with a Big Ten championship trophy.
The Buckeyes — like teams across the country — have endured numerous changes in their daily lives since June when they returned to campus to begin workouts. In an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19, they have had to strip their lives down to the bare essentials and in many cases avoided seeing even their families for months in hopes of being able to play a season.
“It’s amazing to see what they’ve all been through, but they’ve had to grow up fast,” Day said. “It’s like anything else — when you go through difficult times when you’re young you have to grow up fast, and we’ve all heard those stories and I think that’s what’s happening with this group, and they become very, very mature. And I think that’s really neat,
“They know exactly what they want. They know that this year hasn’t been the same. I think that once we hopefully get COVID in the rearview mirror, (our mindset will) go back to maybe it was last year, but in the meantime, we’re just going to keep moving along and try to win this championship because I want to make sure we have something to show for all the sacrifice that’s that’s gone on over the last few months because it’s been amazing to me.”
2. Day acknowledged he doesn’t know as much about his team as he typically would in December.
The 5-0 Buckeyes have played less than half as many games as they had when preparing for this game the three previous years.
“We’ve only had half a season, but I feel strong about our team,” Day said. “I think we’ve been through a lot. Even though we haven’t played as many games, we’ve been through more as a team and learned more about our team during this whole fall. And there’s nothing more rewarding as a coach than to see your team overcome adversity and get stronger and get harder and get tougher as the season’s gone on and I think we’ve done that. So that’s really positive going into the game and we’ll just keep growing.”
3. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald credits Day and Ohio State team doctor Jim Borchers with making this season a reality.
The Big Ten season was postponed in August, but Day was among the vocal advocates for playing this fall as Borchers chaired a committee that investigated how that could be done in a way conference leadership judged to be safe.
Now Day’s team is facing off against Northwestern for the second time in three seasons with the Big Ten title on the line.
“I’ve always respected Ryan incredibly well, at the utmost level, and to see what he did all summer long was awesome,” Fitzgerald said. “We were all as coaches trying to assist in the Big Ten in every way that we could, and Ryan I just think was relentless. He was in constant communication.
“I just appreciate, respect and applaud Ryan for his relentless effort. That’s not to shortchange what all the other coaches did too, but I think he knew the value of the Ohio State head football coach being relentless, and I think a lot of the credit for us getting going was a lot on him and Dr. Borchers and all the folks there at Ohio State.”
4. Both coaches expect a different experience when the game begins.
Typically Lucas Oil Stadium is packed with fans who have had all day to prepare for a prime-time kickoff, creating an atmosphere that has impressed both coaches.
That won’t be the case this year as there will be no fans in the stands and the game will begin at noon.
As a result, the Buckeyes moved their practices to noon this week to try to get a head start on experience just how different the whole day will be.
“When you walk into that stadium and you take that bus over to Lucas Oil, that’s usually one of the more electric environments year in and year out,” Day said. “For the older guys, to go through that process of what that’s like and coming out of the locker room and playing in that championship game, you could feel it when you’re in that building, so we’re going to try to replicate that (energy) the best we can, knowing that it will be different.”
5. Who will be available remains to be seen.
For the second time this season, Ohio State opted not to publish an availability report on the Friday before a game.
That practice began last season when Day took over as permanent head coach, but it is a dicier proposition with daily COVID-19 testing potentially sidelining players who were otherwise thought to be healthy all week.
An availability report was published on Friday before the first four games this season but not until about two hours before the Buckeyes’ last game, a win at Michigan State two weeks ago that took place with more than 20 players sidelined either because of a positive test, contact tracing or injury.
Day hopes some his second-teamers gained valuable experience two weeks ago as the Buckeyes blew out the Spartans despite missing multiple starters on the offensive line.
“Now we’re in a championship season, and when they have their opportunity to get in there they’re gonna have to play well,” Day said. “But when you get when you get into moments like this when you’re playing for championships, your veteran and good players have to play well. It’s really, really important. Anytime that you win a championship, your good players and your great players have to play that way. And that’s what’s critically important going into this game.”