'It felt almost normal out there.' Day revels in fans' return for Ohio State spring game
Spring games should be sponsored by Morton's Salt. Anything that happens in them should always be taken with much more than a grain of that substance.
Ohio State's glorified scrimmage on Saturday was no different, though in some ways it was more significant than most spring games.
First, it was meaningful that the Buckeyes had one at all after last year's was canceled because of the pandemic. Ohio State played last season without spectators other than family members. On Saturday, 19,180 fans were allowed to attend.
“I think the most exciting part was getting back in the stadium and seeing the Best Damn Band In The Land and having some fans around,” coach Ryan Day said. “It felt almost normal out there. I want to thank the band for being out there. It made it feel like we're back in the Shoe again with a full crowd. I know we're used to usually about 85,000 for a spring game. But even 20 (thousand) was nice.”
For the record, Team Brutus defeated Team Buckeye 28-13, which matters not at all. The three quarterbacks competing to succeed Justin Fields — C.J. Stroud, Kyle McCord and Jack Miller — took snaps for both the Brutus and Buckeye squads.
Stroud and McCord each threw two touchdown passes. Stroud, a redshirt freshman, completed 16 of 22 passes for 185 yards. McCord, an early-enrollee freshman, was 12 for 17 for 184 yards. Redshirt freshman Jack Miller was 17 of 30 for 128 yards with an interception by cornerback Ryan Watts at the end of the opening drive.
Day has been careful not to anoint a front-runner throughout the spring. Nothing changed after Saturday.
“Pretty similar to what this whole spring has been — some good, some not-so-good,” Day said. “A lot of learning opportunities there. We tried to get a little bit of the 2-minute and red-zone stuff going into the half. The more these guys can prepare and work in the film room and just grind in the meeting rooms, the better they're going to prepare and be ready for those moments.
“They've learned a lot. But now the race is on over the next few months to figure out who can make the next stride so that they're further along. The spring has been good. There's been a lot of progress made across the board but still a long way to go before we play against Minnesota.”
With Day deciding to limit hitting to “thuds” instead of full tackling, the run game was rendered irrelevant. That put the onus on the passing game. Whoever the starting quarterback proves to be, it was abundantly clear he will have plenty of talented targets. Chris Olave jumped over newly converted cornerback Demario McCall for a dazzling 40-yard reception on Stroud's first drive. Garrett Wilson made a catch in double coverage on a 55-yard completion from McCord.
Marvin Harrison Jr., a high school teammate of McCord's, caught seven passes for 49 yards, including a slant from Stroud for the game's first touchdown. Fellow freshman Emeka Egbuka was consistently open and had 123 receiving yards in seven catches. Sophomore Jaxon Smith-Njigba, expected to become the slot receiver as Wilson moves outside, had a touchdown catch from McCord among his five catches for 50 yards.
Spring games are littered with gaudy statistical performances from players who disappear in the fall. That's unlikely to be the case with this group of receivers.
The flip side about them getting consistently open is that raises questions about the pass defense, which was a glaring weakness last year. The Buckeyes have been without projected starting cornerbacks Sevyn Banks and Cameron Brown this spring as they rehab from injuries. The team was also thin at linebacker Saturday, and it showed at times.
Defensive end Zach Harrison vowed that the pass defense will be improved in the fall.
“I feel we're a more experienced team than we were last year,” the junior said. “Last year we gave up a lot of yards. That's just the reality of it. We didn't play the greatest on defense.
“Coming into this spring, defensively, we took it personally. The D-line knows we have to get pressure on the quarterback. The DBs know they've got to give us that extra second to get home. Same with the linebackers, tied in either way (in coverage or the pass rush).”
There was one unquestioned defensive star on Saturday. Freshman defensive end Jack Sawyer, the five-star Pickerington North product, had three sacks and a forced fumble. He didn't look like a guy who didn't play his senior season after having a knee injury.
“What you saw today was pretty much almost every practice out there,” Day said.
Freshman Sawyer stars on defense.