Ohio State had the opportunity to give its backups extended playing time for the first time this season on Saturday against UNLV.
The Buckeyes didn’t need to play their starters for long in Saturday’s game. Five of Ohio State’s first six offensive possessions ended with J.T. Barrett throwing a touchdown. The Buckeyes defense held UNLV scoreless on its first six offensive possessions, including one that it ended with a safety. All of that gave Ohio State a 37-0 lead just 21 minutes into the game, all but securing a Buckeyes victory in a game they ultimately won 54-21.
That allowed Ohio State to turn to its bench – including backup quarterback Dwayne Haskins – before the first half was even over.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was pleased that the Buckeyes finally had the fast start they needed in order to get more players significant playing time.
"Got some young players the necessity to play in front of 110,000 people," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said after the game. "I take a lot of positives out of it as you get ready for conference play."
Haskins, whose first opportunity at extended playing time had been long awaited by Buckeyes fans, entered the game for Ohio State’s final possession of the first half – with many first-team Buckeyes, including four starting offensive linemen, still in the game – and started off strong. He led the Buckeyes on a seven-play, 75-yard drive, accentuated by a 28-yard deep ball touchdown to wide receiver C.J. Saunders – the first touchdown for each in their Buckeyes careers.
"It was pretty special," Haskins said about throwing his first touchdown. "I didn’t even know it was a touchdown until after it happened. I just threw it because it was a read … but once we scored, and I got back to the sideline and realized it was a touchdown, it was a pretty special moment."
The second half, which Haskins played alongside mostly other backups, was more uneven. The redshirt freshman quarterback completed 15 of 23 passing attempts for 228 yards and two touchdowns for the game as a whole – and would have had a third touchdown if not for a Rashod Berry touchdown just before the goal line – but also threw a touchdown for the other team when UNLV defensive back Javin White intercepted Haskins and returned it 65 yards for a pick-six.
Meyer said the pick-six was "inexcusable" but otherwise, he thought Haskins "played pretty good."
"Obviously (Haskins is) a young player, a freshman," Meyer said. "And they’ve got to go through that."
Haskins, who played the first series of his career on Ohio State's final possession against Army last Saturday, said it was "a lot of fun" to get to play substantial snaps with the second-team offense this Saturday, just like the Buckeyes do in practice.
"I definitely feel I got a couple good snaps now under my belt," Haskins said.
Among the other backups who saw extended playing time on Saturday, Saunders and Berry were among the stars of the show.
Saunders, a walk-on from nearby Dublin Coffman High School who made the first catch of his Ohio State career just last week, caught a team-high six passes for 102 yards.
"Wish we could do something to get him a little stronger and more strength, because he’s a really good player, just not very big," Meyer said of the 5-foot-10, 176-pound Saunders, who he said he could increased playing time if he adds strength and becomes a better blocker.
Saunders described scoring his first touchdown as an "unreal" moment.
"The roar was incredible," Saunders said. "It hasn't really sunk in yet. I haven't been able to really look at my phone, but I saw a lot of text messages, so I'm extremely excited."
Berry had three receptions for 57 yards, including the one he fumbled on but also a 38-yard reception on which he did have a touchdown after running through multiple tacklers.
"A very talented guy that is coming and coming," Meyer said of Berry, who moved to tight end from defensive end before the season. "You see the talent. He runs through people, but then he lead it on the ground one time going in. So a very talented guy. I love his attitude right now."
Berry, whose touchdown was also the first of his Ohio State career, said that moment made him "speechless."
"I just was determined to get to the end zone," Berry said.
Sophomore running back Antonio Williams had 11 carries for 58 yards and was the second running back on the field Saturday, as Mike Weber did not play while continuing to recover from a hamstring injury. Sophomore running back/H-back Demario McCall saw his first extended playing time of the season as he caught a 16-yard pass, returned two kickoffs for 29 yards and returned a punt for seven yards.
On the defensive side of the ball, backups who took advantage of their time to shine included freshman defensive end Chase Young, sophomore linebacker Malik Harrison and freshman safety Isaiah Pryor. Harrison saw playing time with the first-team nickel defense as well as the second-team base defense and tied for the team lead with five total tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss and an assisted sack. Pryor and Young each had four total tackles, including a sack for Pryor and an assisted tackle for loss for Young.
In a game that might well have been a look at which freshmen will or won't redshirt, a number of Buckeyes made their playing debuts, including wide receiver Jaylen Harris, linebacker Pete Werner and cornerback Marcus Williamson.
Joe Burrow made his season debut on the Buckeyes’ final offensive possession of the game, on which he completed all four of his passing attempts for 37 yards. While Haskins was the second quarterback on the field and saw much more playing time than Burrow in Saturday’s game, that doesn’t necessarily mean the backup quarterback competition has been decided for good, as Meyer said Burrow was still at only "about 90 percent" health as he continues to recover from a broken bone in his throwing hand.
True freshman quarterback Tate Martell did not play and remains a likely candidate to redshirt this season.
While the backups’ playing time did not have any real effect on the outcome of Saturday’s game (unless you bet on the Buckeyes to cover the spread), it was a valuable opportunity for those players to see the field, which should have them more prepared to play in more important game situations, if needed, as the season progresses.
"I already feel that extra confidence," Saunders said. "You can have as much confidence as you want but definitely once you put it into play, it kind of gives you that extra boost."