There is always a lot to learn from the first game of the season.
(Unless that first game is against an overmatched opponent and there’s somebody lurking in week two that you don’t want to show too much to.)
That may be the case here, which could help explain Ohio State bursting out to a 28-0 lead in the first quarter, to then just coast the rest of the way to their eventual 45-21 win over Florida Atlantic on Saturday.
Justin Fields made his debut as the Ryan Day Era officially got underway. The Buckeyes also broke out a new defense. There was a lot to see, and plenty to like. It was far from perfect, however, and concerns remain.
But what have we learned?
1. That talk about playing two tight ends instead of an H-back wasn’t just talk.
It’s hard to keep track of who is and isn’t in the game on every snap, but one thing was clear — the two tight end system was as prevalent as the coaches warned early in the spring. KJ Hill didn’t even start the game because they went with Jeremy Ruckert instead. It was effective in the passing game, and helped with some max protect on the touchdown pass to Chris Olave. When under center, it gives the Buckeyes another run blocker and makes both Ruckert and Luke Farrell tough matchups for linebackers.
2. Maybe Jaelen Gill isn’t quite ready.
Jaelen Gill played here and there behind KJ Hill, but there just weren’t as many snaps for the H-backs as there were last year. He only had one catch, and he didn’t get that until late. The conspiracy theorist in me says maybe they’re holding him back for Cincinnati, but the realist in me says he played, he just wasn’t targeted. It’s not fair to say he isn’t quite ready. A more realistic thought would simply be that there are a lot of guys to throw to and not everybody can get the ball. Heck, the two receivers who started the game — Binjimen Victor and Austin Mack — only caught two passes each.
3. Jashon Cornell looks faster than ever.
Jashon Cornell dropped some weight in order to play defensive end last year, but then added some to be able to handle the interior at defensive tackle this year. And then Jonathon Cooper went down, along with Tyreke Smith and Tyler Friday, and then Cornell had to go back outside to defensive end. And yet this was the most explosive I’ve ever seen him. He was in the backfield several times, coming away with two tackles for loss, a sack, and a forced fumble. If he does get a chance to move back inside this year, there are some guards who are going to have issues.
4. The secondary showed great discipline.
The best example of this secondary being smart and disciplined came on the jet sweep flea flicker. Damon Arnette points out the quarterback, then defends the intended receiver. Also back deep in double coverage was Jeff Okudah. Last year, who knows what this play would have done. This year, it was just an example of a defense prepared to handle the unorthodox.
The jet sweep flea flicker yesterday. On the play before, FAU ran a sweep the other way. On the flea flicker, Damon Arnette points out the QB at the bottom of the screen and both he and Jeff Okudah are covering the lone receiver deep. Great discipline and awareness. pic.twitter.com/xeByssvL43
— Tony Gerdeman (@TonyGerdeman) September 1, 2019
5. Demario McCall could add a lot as a returner.
Demario McCall had a 35-yard punt return and two 26-yard kickoff returns. His performance alone topped any return yardage games for the entire team last year, save for the Purdue game where the Buckeyes had enough kickoff returns to still only manage just 98 yards. It has been a while since Ohio State has had a punt returning threat or a kickoff returning threat. McCall could end up being both.
6. JK Dobbins is running tough again.
Ryan Day had to be pleased with a lot of what he saw from Dobbins, particularly the time he threw an Owl tackler to the ground before continuing his day. There was some tough sledding for Dobbins on the day, but he attacked it with the necessary aggression.
7. The offensive line has some work to do.
The Buckeyes averaged 4.9 yards per carry, and when you remove the 51-yard carry by Justin Fields, that number comes down to 4.0 yards per carry. That’s not nearly good enough in conference play. This needs fixed in a hurry. There was also quite a bit of pressure on quarterback Justin Fields. He took a couple of shots and had to escape a worse outcome a few times as well. Fields can help his line look better by making sure he’s making the right reads on the options, but they could help him by giving him more time in the pocket throughout the game.
8. This wasn’t even Neapolitan ice cream.
It wasn’t an entirely vanilla offense and defense on Saturday, but it wasn’t vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry either. There was plenty of newness — going under center, more two tight ends, Pete Werner dropping back as a safety at times, the Bullets and Sams together — but this was far from the entire package. There was no reason to show Cincinnati more than they had to. The Buckeyes will have a few extra things in their arsenal this coming weekend. And Justin Fields is just getting started as well.
9. The linebackers looked better.
I really liked what I saw from Malik Harrison and Pete Werner. Tuf Borland was active. The worst play of the day came in the fourth quarter when receiver Travis Harrison lined up in the slot and was possibly matched up with Teradja Mitchell, but Mitchell let him get behind him and then both he and Baron Browning had to make a mad dash to cover him. Browning almost got there, but didn’t. The play went for 38 yards. But other than that, this was a solid effort from a deep group, and it is clear that Browning is going to be a large part of this defense while he splits time with Tuf Borland. All four of the top linebackers had their moments on the day, which is exactly what you want.
10. There is still plenty of learning to be had.
Players and coaches walked away from this game stinging from the plays and points they left on the field, or in the defense’s case, the points that they allowed. That creates the kind of hunger that finds fixes and pushes them forward. They know they have to play an entire 60 minutes against Cincinnati, and Florida Atlantic helped them see that. For that reason alone, this game was a positive outcome.