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Ohio State is imperfect but rolls Nebraska in season opener

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

It had been 301 days since Ohio State last played a football game.

Sometimes, it showed in a 52-17 victory over visiting Nebraska in Saturday's belated season opener at Ohio Stadium.

Ohio State running back Master Teague III runs through Nebraska linebacker Collin Miller (31) and linebacker JoJo Domann (13) during the second quarter at Ohio Stadium. Teague ran for two touchdowns in the game.

No, this wasn't the juggernaut some Buckeyes fans might have envisioned when coach Ryan Day said in the spring that he might have a once-in-a-lifetime team.

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Ohio State's defense missed tackles and got gashed far more often than it did last season. The Buckeyes' running backs couldn't get untracked for most of the game.

But one part of Ohio State's game didn't look the least bit rusty, and that was more than enough. Justin Fields picked right up from last year when he was a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Fields completed 20 of 21 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns. His only incompletion came on a deep ball to Chris Olave that the receiver couldn't hold onto when he got hit in the end zone. Fields also ran for a 17-yard score.

"I think we played well for Week 1," Fields said. "Of course, there are things to work on. Tomorrow, we'll look at the film and find out what we have to get better 

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields runs against Nebraska during the first quarter Saturday at Ohio Stadium.

It was, as expected, a surreal opener. There were more cardboard cutouts — 4,770 according to Ohio State — than spectators, as only players' relatives were permitted to watch. A total of 1,344 people were inside the Horseshoe, the smallest “crowd” in the venerable stadium's 98-year history.

The OSU marching band played on the stadium scoreboard but wasn't in the stadium. Nor was Brutus Buckeye, about which Fox broadcaster Gus Johnson jokingly voiced outrage during a halftime visit to the press box.

"It was a strange feeling," coach Ryan Day said. "I can't sit here and say it wasn't different. It was. Guys are making huge plays and I felt like looking around saying, 'Did anyone see that?' It's usually 107,000 and fireworks going off."

But at least the Buckeyes played, something they had to fight for after the Big Ten initially canceled the fall season in August.

After all the waiting to play, the game's start brought back the bitter memories of how last year's season ended. Just as Clemson needed only four plays to go the length of the field for its game-winning touchdown in the College Football Playoff semifinals, Nebraska went 75 yards in the same number of snaps, including a 47-yard run by Luke McCaffrey, to take a 7-0 lead.

Ohio State answered with an 11-play touchdown drive that included a fourth-and-5 conversion to tie it and took the lead on a 42-yard pass from Fields to Garrett Wilson late in the first quarter.

But Nebraska answered with an 11-play, 78-yard drive to tie the score with 8:24 left before halftime. At that point, the Huskers had outgained the Buckeyes 181-171.

Ohio State regained the lead on a 34-yard field goal by Blake Haubeil after confusion on a fourth-and-1 play resulted in a penalty.

The Buckeyes' defense then forced a three-and-out to give the offense a chance to score again, and it capitalized. Master Teague III scored on a 6-yard carry for his second touchdown to make it 24-14.

Ohio State took the second-half kickoff and drove 75 yards for a score, the last 17 on a run by Fields that included a nifty spin move, and the rout was on. If there was any doubt about that, it ended when cornerback Sevyn Banks recovered a fumble by quarterback Adrian Martinez and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown to make it 38-17.

Field's second touchdown pass came on an acrobatic catch by freshman Jaxon Smith-Njigba in which he contorted his body to get a foot inbounds in the back of the end zone.

The Buckeyes' defense yielded only a field goal in the second half.

"Give credit to our defensive staff and players for being able to adjust," Day said. "By the end of the first half, I thought they made adjustments and played good football.

"If someone had said you'd hold them to 17 points, I'd sign on the dotted line. Overall, they did a really good job and I'm proud of the way they played."

It might not have always been pretty, but Day isn't all that interested in style points.

"The No. 1 goal is to go 1-0, and that's the tricky thing here at Ohio State. The best thing we can do is apologize for how we win. To beat a Big Ten team like Nebraska 52-17, that's a pretty impressive day."

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch