Buckeyes had some defensive leaks in first half and the running game was a no-show, but coach Ryan Day and his staff get A+ after all the uncertainty with COVID-19 and long wait to play.
Columbus – There was a 10-month layoff between games, spring ball was cancelled by COVID-19 and the players were teased that there would be a shortened season and then told there would be no football played at all by the Big Ten in 2020.
So what Ohio State did inside nearly empty Ohio Stadium on Saturday in its season opener was a bit of a David Copperfield act. Second-year coach Ryan Day did a hurry-up drill of a preseason and trotted them out to play against a Nebraska team that had a new look.
All the while coaches and players have had to live their lives knowing that one slip-up with regard not social distancing and masking up outside their nest could bring disaster in the form of multiple virus infections.
Final score: Buckeyes 52, Cornhuskers 17.
Yet poor Day was hit with questions about the leaky defense in the first half and a running game that largely was shockingly bad from the first quarter through the final whistle.
Those questions were legitimate because the Buckeyes were ranked No. 5 nationally in The Associated Press poll without having played a game. Day said way back when that this could have been a once-in-a-lifetime team. He used past-tense thinking there would be no ball played.
The national media heaped praise on Ohio State for the blowout. Stewart Mandel of The Athletic, which is as great a sports web site as one cane find in this country, said the team performed as expected.
To Day’s credit, he said he just wanted to go 1-0. He wanted to play a game and see what corrections needed to be made for the second game. He said he understood the expectations from a fan base that wants/expects a shot at the national championship almost every season.
But 52-17 going into a game at Penn State that will go a long way in deciding the East Division? That’s Ruth’s Chris steak.
Imagine what the mood is in “Happy Valley” today. The then-No.8 Nittany Lions outgained Indiana 488-211, but lost on one of the wackiest games that you will ever see 36-35 on a two-point conversion in overtime that probably should have been overturned by video replay.
This isn’t a normal season where coach James Franklin could point out that 11 games remained. The best of the SEC, ACC and Big 12 have been showing off their stuff for weeks by building resumes for those serving on the College Football Playoff committee.
Now, he goes up against an Ohio State team that has had his number, and there won’t be any home-field advantage other than the perpetual sound of the Lions screech inside an empty stadium.
Franklin saw Indiana win its first game over a top 10 team since 1987 by going 75 yards in seven plays in the final minutes and then getting a two-point conversion to force overtime, and then matching Penn State’s touchdown in overtime and boldly going for two.
In the next state over, Justin Fields was completing 20 of 21 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns and the defense gave up a measly field goal in the second half after some adjustments.
Lions quarterback Sean Clifford is the unquestioned leader of the team, especially for his grit, but he had a terrible afternoon in being intercepted twice and losing a fumble in the red zone.
The Buckeyes had all hands available, whereas Franklin lost star linebacker Micah Parsons when he opted out of the season to prepare for the NFL draft and lead running back Journey Brown to an undisclosed medical condition.
Today, Ohio State jumped to No. 3 in the AP poll. Penn State was dropped to 18th.
Penn State, like Ohio State, sets its sights on reaching for the College Football Playoff every season. Now, it must win its final eight regular season games and the Big Ten championship game to be even considered. They must broad jump over a small army of teams, and that includes non-Power 5 teams Cincinnati and Brigham Young.
Defeating the Buckeyes in a national television game on Saturday would prove that Indiana, which won eight games last season for the first time in 26 years, was a bit of a fluke. It’s a must-win situation.
You can be sure Day and his great staff are inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center devouring video on Penn State, going over video of the Nebraska game and telling the players not to make too much of that No. 3 ranking.
Athletic director Gene Smith has made some brilliant hires – Greg Beals in baseball, Chris Holtmann in men’s basketball and Steve Rohlik in hockey – but getting Day to sign a multi-year contract after Urban Meyer announced he was retiring a second time looks like sheer genius.
Remember that Day had NFL experience as an assistant, but he had never had the title of offensive coordinator to himself or been a head coach at any level.
Another man might have snapped at the media during a post-game Zoom call for picking apart his team after such a resounding victory. Day said he understood the line of questioning and gave thoughtful answers.
Let’s give the Buckeyes a lot of slack here. They scored six touchdowns after losing 2,003-yard tailback JK Dobbins a year early to the NFL draft. They also lost receivers KJ Hill, Austin Mack and Binjimen, but Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson combined for 13 catches for 233 yards and a touchdown the first time out as starters and freshman Jaxon Smith-Njigbe made a catch in the back of the end zone that was unearthly.
There’s no question that Master Teague and Trey Sermon were sketchy against Nebraska. Teague looked like a power fullback from Ohio State teams of long ago. Sermon kind of tip-toed around with the ball in not looking sure of himself.
Both are coming off serious leg injuries, Teague an Achilles’ just nine months ago and Sermon a knee that wiped out most of his 2019 season with Oklahoma. Their off-season training after the virus struck hard was limited to Zoom calls with coaches, weights delivered to their off-campus apartments and not much else.
Both players have portfolio.
Steele Chambers carried four times for 32 yards. He has some size, moves and speed that could get him into the rotation if there are more struggles against Penn State.
As for the offensive line giving up four sacks, one has to see that Fields gets much more time to throw in the pocket than quarterbacks anywhere else. To his credit, he waits a little longer for a receiver to shake free rather than bailing out and heading up the field on a run. The offense is so explosive that third-and-15 doesn’t look daunting.
Here is a really great statistic: Ohio State was 8-for-13 on third down and 2-for-2 on fourth down. The latter would have been 3-for-3 had there not been a motion penalty in the red zone.
The defense can’t be picked on, not after losing the Nos. 2 and 3 overall picks in the draft in Chase Young and Jeff Okudah, the No. 19 pick in Damon Arnette, a disrupter in Malik Harrison and a space eater in Robert Landers. Only Shaun Wade has returned to the secondary.
The brains behind this group, defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, should find a way to tighten things up. He already started that in the second half on Saturday. Nebraska got only a field goal the final two quarters.
Does this mean a victory at Penn State is a good bet? Let’s not go that far. Although Ohio State has had its way against that team whether it’s home or away, so many of those games have not been decided until the final minutes. They have been mini classics.
The Lions will come in desperate and angry, and they know this will be their last stand for even a shot at the conference championship after what Michigan and exciting new quarterback Joe Milton did against Minnesota.
But it’s sure better to be Ryan Day today than James Franklin.