Ohio State’s first game of the season, in which the Buckeyes defeated Florida Atlantic 45-21 but were outscored in the final three quarters of the game, left many people feeling uncertain about whether that was a good or bad performance by the scarlet and gray.
The Buckeyes left no room for such confusion in their second game of the year.
Ohio State was dominant in all phases of the game against Cincinnati on Saturday, shutting out the Bearcats 42-0 in a game in which the Buckeyes were favored by as few as 15 points entering the game.
After a week of preaching the importance of playing for four full quarters to his team, Ohio State coach Ryan Day had reason to be pleased with how his team both started and finished the game on Saturday.
“We talked about doing a great job coming out at halftime,” Day said. “That was something we were emphasizing really all week, because it just didn't leave a great taste coming off the field last week. I thought we sustained it and finished it the right way this week.”
Just like last week, the Buckeyes built a 28-0 lead in the first half of Saturday’s game – though it took them 28 minutes and seven seconds to get there against Cincinnati, instead of just eight minutes and 10 seconds against FAU – which was lead Ohio State took into halftime against the Bearcats.
The difference against Cincinnati was that the Buckeyes never allowed the Bearcats to cut into the lead or turn the momentum of the game in their favor for any sustained period of time.
Offensively, the final statistics were similar in both games – the Buckeyes scored three fewer points against Cincinnati than they did against FAU, and they only gained 39 more yards (508 to 469) on one less offensive play – but the way they accomplished that was different. While Ohio State had a seven-possession scoreless drought against the Owls, the Buckeyes never went more than one actual drive – not including the end of each half, which they finished out by kneeling the ball – without reaching the end zone against Cincinnati.
Cincinnati’s defense was also expected to present more challenges to Ohio State’s offense than FAU. The Bearcats only allowed 14 points and 218 yards to UCLA in their season opener, and Ohio State’s 42 points and 508 yards on Saturday were more than the Bearcats allowed to any opponent – by 11 points and 65 yards – in 2018.
The Buckeyes also did not have any turnovers in Saturday’s game, compared to two turnovers in the season opener, and were called for just two penalties – only one of which, a Jonah Jackson hold on the first possession of the game, went against the offense.
Justin Fields, who completed 20 of 25 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 42 yards and another two touchdowns in his second game as Ohio State’s quarterback, said he thought the key to the Buckeyes’ more sustained success on offense was the tempo they maintained throughout the game.
“Last week, we kind of tailed off, so this week Coach emphasized just sustaining all that tempo as the game goes on,” Fields said. “I think we did a pretty good job of that.”
Defensively, the Buckeyes held Cincinnati to 273 yards – marking the second straight week Ohio State held its opponent under 300 yards, a feat they never accomplished last season – and made a big play every time they needed one to preserve their shutout.
When the Bearcats made a drive into the red zone early in the second quarter, Chase Young came up with a block on a 32-yard field goal attempt by Sam Crosa (Ohio State’s first field goal block since Dre’Mont Jones knocked one down against UNLV in 2017, and Young’s first-ever field goal block in any game).
When a 46-yard pass from Desmond Ridder to Alec Pierce got the Bearcats into the red zone late in the third quarter, Tuf Borland ended the threat by intercepting a pass that Shaun Wade knocked up into the air.
And when Tavion Thomas nearly reached the goal line to cap off what would have been an 80-yard touchdown drive against Ohio State’s second-team defense late in the fourth quarter, Dallas Gant forced a fumble (with help from Amir Riep) that Marcus Williamson recovered in the end zone to keep a zero on the board.
Unlike the season opener, when Ohio State allowed FAU to string together back-to-back touchdown drives of 75-plus yards in the third and fourth quarters, the Buckeyes’ defense finished the game strong even after most of their starters had headed to the bench.
“Last week, when some of the depth got in there, they went right down the field and scored on us, and that didn't sit well with those guys, so the challenge was not let them score,” Day said. “To strip the ball out on the 1-yard line shows that we’ve got a backbone, shows that we're going to keep on fighting and I thought that was a good sign for the defense.”
“I thought we sustained it and finished it the right way this week.”– Ryan Day on Ohio State's performance Saturday
Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley also thought it carried weight that the Buckeyes were able to finish with a shutout, Ohio State’s first in any game since a 56-0 win against Rutgers on Sept. 30, 2017.
“A shutout to me at any level is so hard to get, and I think for the staff and for the players, I think it’s special. It’s hard to shut out anybody, and I think that’s a good offense,” Hafley said. “So it’s special. And it’s hard to do.”
Altogether, Ohio State’s performance on Saturday made a statement that the Buckeyes have what it takes to be as good as any team in college football this year.
They’ll play plenty of opponents who have the ability to provide tougher competition than Cincinnati – potentially beginning next week, when the Buckeyes begin Big Ten play at Indiana – so Day wants his team to stay focused on one week at a time.
“I do think, though, this team has a chance,” Day said.
Fields is as confident as anyone in the direction the Buckeyes are moving after Saturday’s game.
“I think we can be as good as we want to be,” Fields said. “If everybody stays focused, we limit the injuries on the team, I think we can do big things this year.”