Ohio State flashes potential in opener

Bill Rabinowitz,Joey Kaufman
Justin Fields threw four touchdowns and ran for another score in his Ohio State debut. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

Ohio State opened its season with a 45-21 victory over Florida Atlantic on Saturday in Ryan Day's first game since taking over for Urban Meyer as permanent coach.

Justin Fields threw for four touchdowns and ran for another in his debut, and the defense played superbly in the first half before fading a bit in the second.

As they will every week in Inside the Beat, Dispatch beat writers Joey Kaufman and Bill Rabinowitz analyze the game and its storylines and look ahead to the next one.

Kaufman: You can only learn so much from the FAU game. Day served as the acting head coach for the first three games last season. This is a stretch he has shown he can handle. Fields finished with a statistically impressive performance. This shouldn’t be overlooked. But several of his big throws capitalized on broken coverage by Florida Atlantic’s secondary, finding wide-open receivers. The Owls had a pretty undisciplined defense. But this is par for the course when you’re a four-touchdown favorite.

Rabinowitz: First games are usually about avoiding a disastrous upset while showing potential and discipline. The Buckeyes did that. They were flawless at the start to put the game away after barely eight minutes. Fields looked the part and the defense was suffocating. The Buckeyes also avoided the sloppiness they showed last year when they committed so many careless penalties. Ohio State has much to correct, as you'd expect after an opener, and they can't relax after taking a big lead. But all in all, a solid start.

Kaufman: As far as flashing potential, Fields did that, to be sure. Dwayne Haskins Jr. threw five touchdowns in last season’s opener against Oregon State, the most ever for a quarterback in his first start for Ohio State. Fields wasn’t far behind with four passing touchdowns and a 51-yard scoot into the end zone. He looked a lot more in command than the last time he was seen in the Horseshoe for the spring game in a 4-for-13 passing performance and kept poised Saturday. As many big plays as there were, he was efficient as well, completing 72 percent of his throws without an interception in 25 passes.

Rabinowitz: I thought Fields was more impressive as a passer than a runner. Yes, he showed his speed on the touchdown run, but that was through a gaping hole. From my press box view, he left some yards on the field on some scrambles and was occasionally indecisive. Again, not a surprise given his inexperience and the need to avoid risking injury. In terms of passing, he was generally accurate, even when throwing on the run. He started 9 for 11, and the two incompletions were catchable balls. The big question was this: Did he show enough that you could envision him being a championship quarterback eventually? Yes.

Kaufman: It was probably the biggest question entering the season. The Buckeyes are a serious College Football Playoff contender if Fields pans out, and he certainly gives Day plenty of talent to work with over the duration of the season. The other uncertainty was the defense, and the unit looked improved from last season when it allowed an OSU-record 25.5 points per game. FAU coach Lane Kiffin also thought so, noting, “They looked fresh. They looked fast. To me, they look a lot better than they did a year ago on defense.” Their best athletes, I thought, were often well-positioned.

Rabinowitz: Other than Fields, I thought the play of the defense was the most significant development. The Buckeyes swarmed to the ball, played disciplined — no pass interference calls! — and hit hard. Defensive end Chase Young was dominating as expected, but several other players jumped out. Cornerback Jeff Okudah made a couple of key plays. Linebackers Pete Werner and Malik Harrison made an impact. Baron Browning looked faster than a year ago. Defensive backs Jordan Fuller and Shaun Wade had quiet days, which is a good thing. They weren't needed to clean up after mistakes by teammates. But the backups need to raise their game, as the second half showed.

Kaufman: It was an impressive showing from the defense considering some of the depth at defensive line that had taken a hit. Jonathon Cooper, Tyreke Smith and Tyler Friday were all sidelined with injuries. Smith and Friday went through pregame warmups but never played. Cooper was in street clothes. Their status for the coming weeks is uncertain. But teammates managed well in their absence. Since we’ve touched on some of the more encouraging developments with Ohio State, is there anything you saw that should give the team some cause for concern?

Rabinowitz: The run game had a promising start, but then struggled. J.K. Dobbins averaged only 4.3 yards per carry, and I don't place most of the blame on him. Offensive linemen credited FAU for making adjustments, but every opponent is going to do that. Ohio State should have been able to impose its will as the game progressed. I'm sure Day wanted to keep things close to the vest and not show everything in the opener, but the run game was too vanilla. And as I pointed out, the backups on defense didn't distinguish themselves, though Josh Proctor's first (of many) interceptions was impressive.

Kaufman: With some of the play-calling that was seen after the 28-0 start, it was almost worth wondering if they were sandbagging a little and reticent to put much on film with a more formidable opponent in Cincinnati visiting in Week 2. I was left wondering how much that contributed to the ground game stalling. On another note, is anyone else concerned that Carrot Top, a Florida Atlantic alum and the first guest picker for The Dispatch, not only correctly picked the Owls against the spread but also got the final score exactly right? The three writers from this newspaper, including us, were all wrong in picking the Buckeyes to cover.

Rabinowitz: Props to Mr. Top. Funny thing is, I got the 45 right and you got the 21 right, so we half-wits were half-right. UC will be a much better test than FAU. Luke Fickell will have the Bearcats prepared and hyped. UC will be without its best defensive player, safety James Wiggins, who's out for the season with an injury. Even so, UC brings back a lot of experience from an 11-win team and beat an underwhelming UCLA team in the opener. Ought to be a fascinating game this week.



Listen to the BuckeyeXtra Football podcast: