Ohio State kicked off its 2023 season and immediately freaked out the vast majority of its fan base by struggling offensively against an Indiana team that most predict will struggle all season. The Buckeyes won, 23-3, but it was far from the sharpest performance.
While it’s silly to expect a sharp performance in an opening conference game on the road with a new quarterback and a mostly new offensive line, most of us expected it to look…well, a lot better than it did. The following is what stuck out to me from the season-opening win.
As a reminder, if you’re new here, in this column it’s my job to find the dark cloud around the silver lining. It’s often in jest, but… ok, maybe not this week.
Targeting Still One of Life’s Great Mysteries
The flag flew on just the second play of the game, as targeting was called on Davison Igbinosun. It was overturned after video review, as it should have been. However, later in the game, freshman Carnell Tate took forcible contact in the head from the crown of a defender’s helmet as a defenseless receiver.
No flag flew in the second quarter for that more obvious call, and the replay booth never buzzed down for the referee to take a look. While it’s admirable to try to legislate bad hits out of the game, it has never worked properly and continues to be infuriating.
Short-Yardage Offense Still Out of Order
The Buckeyes will have much more difficult opponents on the schedule than Indiana, who will require them to pick up one or two yards on third down. The Buckeyes were hardly up to the task against the Hoosiers on Saturday. On obvious running downs, the Buckeyes went with heavy packages, allowing Indiana to pack the box. Ohio State then continually failed to pick up run-blitzing linebackers. The Buckeyes converted once on seven third-and-short situations in the game, which is objectively terrible regardless of the opponent.
Aside from placekicking, the Buckeyes struggled on special teams at Indiana Saturday. Jayden Fielding did a good job, hitting all three field goal attempts and both of his extra points in replacing Noah Ruggles. However, the rest of the special teams units left a lot to be desired.
The punt team did Ohio State’s defense no favors. Jesse Mirco’s first punt traveled only 31 yards, and none of his four punts pinned Indiana inside its own 20. Mirco then bombed his punts well beyond his coverage, which helped Indiana’s Jaylin Lucas set up returns of 29 and 22 yards. Mirco was forced to make a touchdown-saving tackle on the first of those. He finally forced a fair catch in the fourth quarter on a mundane 41-yard effort.
Additionally, the kickoff coverage team allowed a 34-yard return by Lucas after the first Ohio State touchdown. It was not the best day for the OSU special teams.
While it wasn’t the worst outing, Kyle McCord didn’t instill confidence in the quarterback play in his first start of the season. He rarely went deep and was inaccurate on his one attempt to hit a play over the top (to Julian Fleming). He did manage a nice touchdown pass to Marvin Harrison Jr., however, the talented wideout had stepped on the sideline prior to making the catch, so it was called back.
McCord had two major errors in the game. The first was on a fourth down play. While many fans online bemoaned the play call — and it is rather odd to try to pick up a first down without any of Brian Hartline’s five-star receivers on the field — the truth is that the play would have worked if Chip Trayanum hadn’t been knocked down. And it still could have worked, but McCord opted to throw back across his body into the middle of the field.
Indiana picked off the pass, as is usually the case in those situations. Had McCord checked down to Miyan Williams, the Buckeyes likely would have picked up the needed yardage.
The second big mistake was completely misreading his block on a quarterback draw in the red zone. Trayanum had sealed his man to the left, leaving a gaping hole on the right for McCord to run through. Instead, McCord went on the same side of the block where his defender already was standing, making for an easy tackle.
There are always growing pains with every new quarterback, but McCord has been in the program long enough that those errors were unexpected and must immediately be corrected.
There were plenty of other annoying things in such an underwhelming performance, plus Indiana’s decision to slow the game down to a crawl, while celebrating merely being in the game with Ohio State for a while, was maddening to watch.
However, there were also plenty of positives. The defense played well overall, Denzel Burke looks like he’s regained his form, and Trayanum played well both as a tailback and a blocking back.
The Buckeyes have a lot to fix and Saturday’s opponent, Youngstown State, may not reveal whether reparations have been made. We go again in six days.