Rob Oller | Buckeyes get bruised but not buried
COVID-19 holds most of the cards this season. Just ask Clemson, which was forced to fold when one of its players tested positive for the virus and Florida State’s medical people put up the stop sign. Game postponed.
In 2020 you just never know, which is why no one exhales until getting the green light before pregame warmups. Only then can a team breathe easy and show its hand.
Or, in the case of No. 3 Ohio State, show its hand and still not breathe easy. The Buckeyes laid down a full house in an empty stadium early against No. 9 Indiana on Saturday. Justin Fields to Garrett Wilson for 65 yards on the Buckeyes’ first play from scrimmage. Then Fields to Wilson for 10 yards and six points on the second play. Bang. Bang. Touchdown.
Pack your bags, Hoosiers. Collect your parting gift at the door and better luck next time. But then … Fields throws three interceptions — I did not make that up — and the Buckeyes’ dominance ebbs and flows until with five seconds remaining they are one Hail Michael Penix Jr. from going to overtime. Or worse.
Final: Ohio State 42-35. Indiana is for real. Or maybe Ohio State’s defense is not? Let’s say both. Luckily for the Buckeyes, Woody-ball turned up just in time.
Woody Hayes famously said three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad. Never mind that these Buckeyes usually do the third thing incredibly well.
Hey, the Old Man hailed from a different era, when the offensive playbook repeated the same line over and over, like Jack Torrance’s novel from “The Shining," except this repeat read “Three yards and a cloud of dust.” (Aside: I’ve always wondered why it wasn’t four yards instead of three, so the offense didn’t need to go for it on fourth down.)
But I digress. Woody would have loved Buckeyes tailback Master Teague. Two arms on the ball. Lower the shoulder. A locomotive looking for a penny on the tracks. Turns out Ryan Day loved him some Master on Saturday, too. Then again, the Ohio State coach appreciates anyone who can take the pressure off his first love — the passing game.
Day dreams in rainbows, arcing beauties formed by Fields to Wilson and Chris Olave. But he also knows the Buckeyes need a running game if they are to win a national championship, especially on days like Saturday when Fields was not striking the Heisman pose.
About that, in this shortened season the bronze trophy may have slipped from Fields’ grasp after his three interceptions spoiled an otherwise respectable performance, when he threw for 300 yards and two touchdowns. The junior entered with a chance to impress voters and separate from Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who lost a third game — the first two to COVID — when Florida State pulled the plug.
“I didn’t play well,” Fields said. “I made bad decisions but we got the (win) and that’s all that matters.”
Fields was due a bumpy game, but for those seeking silver linings his legs worked well against IU (78 yards rushing and a touchdown), which is significant given the need for a potent running game. The combination of Teague (career-best 169 yards on 26 attempts), Fields and Trey Sermon (60 yards) need to fairly approximate the 2019 production of J.K. Dobbins, who rushed for 2,000 yards. It was the first time since last Nov. 23 against Penn State that the Buckeyes had more yards rushing (307) than passing (300).
Teague is the most important runner of the three, a workhorse who needs to keep showing just enough thoroughbred to turn this offense into something consistently spectacular.
"One part of the game I do have is that capability of home run hitter," Teague said of his 41-yard touchdown run that made it 14-7 in the second quarter. "I just haven't been able to (show) it yet."
As for the defense, specifically pass defense, whoops. Clearly, the loss of safety Jordan Fuller to the NFL left a hole in need of more than a simple spackling job. And while the defensive line and linebackers are strong against the run — IU rushed for minus-1 yard — it lacks the dynamic pass rush of the Bosa brothers or a Chase Young. Ohio State allowed Penix to throw for 491 yards and five touchdowns. Keep an eye on this issue.
Overall, Ohio State showed running game want-to while avoiding a crushing loss. Now, how to keep dodging the virus?