For the first four series of Saturday’s season-opening game against Florida Atlantic, Ohio State’s offense couldn’t have looked better.
The Buckeyes scored touchdowns on each of their first four possessions, during which they gained a total of 200 yards. Justin Fields ran for a 51-yard touchdown to end his first drive as Ohio State’s starting quarterback, then followed that up by throwing touchdown passes to Jeremy Ruckert, Binjimen Victor and Chris Olave on each of the Buckeyes’ next three series. That put the home team ahead 28-0 just eight minutes and 10 seconds into the game, and gave a glimpse of just how dynamic Ohio State’s offense could be with Fields at the helm.
For the rest of the game, however, Ohio State reached the end zone just twice. The Buckeyes had as many turnovers as touchdowns in the game’s final three quarters – two each – and at one point, went seven possessions without scoring any points.
The strong start was enough to ensure that Ohio State would never be in any actual jeopardy of losing Saturday’s game, which the Buckeyes won 45-21, but the rest of the game – against a defense that looked completely overmatched at the beginning – left plenty to be desired and plenty of room for improvement as the Buckeyes move forward to their second game of the year against Cincinnati, which should provide a stiffer defensive test.
“We came out to such a quick lead and maybe we took a deep breath there, I'm not sure,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said after the game. “But we can't let that happen. We've got to keep the pedal to the metal on that, keep going.”
For its first four defensive series, FAU had absolutely no answer for Ohio State’s significantly more talented offense. Fields’ early touchdowns were more busts by the FAU defense than they were spectacular plays by the young quarterback – particularly on Ruckert and Victor’s first-quarter touchdown catches, as they were left uncovered.
Still, Fields and the Buckeyes have to get credit for executing as well as they did to begin the game, especially considering that it was Fields’ first start and that Ohio State was breaking in four new starters on the offensive line. Ohio State’s offense was clearly more prepared to start the game than the visiting defense, and that enabled the Buckeyes to score more points in just over eight minutes than the Owls would score for the entire game.
“I think our coaches did an unbelievable job of giving us all the looks (the Buckeyes saw early in the game),” Ohio State center Josh Myers said. “Once you know where you’re going so well, it makes it easier.”
FAU made adjustments from there, however – specifically, Myers said, the Owls changed the techniques that their defensive linemen were playing and where their linebackers were positioned – and the Buckeyes struggled to adjust in response. In their seven-possession scoring drought, the Buckeyes had just one drive that went more than 20 yards, and it wasn’t until the second possession of the third quarter that Ohio State finally put together another scoring drive, a 10-play, 52-yard drive that Fields capped by throwing another touchdown pass to Ruckert.
“Obviously we started off very poor, (to) start 28-0 like that in a half of a quarter, about as bad as you can in all phases of the game,” FAU coach Lane Kiffin said after the game. “Our defense did a really good job after that.”
Ohio State could afford to have a two-quarter lull with the way it started Saturday’s game, but it might not be able to survive a scoring drought of more than 34 minutes in a game against a stronger opponent, so the Buckeyes know they have a lot to work on.
“We jumped on them early but we just got to keep that tempo up and just be able to score all game long,” Fields said.
“We came out to such a quick lead and maybe we took a deep breath there, I'm not sure. But we can't let that happen. We've got to keep the pedal to the metal on that, keep going.”– Ryan Day on Ohio State's seven-drive scoring drought
Day was pleased that the Buckeyes were able to eventually respond and put together back-to-back touchdown drives between the third and fourth quarters – drives during which they leaned heavily on Master Teague and J.K. Dobbins running the ball and put to use multi-tight end packages – to secure the outcome of the game.
“I thought the ability for us to get in the two tight ends was good for us, and then we got into the second half, we leaned on them a little bit, and I thought we did a good job there,” Day said.
Expectations were already high for Ohio State’s offense entering Saturday’s game, and the hot start only raised those expectations, which made the lull that followed more of a letdown. Against an FAU defense that was a bottom-half unit nationally last season and was clearly vulnerable early in Saturday’s game, Ohio State’s offense sputtered whereas early on, it looked like the Buckeyes could have a similar showing to last year’s season opener against Oregon State, when they scored 77 points on 721 yards.
Still, there are more positives than negatives to be taken away from a game for an offense when it scores 45 points on 469 yards with 6.3 yards per play, especially in a season opener, and that’s especially true for Fields. With five total touchdowns, Fields tied the record Dwayne Haskins set last year for the most touchdowns in an Ohio State quarterback’s first start, and he accounted for 295 total yards (234 passing, 61 rushing) while he did not have any turnovers nor any other glaring mistakes.
Day said there are several things Fields will need to work on going into next week’s game – specifically how he handles protections, making reads and overall decision-making – but overall, he felt good about how the Buckeyes’ new signal-caller performed in his first game in scarlet and gray.
“I thought he performed well. We talked going in, the No. 1 thing was to just make sure that he was playing with great energy, making good decisions, but more importantly managing the game, taking care of the ball,” Day said of Fields. “Still some things in there that protection-wise we've got to clean up, got a long way to go, but for a first start it was well done.”
Fields also said he thought he “did good overall,” but he knows he must continue to work on his craft going into the second game of the season.
“All aspects of the game, of my game, can get better and can improve,” Fields said. “I'm just going to get back in the film room and see what mistakes we had and just fix those and get ready for Cincinnati.”