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5 things learned from Ohio State’s season-opening win over Florida Atlantic

The Buckeyes had an explosive first quarter against FAU, but there’s still improvement to be done

NCAA Football: Florida Atlantic at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

We are now 1/12 of the way through the college football regular season, and folks, the Ohio State Buckeyes look good. Are they College Football Playoff good? That’s too early to say, but if the Bucks can duplicate their first quarter performance against Florida Atlantic in all of their games, then they just might be in good shape.

After rushing out to a 28-0 lead after 15 minutes of football, Ryan Day’s team took the proverbial foot off of the gas. Now, FAU was always a couple scores away from catching the Buckeyes, but when the dust finally settled, FAU was able to beat the spread. OSU was favored by 28, and the Owls walked out of Ohio Stadium losers by 24. If there was a moral victory for the Boca Raton program, I guess you could consider that to be one.

Even though both sides of the Buckeye juggernaut operated on autopilot for the final three quarters, we got a glimpse at what they could become. Some of the potential is good, while a couple things noticed could spiral into problems. Let’s take a look at five things learned from Ohio State’s 45-21 win to open the 2019 season.

Sky’s the limit for Fields

The debut for Justin Fields couldn’t have gone better, especially early. The opening four drives to begin his OSU tenure all ended in touchdowns. The very first, unlike the other three, ended with Fields rushing the ball through the heart of the FAU defense. A 51-yard option-keeper to the end zone created the momentum that would carry the Buckeyes for the remainder of the quarter.

When the day ended, Field was 18-of-25 through the air. He ripped the Owl defense for 234 passing yards and four touchdowns. On the ground, the Georgia transfer was the second leading rusher on the team, going for 61 yards on 12 carries. Overall, a good day for the QB.

The scheme has changed for the Bucks. The Ryan Day/Mike Yurich system is much different than Urban Meyer’s. One big change: Tight end Jeremy Ruckert already being utilized. The highly touted TE from the 2018 recruiting class finally got to show off his skills, catching two touchdowns en route to a four reception, 38-yard day inside Ohio Stadium. Now, one of those grabs went for 25 yards (a TD), but in short yardage passing plays expect Ruckert to be a real option. Play action rollout in the red zone? Don’t be too surprised if Fields is looking for his TE somewhere in the back of the end zone.

Fields didn’t target the core wide receivers K.J. Hill or Binjimen Victor often against FAU. In fact, Hill had three catches (on four targets) for 21 yards; and Victor had two catches (on two targets) for 65 yards. Granted, one of Victor’s snags was a 32-yard TD, and he could’ve gone 70 yards if he had the real estate. But the fact that both receivers had a combined five targets is something to look at.

Chris Olave lead the receiving efforts, pulling in five balls for 68 yards and a score. Olave was bursting onto the scene in the latter portion of last season, and is picking up right where he left off.

After the first quarter, Fields and rest of the offense wasn’t as sharp. There’s multiple explanations for this. The team may have gotten lax because, let’s face it, they were up 28 and were having zero trouble moving the ball. Combine that with it being the first game of the season and a team still learning, and you have a formula for a second half that looked far less impressive.

Fields took chances down the field, and has plenty more to develop. But, there is promise in what was displayed on the field against FAU. Against Cincinnati next week, we may see Ruckert and Olave be critical pieces in the receiving game again, but don’t be surprised if Victor is the deep ball threat against Luke Fickell’s defense.

Linebacker improvement

One of the big questions entering the season was whether or not the linebacking unit would be any better than they were in 2018. Through one quarter, it seemed that, yes, the LBs were looking like competent Division I LBs.

If you had to pick the overall best linebacker on OSU, right now, it’s Malik Harrison. The senior did a little bit of everyone on Saturday afternoon. He applied five tackles, had a couple for loss, and was credited for a sack.

He also had this hit, too.

Outside of Harrison, there are still some kinks to iron out. During the second half, FAU found some success in the middle of the field, specifically in the passing game. One pass in the fourth quarter from Chris Robison floated over the heads of Baron Browning and Teradja Mitchell, before landing in the hands of Tavaris Harrison.

Harrison then slipped the tackle of Browning, before cutting up field for a grand total of 38 yards. While that play happened in the fourth quarter — when the game was out of reach — it still highlights a well-known struggle of the OSU defense.

The Bucks played an incredibly strong first quarter, but fizzled the rest of the way. I like to believe that was just an outlier, but with the recent memories of LBs being burnt on passing situations, I tend to lean more toward the cynical than the optimistic.

