In his debut as Ohio State’s starting quarterback on Saturday, Justin Fields pieced together plenty of highlights.

He threw four touchdown passes and finished his first series under center by running 51 yards for a score.

But Coach Ryan Day presented another sequence as his favorite. It was far less flashy.

Day liked a pass that Fields nearly threw into the first row of the stands at Ohio Stadium.

Late in the second quarter of the Buckeyes’ 45-21 win over Florida Atlantic, Fields escaped a pair of charging defensive linemen, settled outside the pocket and without an open receiver opted to get rid of the ball.

The incompletion prompted a punt, but Day had no issue conceding possession of the ball. The Buckeyes held a 28-0 lead, and a turnover could have put the opposing offense in favorable position near midfield. OSU didn’t need to gamble.

“He's understanding what it means,” Day said. “It's very hard for somebody who hasn't played a lot of football to understand that that play right there is just as important as the play you make, because if you try to throw the ball in traffic and turn the ball over, it's a disaster.”

Not only did the sophomore quarterback total five touchdowns against Florida Atlantic, but he finished without a turnover.

“The big plays will come,” Day added, “but you have to manage the bad plays and don't make bad situations worse.”

Since transferring from Georgia earlier this year, Fields has heard the refrain often from Day.

“He really emphasizes just playing smart and taking care of the ball,” Fields said. “So I'll have a crazy touchdown in practice, then he'll tell me after practice is done, 'My favorite play is when you threw the ball away.' ... He likes it when I play smart and make smart decisions.”

Much of the focus around Fields involves his decision-making.

Day applauded that Fields was careful with the ball in the opener because he “didn't try to do stuff that wasn't there,” but the coach hopes that his quarterback might improve in other areas in the following weeks, including reading defenses, going through progressions and making adjustments before the snap.

“The more experience he has, the better he's going to be,” Day said.

Part of Fields’ development involves making smart decisions as a runner and avoiding serious hits. He is learning to slide to avoid contact, something he did not do in high school or during his freshman season at Georgia.

“It's kind of new to me, but I try to think of the situation before the play,” Fields said. “If I get the first down, and it's third down, I try to get out, something like that. You have to go through the situation in your head, just know when it's smart to get down versus when you have to take a hit.”

On Sunday, Fields, who ran 12 times, said he felt “crazy sore.”

Backup-QB competition

For mop-up duty late in the fourth quarter against Florida Atlantic, Chris Chugunov replaced Fields at quarterback.

That was not, however, reflective of the depth chart.

“We don't have a backup,” Day said. “We decided to put Chris in the game at the end, and he's had a good camp.”

Day added that Chugunov will continue to compete with Gunnar Hoak in practices for the backup role. They are the only two other scholarship quarterbacks on the roster.

Ohio State had co-listed Hoak and Chugunov at No. 2 on the depth chart for Week 1.

Hoak, who arrived earlier this summer as a graduate transfer from Kentucky with two seasons of eligibility, has been forced to pick up the offense quickly. He has practiced with the Buckeyes only since preseason camp.

Day has previously said that he wanted to allow Hoak the chance to further acclimate to the new system.

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman