Ohio State football is finally back. Thank goodness.
Two months ago, that idea seemed completely outside the realm of possibility given the tumultuous state of our world. So beyond reality, in fact, that I coped by streaming on Twitch with an Ohio State football dynasty in NCAA Football 14 featuring the original 2020 schedule and updated rosters.
Broken football simulations aside, in a year that has seen as much turbulence as any in my lifetime, consistency is always welcome in any form it takes.
If you watched the Buckeyes’ 52-17 thumping of the Nebraska Cornhuskers this past weekend, you already know it doesn’t get much more consistent than what fans saw out of Justin Fields.
Still widely regarded as a Heisman Trophy candidate despite playing fewer games than most of the other frontrunners for the award, Fields’ path to college football’s greatest individual honor was always going to be via efficiency. Given he threw just one interception in all of 2019 prior to the College Football Playoff, a similar systematic season for Fields absolutely appeared on deck heading into 2020.
But a 95% completion rate on over 20 throws in the first Ohio State football game in nearly ten months? No one saw that coming.
However, such alarmingly efficient numbers do not come without A+ efforts from every sector of the offense, so for this week’s film session, lets take a look at how a full team effort led to Fields shining through the air on Saturday:
First Completion: Chris Olave for 14 Yards
Play action served a crucial role in establishing the air attack for Ohio State last season, and before the running backs could get even one tote on the ground in the opener, Ryan Day was already dialing up fakes. What made this formation particularly interesting was having Chris Olave operate out of the slot, given how much hype Garrett Wilson had coming to the season as the firm occupier of that receiving role.
Instead, Wilson lines up on the outside and streaks up the far sideline, while Olave runs a deep out route to the newly open space. One of the key elements to observe that sets the tone for much of the rest of this game is the way Olave performs a softer and curvier break than the sharp cuts receivers typically perform on these routes. This results in a less robotic and predictable execution, which allows the receiver locate the safest placement for the incoming ball
Given Fields does not have time to set his feet on the rollout, Olave finding the area with the highest likelihood for a successful catch is critical. As a result, Fields is able to put the ball nearly five yards away from the nearest defender, and Ohio State converts a first down on their very first play of the season.
Second Completion: Garrett Wilson for 24 Yards
There are two different components of this play that should leave Buckeye fans feeling very encouraged about the progression of the offense from 2019, but let’s start with the obvious one.
Garrett Wilson’s first catch of 2020 immediately demonstrates why he is going to be an absolute headache for opposing defenses out of the slot. Wilson navigates three different defenders in the zone defense on this play by skillfully giving a brief cut back inside to continue what appears to be a streak out of the slot.
Right as the final defender commits to covering over the top, he perfectly times planting his outside foot to sharply cut into a deep in route. With Jameson Williams already flying down the near sideline and Luke Farrell forcing the underneath defensive back to commit to a delayed release, this leaves the same sideline area from the previous completion wide open once again. Fields doesn’t provide the cleanest placement of the ball, but Wilson’s catch radius thankfully allows for some flexibility with respect to execution.
More intriguing for me, however, is the way Fields adjusts the protection and the pass blockers deliver. Not even three minutes into the season or into the opponent’s territory for the first time in 2020, Fields is already making telepathic pre-snap reads of the forthcoming coverage and pass rush.
Fields motions Farrell over to the right and calls out the blitz from Nebraska SAM linebacker. After Farrell executes a solid chip on the defender before breaking into his delay route, Nicholas Petit-Frere adjusts from providing assistance to Wyatt Davis to picking up the blitz coming off the edge.
On the other side, Thayer Munford correctly dedicated his primary attention to the WILL linebacker, and after identifying that the defender is dropping into coverage, he shifts his focus back to helping Harry Miller. Miller got beat on a swim move at the beginning of this play, so the communication and senses of responsibility from both sides of the line were critical to this play’s success.
For all of the success the offense had last season, pass blocking mishaps frequently resulted in more sacks than perhaps should have taken place. Though the Buckeyes still gave up four this past Saturday, there were still plenty of instances such as this one that demonstrate their ability to pick up the rush has improved from last year.
Third Completion: Garrett Wilson for 14 Yards
Another example of a softer break on a sharp angle route as well as another great instance of blitz pickup. In a critical fourth down situation early on in the game, Wilson runs an in route to the opposite direction of his previous catch, and he gives a nice series of stutter-steps before curving back into the middle of the field.
On both catches already, Wilson has showcased his impeccable sense of timing when it comes to forcing a defender to commit to a direction, then turning them around to get open for safe placement of a ball. Combined with a catch radius and certain hands, Wilson is going to wreak havoc over the middle all season line.
Elsewhere, pass protection again saves the day for the Buckeyes on this play. Fields brings Master Teague III back into the backfield to provide extra blocking for the forthcoming blitz, and even with two delayed pass rushers coming from Nebraska’s linebackers, Wyatt Davis does a great job picking up the blitz from the strong side while Teague squares up and meets his man well in front of the pocket.
