Ohio State was happy to get on the field in any fashion on Saturday, regardless of how the team would look after a one-week hiatus following a COVID-19 outbreak. The Buckeyes know they have to start putting together some quality wins to pass the eye-test with the College Football Playoff Committee, but with Ryan Day and a bunch of starters out against the Spartans, the team would be satisfied with a win any way they could get it.
Luckily for them, the Larry Johnson-led Buckeyes did not skip a beat, dominating Michigan State 52-12 in East Lansing. Justin Fields was locked in all afternoon, throwing for 199 yards and two touchdowns to go along with a career-high 104 yards rushing and two more scores on the ground. The defense looked much better than their last time out — albeit against a much less potent offense — holding the Spartans to just one TD. As they have been all season, the D was especially strong against the run, allowing under 100 yards rushing once again.
Next man up
Before things even kicked off on Saturday, we knew Ohio State would be in for an interesting afternoon. We had heard during the week that the Buckeyes would be a bit shorthanded as a result of positive COVID-19 cases and the residual contact tracing, however we did not know the full extent on who would be out come game time.
About an hour before things were scheduled to begin, we finally got to see the availability report. Ohio State is without three starting offensive linemen — Josh Myers, Thayer Munford, and Nicholas Petit-Frere — and OT Paris Johnson Jr. as well. On defense, the team is missing Tuf Borland, Tyler Friday and Josh Proctor. Obviously these are some massive losses, as the Buckeyes offensive line has paved the way for Justin Fields and company all season long, while Proctor has been perhaps the team’s best defensive back.
In addition, Ohio State already knew they would be without head coach Ryan Day, who is feeling well after his positive COVID-19 diagnosis but had to watch the game from home as a result of the Big Ten’s 10-day isolation rule for coaches. Larry Johnson stepped up in his place, as the defensive line coach who has been with the program since 2014 became the first ever Black head coach of the Buckeyes on Saturday.
It is important to note that we don't know which of the players actually tested positive, and which are just out for contact tracing measures. Those who tested positive will be eligible to return after 21 days — which, if that test came before the scheduled Illinois game, would bring them back for B1G champs week. Those out for contact tracing would be eligible to play next weekend against Michigan. OSU also said a few guys are just out to rehab injuries, so we really don't have much of an outlook on who will miss significant time.
An adventurous start
With three of the five starting offensive linemen out, we knew there would be some growing pains among the unit, but most probably didn’t expect it to come from one of the guys who was already a starter. Harry Miller has been the team’s starting left guard all season long, but with Myers out the sophomore shifted over to play his natural position at center.
On Ohio State’s first offensive drive, Justin Fields did not see a single clean snap as the team marched 80 yards down the field for a touchdown. Miller was chucking it high, left and right as luckily Fields was able to corral every snap and avoid any major disasters. They showed clips in pregame warmups of Miller snapping the ball over Fields’ head, and it was clear that the former five-star prospect was a little jacked up in his first start at center.
In the end, it didn’t wind up mattering all that much, as a smart mix of short passes and run plays allowed the Buckeyes to find the end zone right away. It’s probably a good thing Fields has played some infield in his day, allowing him to snag those fly balls out of the air. The run blocking didn’t miss a beat on the opening drive, allowing Fields and Master Teague to average five yards per carry on nine attempts to start the game.
Track and Field(s)
Ohio State has been hesitant to run Justin Fields much this season — and rightfully so. We all saw what happened last year when he got hurt in the game against Penn State. The knee injury, while he toughed it out, severely limited his running ability for the rest of the year. There is a good chance the Buckeyes win that game against Clemson if Fields is playing on two healthy legs. You have to avoid injury to your starting quarterback, especially when that guy is a future top-five NFL Draft pick.
