Rob Oller | Nothing normal fits inside the 'Shoe
The first hint that things would be different on Saturday appeared in the dull gray sky. Or, rather, did not appear.
For decades, fans driving to Ohio State football games could look high above the horizon, to the single-engine Pipers and Cessnas pulling advertising banners that doubled as markers pinpointing Ohio Stadium.
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The planes once stood as beacons of Saturday normalcy. Now, with no crowd to solicit, normal had to reveal itself in different ways, such as Ohio State again winning its home opener.
The Buckeyes have not lost one of those since 1978, when freshman quarterback Art Schlichter conned Woody Hayes into starting him. Art threw five picks that day and OSU lost 19-0 to Penn State. Woody’s season, and career, ended even more ignobly some 16 weeks later.
Nebraska is no Penn State. Not anymore. The Buckeyes started slowly but pulled away to defeat the Cornhuskers 52-17 for their sixth consecutive win against a formerly elite program now best known for having the nicest fans in the nation.
Television does not adequately capture the bizarre atmosphere that took shape in and around the stadium. The piped-in crowd noise and music, including the obligatory White Stripes’ "Seven Nation Army," plus the virtual fans and tight camera shots sufficiently masked the emotional emptiness.
The tight spirals coming off Justin Fields’ fingertips against Nebraska looked pretty regardless of the viewing platform, as did the quarterback’s spin move to complete a 17-yard touchdown/Heisman promo. But Fields called it “weird” not having live fans to impress.
“I was looking up into the stands to celebrate but nobody was up there,” Fields said.
Ohio State coach Ryan Day also called it a “strange feeling” not hearing cheers after big plays, while defensive co-coordinator Kerry Coombs added that it’s less fun playing in a stadium that normally would be going “bananas” after Sevyn Banks’ 55-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
Everything beyond the 100-yard green rectangle felt surreal, too. Traffic? There wasn’t any. No complaints there. But no fans? They are kind of important to the pageantry of college football, or else Ohio Stadium would not need 105,000 tight spaces on which to sit. Saturday, the old building needed only 6,114 seats — 1,344 for player and coach families and media and games operation staff, and another 4,770 for the non-socially distanced fan cutouts that filled, for a fee, about one quarter of A-deck and South Stands.
Hand sanitizers stood sentry in empty concourses. A sign read “Men’s Restroom Disinfected,” an oxymoron if ever there was.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Outside the stadium, Buckeye Grove, a collection of buckeye trees honoring former Ohio State icons, might as well have been “I Am Legend,” so desolate were its surroundings. Tailgating? Banned, just like the band, which “performed” via tape that was streamed online and through stadium speakers.
There was, however, “tale-gating,” in stadium parking lots, where the few fans who milled about will someday be able to brag to their grandkids, “Let me tell you about the time Ohio State played a game and hardly anyone showed up.”
Two who did show were Ohio State freshman Mason Bell and sophomore Eva Rivera, both from Dover, Ohio. The students wandered outside the stadium gates like car crash victims not knowing what to do.
“I just wanted to experience game day on campus,” Bell said. “Just get what I can get out of it.”
What Bell got was a lot of red caution tape wrapped around fencing to keep fans from entering the dozen or more restricted zones that Mr. COVID demanded be set up.
As Bell and Rivera went on their way, a wise guy wearing an old Woody Hayes cap walked along with two fingers raised. “Anybody need two?” he quipped. Not even the cardboard cutouts fell for that one.
John Hoover, whose son Zach is an Ohio State fifth-year senior punter, appreciated being one of the 656 family members invited to watch in person.
“It will be fun (because) most of the focus will be on the field,” Hoover said.
The Buckeyes looked out of focus early before their talent took control in a game that represented a comeback of sorts. For a few weeks during the summer it appeared fall football would take a permanent seat on the sidelines. Then the Big Ten reversed course, banking that social distancing, masks and medical upgrades would be enough to keep COVID-19 at bay.
The virus is not to be trusted, and is not easily outmaneuvered, but at least for one day it was denied entry to the stadium. Or was it? Time will tell whether the tiny-spiked terror managed to create more mayhem.
Until then, Ohio State football will happen. It will not look or feel normal. But it is real, and that is better than nothing.