Ohio State impressive in football opener vs. Nebraska, but much work remains to be done

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Justin Fields was nearly flawless against Nebraska on Saturday, but other aspects of the Buckeyes' game will need to improve.

First games are seldom masterpieces.

Factor in a pandemic that forced the cancellation of spring practice and summer workouts and a delay in the season, and it wasn’t surprising that the Ohio State football team wasn’t flawless against Nebraska in its opener Saturday.

That the Buckeyes still rolled to a 52-17 win after some early adversity is a testament to their talent and resolve. But still, there were some deficiencies that need to be addressed if they want to reach their immense potential.

One phase of Ohio State’s game that was in midseason form was its passing game. That wasn’t a surprise. Justin Fields was a Heisman Trophy finalist last year in his first year on campus. He’s more comfortable with every aspect of the program, and it showed. He completed 20 of 21 passes, the best completion percentage ever for a Buckeye quarterback who threw at least 20 passes in a game.

Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave were the targets for most of that damage, and that duo is as good as any in the country. And how about that ridiculously acrobatic touchdown catch by freshman Jaxon Smith-Njigba in the fourth quarter?

As for the defense, it held Nebraska out of the end zone for the final 2½ quarters. Defensive tackle Haskell Garrett, whose season was in peril less than two months after he was shot in the face while trying to break up an altercation, was a force at a position of need for the Buckeyes.

Now for the stuff that’s going to have Ohio State coaches poring at video. The defense was abysmal at the start of the game. With missed tackles and poor angles, it resembled the 2018 defense.

Nebraska went down the field in only four plays on the game’s opening possession. The Cornhuskers chose a more methodical path in going 78 yards to tie the score at 14 in the second quarter.

“I think there are things that are concerning,” defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said. “I wouldn't disagree with that. I do. I do think it was a slow start. I think they're a good team. They're a good offense.”

But Coombs and coach Ryan Day were pleased with how the defense regrouped.

“Give credit to our defensive staff and players being able to adjust,” Day said. “By the end of the first half, and then in the second half, I thought they made really good adjustments and played really good football.”

On offense, the Buckeyes’ run game hardly sparkled. Running backs Master Teague III and Trey Sermon combined for only 20 yards on their first 10 carries and finished with 96 yards on 23 carries between them.

When Ohio State needed tough yards on the ground, it usually turned to Fields, who carried 15 times. That's not ideal for his long-term health, and he's the most -- perhaps only -- indispensable player on the team.

Day was reminded that Ohio State's run game got off to a slow start last year as well. J.K. Dobbins had a so-so 91 yards in 21 carries against overmatched Florida Atlantic last year before becoming the first Buckeye to gain 2,000 yards in a season.

“I remember that, too, against FAU,” Day said. “It was a little clunky, right? Nothing fit right. I think that happens sometimes when you're used to going against a certain front for months at a time and seeing the same looks and the same fronts. Nebraska brings a bunch of different stuff, and it was a little bit of a different fit.”

In the end, none of the hiccups seriously threatened the Buckeyes. They pulled away late in the first half and left no doubt by the end of the third quarter.

Next up is a trip to Penn State against a Nittany Lions team that was stunned by Indiana in overtime. The Buckeyes know they must learn from the issues they had against the Huskers. They also are confident they have the talent and the will to do so.

“That's what comes with the first game,” right guard Wyatt Davis said. “They were well-coached and had a great scheme for us. We just have to look at the film and adjust moving forward. Credit to them. They came out swinging and they got us a little bit. But we responded and swung back.”