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The Bottom Line | Offense earns high marks, but lack of crowd is a buzzkill

Ray Stein
Buckeye Xtra

Ohio State’s opener against Nebraska had the makings of an elaborate cake to celebrate the new season: The final product looked great and had a pleasing flavor. But there’s going be hell to pay because of the mess the Buckeyes left in the kitchen. Leaves are awarded on a zero-to-five basis, five being the best: 

Offense (4 leaves) 

The passing game was impeccable, the only incompletion among Justin Fields’ 21 throws being a product of a jarring hit on Chris Olave. Fields’ spectacular spin on a TD run was the highlight, until Jaxon Smith-Njigba went toe-tapping. Less-welcome sights were a running game that sputtered way more than it purred, and Fields taking too many hits in the pocket.

Defense (3 leaves) 

Ned Foley’s eyes aren’t real good, so maybe that wasn’t Trevor Lawrence he saw prancing through the OSU secondary. But quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey combining for 164 rushing yards conjured images of Clemson’s QB running wild and free. Trend watch? Otherwise, forcing two turnovers provided some cushion. 

Special teams (3 leaves) 

Specialists don’t get many opportunities on a team that so roundly eschews punts and field goals for first downs and touchdowns. Still, the kick coverage and punting were solid, and Garrett Wilson showed his danger potential on punt returns. The only negative was a fair-catch muff on a kickoff by Demario McCall, resulting in a drive starting at the 10-yard line. 

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Coaching (3 leaves) 

It would be hard to expect anything near perfection after this bizarre preseason of COVID in which getting to the starting line was only the first goal. To be sure, the Buckeyes rarely looked better than B-plus on a day that drew mental comparisons to 2018, especially with a defense leaky enough at times to warrant an Amazon delivery of Depends. 

Fun quotient (2 leaves) 

Without crowds, might a two-leaves grade may be as good as it gets in 2020? Maybe, but since only 1,300-plus witnessed it in person, the rest of us were left judge based on we saw on television. And that view may depend on one’s tolerance for Gush Johnson. The game offered a little drama and some spectacular plays but nary a heartbeat. 

Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba slides out of the end zone after catching a 5-yard touchdown pass from Justin Fields during the fourth quarter against Nebraska on Saturday.

Opponent (3 leaves) 

This is not your little brother’s Nebraska, the meek Herbie Husker who barely put up his dukes last year in Lincoln. This team is better, especially on defense. But these Cornhuskers remain light-years away from our fathers’ Nebraska of Devaney and Osborne. The passing game remains a project, but freshman McCaffrey is a solid building block. 

Officiating (2 leaves) 

High-pitched howling over weak targeting calls is nothing new for OSU, but this time the Huskers were parked at the wailing station. Nebraska had two DBs ejected, one on a mild, letter-of-the-law bump and the other on a hard hit that looked clean. The rule is a problem child. Officials also missed Fields’ knee touching turf before a hurry-up TD pass. 

rstein@dispatch.com