That being said, Fields is at his best when he can extend plays with his legs. Against Indiana, is seemed like Fields was looking to run the ball as little as possible, still making some plays on the ground but also throwing some balls into coverage that he should have either thrown away or taken off with. On Saturday, it looked like the Ohio State coaching staff really opened up the play book for Fields, and the QB was running all over the Michigan State defense.
Albeit playing against a severely overmatched defense, Fields looked perhaps the most comfortable he has looked all season coming off what was his worst outing of the year against the Hoosiers. Even with a maligned offensive front blocking for him, Fields was making all the correct reads, firing passes exactly where they needed to be, and picking up big chunks in the ground game when the defense gave it to him. He even threw it away when there was nothing to work with, the coaching staff clearly getting in his ear about that.
HASKELL. GARRETT. TOUCHDOWN.
I don't know how Haskell Garrett’s story can get any crazier this year, but it has been one hell of a ride for the Ohio State defensive tackle. Breaking up a domestic dispute late at night some three months ago, Garrett was shot in the face through his cheek. He needed surgery on his face and dental implants, and his diet has consisted very few solid foods. It was unclear when, if ever, the senior would be able to return to the football field.
Fast forward to today, and Garrett has been one of the Buckeyes’ best defensive players all season long. Shockingly, he was ready to go from the team’s first game of the season, and he has shown out nearly every week since. Heading into today’s action, Garrett has registered two tackles for a loss and one sack, but against the Spartans he made his best play to date.
With Michigan State backed up in their own end zone, QB Rocky Lombardi tried to throw a pass over the middle, only for it to be batted into the air by Garrett. The DT tracked the ball in the air and managed to come down with his own tip for a 0-yard pick-six to put Ohio State up 28-0. Garrett has played brilliantly for this defense even with all the adversity life has thrown his way, and it was a great moment for the senior.
Big play Trey
It has been a loooooong year for Ohio State RB Trey Sermon. After transferring in from Oklahoma, the speedy back has had a tough time getting things going. Coming off an ACL injury and learning a new offense, it likely hasn’t been an easy process for Sermon this season, and the past few games it has looked as though Master Teague has taken over as the team’s true RB1 after the two split carries earlier in the year. However, on Saturday, Sermon put together his best performance as a Buckeye.
While both he and Teague played well against Sparty, Sermon had the biggest play of the day when he took an outside run 64 yards to the house for a touchdown. The huge score was a culmination of how Sermon looked all day, making some clean cuts and doing a much better job of finding the lane — something he had a problem with through the first few contests. Overall, he finished the afternoon with 10 carries for 112 yards and the long TD.
Avoiding the let down
The bane of Ohio State’s existence this season has been their defensive showing in the second half of games. We’ve seen it nearly every week thus far: the Buckeyes jump out to a big first half lead, then take their foot off the gas in the second and allow a ton of yards through the air to make the final score look closer than it actually was. This was no more true than two weeks ago, when OSU led Indiana 35-7 and nearly allowed the Hoosiers to tie the game on their final drive.
It looked as though we may have been heading down that path again on Saturday. Backup QB Payton Thorne, replacing an injured Lombardi, began his day a perfect 12-of-12 passing, including a long throw over the head of Marcus Williamson to set up a TD. However, outside the one blown coverage, Ohio State’s defense stood tall against the Spartans, allowing just that one touchdown and a field goal with the starting unit on the field.
It wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but it was certainly more encouraging moving forward. Especially without Tuf Borland and Josh Proctor — two guys who have been very productive this season — it was a much more acceptable showing for the Silver Bullets this time around. We got to see a lot more of Ronnie Hickman and a little bit of Lathan Ransom as well as the Buckeyes continue to search for more answers in the secondary. To his credit, Marcus Hooker played perhaps his best game of the year.
We even finally got to see the backups come out on offense, with freshman RB Miyan Williams having a few impressive runs and freshman QB CJ Stroud rushing for a 48-yard touchdown of his own! Overall, it was a great afternoon to be the Ohio State Buckeyes, all things considered.