College football is officially back, and with it this author's annual realization that football games take an excruciatingly long time to reach a conclusion. No other mainstream American sport can lay claim to this level of time-suck: basketball games mostly finish in a tidy two hours, ditto for the three Premier League games I manage to watch each summer before college football season starts. (Saying "THIS is the year I get into the Premier League in earnest" is another annual tradition.)
Even baseball, which can (despite and occasionally thanks to the rage of umpire Joe West) stretch into a 4-hour contest, is really a sort of passive experience. Baseball is best enjoyed on the radio while doing something else, even if that something else is lounging in a recliner dozing off and trying to make the feeling of summer last just a little bit longer.
But football, particularly college football, is a more demanding and immersive experience, a battle of wills that leaves one exhausted and half-drunk and wrung-out. It's the opportunity cost of getting involved in a sport that's so necessarily batshit crazy. But it's also a blessing: regardless of how lousy one's team appears in the first half, there still appears to be roughly eight years of game clock left in which to turn things around.
Such was the case for Ohio State on Thursday night. Let's take a look at how they turned things around in the last 30 minutes and steamrolled Indiana by the final whistle.
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J.K. Dobbins, RB: This is an easy call. Dobbins, the true freshman running back, was Ohio State's best player on either side of the ball on Thursday night. Called into a starting role thanks to Mike Weber's tweaked hamstring, Dobbins showed off speed, vision, and power in his college debut. It was a breathtaking performance—181 yards, breaking Maurice Clarett's single-game freshman rushing record, plus 24 more through the air—and heralds great things for the Buckeye ground game of the future.
Seriously, if Ohio State's backup is this good (and backup he'll likely remain, unless Weber's nagging injury persists or he comes out of the gate flat for a few straight games), the rest of the Big Ten is in trouble. The Buckeyes have been better on the ground than through the air for J.T. Barrett's entire tenure under center, and they should lean into it now that they have two of the conference's most explosive backs on the same roster.
Parris Campbell, H-back: After 30 minutes of game play, the notion that we'd be singing Campbell's praises would've sounded patently ridiculous. He dropped J.T. Barrett's best pass of the night while streaking into the end zone, as well as another gimme in position for a big gain.
But Campbell rewarded the coaches' choice to keep targeting him in a huge way in the second half, taking a short throw over the middle a full 74 yards to the house and showcasing a breakaway speed that Indiana just couldn't match. He finished the night with six catches for 136 yards; imagine what kind of numbers he might put up with a serviceable first half. Campbell could very well be one of the most exciting pieces on this Ohio State offense in 2017.
Tyquan Lewis, DE: Lewis hasn't historically gotten the shine that his compatriots on Ohio State's defense have, but that's going to change in a big way this season. The versatile defensive end moved into Ohio State's top 10 sack ranking by adding two more to his career total against Indiana, giving him 18.5 all time. Richard Lagow and his receivers looked damn near perfect for most of the first half, hitting back shoulder throws in traffic and making the Buckeye secondary look as young as it is, but even a talented QB can only brook so many shots to the chest before making a mistake.
Such is the beauty of Ohio State's d-line, whose unquestioned pace-setter is Lewis. They harassed Lagow all night and stifled every attempt at adding a running dimension to the Hoosier offense, loss sorely felt by Indiana once they got down in the second half. (Late in the game, the Hoosiers had accrued two total rushing yards. Two.)
Sam Hubbard, DE: Hubbard matched Lewis with three total tackles, including a sack of his own. He's as solid a contributor off the edge as the Buckeyes could hope to have, though honestly, it's hard to even name a standout performance on a defense that saw seven players combine for five sacks and nine tackles for loss. Safe to say the bruising brand of football the Buckeyes have built in the front seven will make the difference in a few games this year.
Kendall Sheffield, CB: The former 5-star recruit and member of the Alabama Crimson Tide showed up in a big way in his Buckeye debut. In an otherwise-shaky performance by the Ohio State secondary, Sheffield recorded seven total tackles and two pass breakups. One of those tipped the ball into the hands of Jordan Fuller for an interception during what looked like a surefire Hoosier scoring drive, the first real sign of life for the Buckeyes during a languid first half.
Antonio Williams, RB: Williams, who looked like he might get buried on the depth chart for the foreseeable future, instead made the most of his opportunity to shine on Thursday. He found the end zone twice for Ohio State on the ground, showcasing the balance of speed and power that made him such a prized recruit coming out of high school. Williams still might not get too many more chances to score this season, but the depth he provides at running back is a boon to the Buckeyes.
The Buckeye secondary: It's almost as though replacing an NFL-caliber secondary in back-to-back years can lead to some growing pains for the guys who replace them. The odds caught up with Richard Lagow and the Hoosiers eventually, but not before they lit up the Ohio State pass defense for 410 yards and three TDs. The Buckeye DBs had little answer for Simmie Cobbs Jr., easily one of the top wideouts in the conference, who racked up 149 yards on 11 catches and scored a touchdown by bullying Denzel Ward on a 50-50 ball in the end zone. This unit will get better, and fast, under the tutelage of Greg Schiano, but boy, it's hard not to think about what Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield might do through the air next weekend.
Sell: J.T. Barrett beyond 15 yards. It's J.T. Barrett's fifth year in Columbus, and at this point, we probably know who he is and isn't as a passer. He isn't the guy to eat up yards through the air by making crisp passes downfield, and that's probably okay, as long as the coaching staff doesn't try to force him into that box. (Even when he does hit the occasional beauty downfield, there's no guarantee it'll be caught, like the bread basket strike he landed on Parris Campbell for an incompletion in the 2nd quarter.
Buy: J.T. Barrett inside 15 yards. The great news is that there is a kind of passing that Barrett is plenty good at; namely, the kind that doesn't ask him to force throws downfield against talented secondaries. Urban Meyer's aggressive recruiting of skill players who can catch and run makes this offense a deadly one in space, and those plays paid dividends against Indiana. Barrett's 304 passing yards were massively inflated by the YAC of Johnnie Dixon and Parris Campbell on their respective touchdown catches, but who cares? It's what works, and it's a far better strategy for this personnel set than trying to hit guys in the hands in tight coverage 30 yards downfield.
Buy: Piesman Trophy-worthy plays. Free Robert Landers! Free Robert Landers! Free Robert Landers!
We don't care that they ruled it an incomplete pass. Here is a GIF of Robert Landers RUMBLING into the endzone pic.twitter.com/Xr6tvkzSeT— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) September 1, 2017