Cincinnati will be a good data point to see whether or not the Buckeyes made noticeable strides in the LB game. The Bearcats didn’t set the world on fire against UCLA, so if they have moderate success next week in The ‘Shoe, then we know for sure that there is a lot more work to do for Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison’s defense.

Trouble in the trenches?

Ohio State picked up 469 yards of total offense. And it was nearly and even day on the ground and air; the Buckeyes had 237 passing yards and 232 rushing yards. The first quarter brought 220 of those total offensive yards, which, all things considered, is really good.

But there were times where the passing game couldn’t get developed, nor could the running backs find room to break free. Fields was sacked twice, and took some chances when the pocket began to collapse. On the ground, J.K. Dobbins rushed for a grand total of 91 yards and a touchdown. But, 45 of those yards came in the first quarter. Dobbins was contained for the rest of the game, only getting three carries in the final three quarters that went further than five yards.

Josh Myers got his first start in Ohio Stadium, and he’ll improve as the season goes on. Thayer Munford and Branden Bowen are the more veteran guys up front. Jonah Jackson and Wyatt Davis are the newer faces on the line, and like Myers, will improve as they get more reps together. However, time is not something the Buckeyes have in abundance. Next week is Cincinnati, and then they open their Big Ten slate at Indiana on the road. While Nebraska and Northwestern underwhelmed in Week 1, having to go play those teams on the road becomes a crapshoot midseason. Anything can happen when the Buckeyes have to go on the road to play a B1G West team.

If Dobbins gets contained, the Buckeye rushing attack will revolve around Fields. But even in Saturday’s showing against the Owls, Fields didn’t do much on the ground after the first quarter. In fact, Fields only had 33 yards rushing following the first touchdown. When you factor in the sacks and the fumble (on the screen), Fields ended with 61 yards on the ground.

Master Teague will be a bruising back for those tough, short yardage downs. Taking eight carries for 49 total net yards, Teague doesn’t need a lot of room to get going.

Flaws weren’t too obvious against FAU, but then again, FAU didn’t get going until the second quarter. By then, the game was already over. I’d like to believe that the line will get better next week versus UC, and will be able to spring Dobbins for a big, chunk rush.

The Law Firm of Hafley, Mattison and Associates

Ohio State’s defense was reduced to Swiss cheese at times in 2018. Chunk plays — especially in the air — were a constant, and you could always bank on one or two of them directly leading to a touchdown opportunity. While chunk plays will happen, the Buckeye defense on Saturday clamped down, allowing just four total chunk plays. None of the big plays happened in the first half, and three occurred in the fourth quarter.

I like what I see from Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison, the defensive coordinators for OSU this season. The defensive line, linebackers, and defensive backs seem to have a renewed sense of purpose when they chase down the ball carrier.

After the game, Ryan Day mentioned the toughness he saw from his linebackers Harrison and Pete Werner, as well as defensive back Jeffrey Okudah.

What I was looking for was guys running to the ball and hitting. I felt that. I was watching Pete Werner and Malik Harrison and Jeff Okudah come into the ball and you could feel the violence on the field. That’s what we want. We want that toughness.

Holding FAU to 228 total yards is a good baseline for Week 1. Pass defense could still use some work, but the front line did its job — and then some — against the rush. The Owls had 22 total rushing yards for the game. Chase Young is going to be a star (again) this season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Jashon Cornell and Robert Landers have solid seasons.

Okudah has breakout potential at cornerback, and Shaun Wade/Brendon White will continue to do work on pass defense. Just look at this example pass breakup from White:

It’ll be interesting to see what adjustments get made for next week’s game against Cincinnati.

McCall’s gonna house a punt/kick this season

Demario McCall was free on Saturday. But, he wasn’t too free. One or two more jukes, though, and he could’ve been gone for a touchdown on at least one of his four returns.

On punts, McCall had two returns for 40 yards; on kick returns, he had two returns for 52 yards. Averaging 20 yards per return is pretty good — and he’ll only get better.

Will McCall be Ted Ginn Jr. levels of great in the return game? Unlikely. But, against FAU McCall didn’t drop the ball, and didn’t give you that brief moment of terror that a fumble is about to occur on every touch. These quality returns we saw against FAU aren’t some sort of evanescent ability that will disappear into thin air next week against the Bearcats.

Although, McCall did come into the contest as a game-time decision, and after looking to tweak his leg in the second quarter, he played sparingly for the rest of the afternoon.

Despite his potential for injury, I think that McCall is going to bring a return back for a touchdown at some point this season. The only question is when.