Fourth Completion: Chris Olave for 16 Yards
Another soft break from Chris Olave towards the far sideline, as he begins curving his out route roughly five yards downfield before finishing the change of direction another six yards later. That angling allows Olave to get open without losing speed as he heads towards the sideline, again creating a safer area for Fields to deliver the ball.
Fifth Completion: Garrett Wilson for a 42-Yard Touchdown
One of the classic abilities of an NFL-caliber quarterback is the ability to look off a safety to set up big plays. The best examples are normally more exaggerated than what takes place here, but Nebraska’s safety in the middle of the field also somewhat set himself up for failure by creeping up prior to the snap.
With the safety’s body already drifting to a shallower position, Fields gives a quick glance towards Jeremy Ruckert’s crossing route over the middle, which leaves the back half of the middle of the field completely open. Garrett Wilson—to this point now consistently putting defenders in helpless positions out of nearly every break thanks to incredible footwork— performs a great stutter on the outside corner to get separation over the top.
Even on a play where the play action fake did absolutely nothing to fool any members of the defense, Fields’ execution is so sharp elsewhere that Nebraska already finds themselves completely overmatched when it comes to guarding against Ohio State’s offense.
Ninth Completion: Luke Farrell for five Yards
Nothing particularly special about this play, but hopefully as the season progresses, we’ll see a bit more involvement from the tight end room than what transpired in this game. Coming off a season where all four tight ends for Ohio State caught 25 combined passes, it wasn’t very encouraging to see this serve as the only catch of the game between Luke Farrell and Jeremy Ruckert.
Buckeye tight ends have gotten plenty of burn as blockers, decoys, and safety valves; but seldom to they get the spotlight or glory they probably deserve. That was again the case on this play, where all the Buckeye receivers run routes at least fifteen yards downfield while Farrell merely serves as a primary check-down on a buttonhook just shy of the sticks.
Farrell is a great all-around player for his position and Ruckert may be one of the most talented overall pass-catchers on the team. Fans can only hope as the season progresses and opposing defenses require more dynamic looks to find success against that the tight end room sees more involvement than it did last season.
10th Completion: Chris OIave for 29 Yards
More curvy route running from Chris Olave on what was arguably the best-schemed play of the day for Ohio State. With both tight ends serving as pass blockers on a play action disguised as an inside zone run, Olave is really the only player that has any chance to get open on this play. Garrett Wilson’s streak opens up the deep part of the left sideline, but the defensive back is playing too far off the ball pre-snap to get easily beat over the top, and Nebraska covers Trey Sermon’s route into the flat coming off the play action perfectly.
But Wilson’s previous success on the last touchdown forces the middle safety in cover 4 to turn away from Olave as the latter crosses the middle of the field. With both downfield defenders now focused on Wilson, Olave has a safe pocket in which to make an easy catch that puts the Buckeyes back in scoring range.
Roughly 30 yard completions against downfield zone coverage with one realistic target available are not easy to execute correctly against any defense. Fortunately, Ryan Day’s contextual play-calling skills appear sharp as ever in the infancy of Ohio State’s season.
12th Completion: Garrett Wilson for 11 Yards
More outstanding blitz pickup on both a stunt and disguised coverage from the Cornhuskers. Nebraska shows a five man rush before dropping both linebackers into coverage and sending the weak side defensive end on an inside rush, while also adding a near-side cornerback blitz for good measure. This is a pretzel of a pass rush on third down.
But Master Teague III shows why he’s probably going to get a few more snaps than Trey Sermon this season thanks to superior pass blocking skills. He completely takes the corner blitz out of the play by sealing off the edge, while Josh Myers does an excellent job of recognizing the inside stunt and picking up the defensive end right away.
The resulting protection gives Justin Fields plenty of time to find Garrett Wilson running a deep buttonhook in the middle of the field. A big part of Ohio State’s success on offense last year was their ability to convert third and long, and this was a crucial conversion in a two-minute drill scenario that helped set the Buckeyes up for points before the half.
14th Completion: Garrett Wilson for 16 Yards
Wilson has run streaks, outs, ins, posts, and buttonhooks already through two quarters. His infinitely-branching route tree continues to sprout here, as Ohio State simply runs a classic mesh concept that sees all four potential pass catchers perform crossing routes over the middle.
This is free cheese against a defense operating in man coverage, and Wilson’s footwork is so crisp that it doesn’t even appear he needs to run full speed to get open underneath. Farrell also does a good job of making sure he gets in the way of the defense without leaving himself in a position to make contact and get called for an OPI pick penalty.
Last Completion: Jaxon Smith-Njigba for a 5-Yard Touchdown
I’ll conclude with this, as no quarterback finishes a game with only one incompletion across 20+ throws without a bevy of talented receivers at their disposal. Jaxon Smith-Njigba is perhaps WR5 on this team’s depth chart, and teams that get this kind of talent from the lower rungs of their skill players simply don’t come around very often.
When a true freshman receiver makes what might go down as the most impressive catch of the team’s season in the first game, it speaks volumes about the talent the Buckeyes are brimming with at just about every skill position.
We may not see Justin Fields complete 95% of his passes in a game again in 2020, but if the season opener is any indication of what’s to come, fans could very well be in store for one of the most efficient passing attacks college football has ever seen.