Excited about this UNLV game?
It’s not Indiana, the season opener against a Big Ten opponent that has scared Ohio State in recent years.
It’s not Oklahoma, an obvious marquee matchup.
It’s not even Army, which had the appeal of being a service academy with a scheme that can give opponents fits.
This is Nevada-Las Vegas, a Mountain West Conference team with a mostly undistinguished history and that lost to Football Championship Subdivision Howard in its season opener before beating Idaho.
Let’s not kid ourselves. This is a game for starters to take care of business, show some improvement and get ready for the rest of the Big Ten schedule starting next week.
But for Buckeyes backups, this game could be huge. If you gave them truth serum, UNLV might be the game they’ve at least mentally circled on the calendar. When your team is a 40-point favorite, it’s impossible not to think this is your chance to strut your stuff.
“Yeah, back in the day, I did,” senior defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle said.
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His debut came in 2014 as a redshirt freshman against Kent State.
“It’s like something you can’t even imagine,” Sprinkle said. “It felt real good being in the Horseshoe for all those fans.”
Ohio State draws more for its spring game than most programs do for their real games. But it is different playing in a game that counts.
Sprinkle’s advice to those making their debut?
“There’s a lot of pressure but they’ve just got to go out there and play football,” he said. “They just have to be calm. It’s different than practice because of the pressure of everybody looking at you. You have to be calm and play your game.”
The Buckeyes have a plethora of highly touted young players who could see extended action against UNLV if the game goes the way oddsmakers expect. Coach Urban Meyer prefers not to redshirt players, though there are exceptions. Don’t expect freshman quarterback Tate Martell, a Las Vegas native, to debut against his hometown team.
But otherwise, this should be a chance for players to gain some valuable experience. On offense, freshmen linemen Josh Myers, Wyatt Davis and Thayer Munford could get a decent number of snaps. The same goes for wide receivers including Trevon Grimes.
On defense, defensive end Chase Young could play extensively, as could defensive lineman Haskell Garrett, another Las Vegas native. The same goes for cornerback Jeffrey Okudah and Amir Riep. Linebackers Baron Browning and Pete Werner should also be prepared to tighten their chinstraps.
“I feel like it’s a big opportunity for the guys who don’t necessarily play the big amount of snaps,” junior wide receiver Terry McLaurin. “It’s your first taste of playing in front of a big crowd. You’re just trying to execute what you do in practice.
“As a young guy, you kind of go through the motions a lot (in practice). But if you get these opportunities to play in a game, you have to take it as if you’re a starter and you’re vying for a spot. I feel our young guys really take to that and are anxious for the opportunity.”
The quarterbacks don’t need to be told that. Joe Burrow and Dwayne Haskins have been locked in a battle to be J.T. Barrett’s backup since the spring. Burrow fractured a bone in his passing hand during training camp but has now been deemed to be healthy. Will the 2016 backup get the first snaps if Barrett finishes his day early, or will redshirt freshman Haskins, who made a successful debut last week?
For any of that to happen, Ohio State’s starters will need to do their part. After the dispiriting loss to Oklahoma, the Buckeyes got a psychological boost from their 38-7 win over Army.
The Buckeyes have much work to do if they’re to return to the list of prime College Football Playoff contenders. The first priority, Meyer said, is to fix the pass defense, which Oklahoma pierced and Army barely tested.
The next is to see continued growth with the offense, particularly in the passing game. Ohio State was effective in stretching Army horizontally. Now the Buckeyes want to show they can throw deep, a problem that has caused a fair bit of discussion among the faithful.
If that happens, then Ohio State’s starters can pass the baton to their backups, who will be eager to run with it.
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