Skirmish over fake punt in Ohio State football win has roots in Greg Schiano's past

Few things happen in a vacuum.

There is usually history, context and circumstance.

For the most memorable play in Ohio State’s 49-10 victory over Rutgers on Saturday, there is plenty.

A fourth-quarter punt in a 39-point game should have been forgettable. But when Ohio State’s Jesse Mirco ran instead of kicked and got decked out of bounds, it sparked a scene that fortunately didn’t go beyond mild shoves and angry words.

The enduring image from Saturday will be of Buckeyes coach Ryan Day and Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano pointing fingers and yelling at each other before calm was restored.

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When the game ended, Day and Schiano spoke warmly at midfield, patting each other on the shoulders. In their postgame comments, both coaches said there were no hard feelings and professed mutual respect and admiration.

Rutgers coach Greg Schiano exchanges words with Ohio State coach Ryan Day late in Saturday's game.
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano exchanges words with Ohio State coach Ryan Day late in Saturday's game.

But again, there is history, context and circumstance.

Day and Schiano were on Urban Meyer’s OSU staff in 2017-18. Day, along with former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson, was hired to invigorate a stale Buckeye offense.

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Schiano was the defensive coordinator and Meyer’s longtime friend who’d done a masterful job building Rutgers’ down-and-out program as head coach before an ill-fated jump to the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In 2018, Ohio State suspended Meyer for training camp and the season’s first three games for his role in the Zach Smith saga. It was a surprise when athletic director Gene Smith tabbed Day, not Schiano or Wilson, as acting coach. After all, Day was only 39 and had never been a head coach.

Rutgers' Aron Cruickshank hits Ohio State punter Jesse Mirco out of bounds on a fake punt. Cruickshank was kicked out of the game for the penalty.
Rutgers' Aron Cruickshank hits Ohio State punter Jesse Mirco out of bounds on a fake punt. Cruickshank was kicked out of the game for the penalty.

If Schiano was disappointed, he didn’t show it. Then again, Ohio State didn’t make anyone on the team available for interviews throughout camp. After Ohio State defeated TCU in Day’s final game before Meyer returned, Day heaped praise on Schiano.

“What Greg Schiano has done for me in the last month is something I'll never forget,” Day said. “He is the classiest person I've ever been around in the coaching profession – the way he's handled himself, helping me along the way, counseling me on day-to-day stuff.”

But Ohio State’s defense regressed badly after star defensive end Nick Bosa was injured in the TCU game. When Meyer decided to step down and Day was named his successor, he did not retain Schiano.

When Schiano returned as Rutgers’ coach in 2020, he inherited a program at its nadir. The Scarlet Knights had gone 3-21 in their last two years under Chris Ash, another former OSU defensive coordinator.

Rutgers coach Greg Schiano exchanges words with Ohio State coach Ryan Day late in Saturday's game.
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano exchanges words with Ohio State coach Ryan Day late in Saturday's game.

Schiano’s rebuilding process, if it is ever to be successful, will take time. In the meantime, Schiano has had to find a way to compete against teams such as Ohio State.

He has tried by stressing tenacity and toughness while sprinkling in plenty of gimmick plays. Two years ago, Schiano threw the kitchen sink at the Buckeyes, including three onside kicks.

He tried another Saturday after Rutgers capitalized on an Ohio State turnover to go ahead 7-0, the first time the Scarlet Knights have ever led the Buckeyes.

It’s one thing to use trickery when the game’s outcome isn’t decided. It’s another when it is. Trailing 42-14 in the fourth quarter of that 2020 game, Rutgers scored on a punt return when the punt returner threw across the field to teammate Bo Melton, who ran 58 yards for a touchdown.

That’s not the only time Schiano pushed the envelope. When he was coaching Tampa Bay in 2012, Schiano caused a controversy when he ordered a blitz when the New York Giants attempted a kneel-down on the final play of a 41-34 victory. The Buccaneers knocked quarterback Eli Manning backward.

Schiano was unapologetic.

“Well, I know one unwritten rule: We gotta win,” Schiano told the NFL Network. “And if we still have a chance to win, we’re playing to win.”

Rutgers had no chance Saturday trailing 49-10 with under 10 minutes left. Ohio State had pulled its starters and was playing conservatively.

Yet on the punt, Rutgers put eight players at the line of scrimmage and overloaded the left side with five players where OSU had only two at the line.

Buckeye blockers successfully jammed the attempt to block the punt. Mirco, a rugby-style kicker, rolled out to his right and started the punt motion before noticing no Rutgers players near him. He took off running instead.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day says he has "an unbelievable amount of respect" for Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.
Ohio State coach Ryan Day says he has "an unbelievable amount of respect" for Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.

Mirco sprinted for a 22-yard gain before stepping out of bounds on the OSU sideline. Rutgers’ Aron Cruickshank then drilled him, with predictable results. Buckeye players surrounded Cruickshank and minor shoving followed.

Seeing his player surrounded on the Buckeye sideline, Schiano ran over to try to protect him. He and Day then exchanged angry words.

In his postgame press conference, Day confirmed that it wasn’t a designed fake punt. He said he would have a talk with Mirco, an Australian probably unaware of football’s unwritten rules.

But Schiano is aware of them. He chooses to not follow some of them. No grave offense there. It can provide some spice to a game, and Ohio State-Rutgers matchups can sure use that.

But it can come with consequences. Everyone involved should be thankful the dust-up didn’t devolve into something worse.

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Fake punt brouhaha in Ohio State game has roots in Greg Schiano's past