BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – For Ohio State coach Ryan Day, it was “huge.” For Indiana coach Tom Allen, it represented the “cardinal sin.” For Buckeyes wide receiver Chris Olave, it felt better than a touchdown.
A minute and 11 seconds of game time after Olave caught a 37-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter of Ohio State’s 51-10 trouncing of the Hoosiers on Saturday, Olave ran back onto the field. Rather than seeking a second score, he lined up on the right edge across from Indiana’s punt formation. At the snap of the ball, he took off into the backfield unblocked and extended his arms to swat Haydon Whitehead’s punt, which went out of the end zone for a safety.
“It's just a lot of technique and fundamentals,” Olave said after the game. “A little bit of speed. Coaches draw it up for us to block it, and we went out there and got it.”
Ohio State’s defense proceeded to force two punts, and its offense scored touchdowns on its next two possessions, giving the team a 30-3 lead with 4:09 before halftime after entering the second quarter with just a 7-3 advantage.
A complete shift in the game derived from a single special-teams play.
“You definitely feel that on the field, feel like it's a momentum changer,” Olave said. “Sparks the whole team.”
Did that moment and what followed feel familiar? It should have.
Before Olave blocked a punt against Michigan last November, Ohio State was only up 27-19 midway through the third quarter. Sevyn Banks picked up the ball after the blocked punt to give the Buckeyes a 15-point lead. Ohio State’s offense scored touchdowns on its remaining four possessions and its defense forced a pair of turnovers, and the Buckeyes pulled away for a 62-39 victory.
“I think when you look back at the history of Ohio State, especially in the last 10 years or so, the best players have played on special teams,” Ryan Day said. “Somebody's impact is different. You think about Terry (McLaurin) last year, he was a gunner. You think about some of the guys have been returners or different things. Chris has been these punt blocks. He's tremendous at that. He just has a knack for it.
“When you see what he did last year in the rivalry game, and he gets another one here, it changes the whole game.”
Ohio State needs a game-changer. It needs somebody who can ignite its entire team in multiple ways, as Olave showed on Saturday with his touchdown catch and punt block.
“I think we're trying to figure and build on that,” Kevin Wilson said. “We're not as flashy and overly big-play dynamic.”
This isn’t last year.
With Dwayne Haskins at quarterback in an offense that featured Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon to go along with K.J. Hill, Austin Mack, Binjimen Victor and Luke Farrell, the Buckeyes had no shortage of speed or explosion. All three redshirt senior wideouts who graduated after the 2018 season ran the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds or less at the NFL Scouting Combine, and they each forced defenses to respect and account for their big-play abilities.
Without Campbell, McLaurin and Dixon around anymore, Day has had to get creative to find ways to break the game open offensively.
Olave has emerged as a potent downfield threat. Though Jameson Williams might be the speediest receiver on the team, Olave is likely the fastest wideout in the regular rotation. With receptions for at least 29 yards in each of the first three games, Olave has begun to turn that speed – along with quality route-running ability, timing and strong hands – into production catching passes from Justin Fields.
He caught three passes for 15, 18 and 37 yards that totaled 70 yards on Saturday
“What's is there not to like about him?” Fields said, asking a rhetorical question. “He's fast. He has great ball skills. He runs great routes. He's smart. Not all receivers have all that smart decision-making, so he finds his own and he plays with his brain, and he also has great athletic ability. He has all the intangibles.”
Olave’s touchdown reception came by beating one-on-one coverage.
Before the snap, when he motioned to his left, he had seen the safety creeping inside. When the cornerback matched up on him didn’t bail off the line of scrimmage quickly, Olave hit his hands away, took one step to his right, turned upfield to his left and ran toward the open field before Fields hit him in the end zone with the 37-yard score.
“When I look back I guess now on our last six games going back to the rivalry game, Big Ten championship game, Rose Bowl and now these three games, his production's been really good,” Day said. “He's blocked some punts. He's been a threat down the field. He's caught some things underneath. His production's been really, really good. Some guys have really good body language – he's got really good body language.
“He's got good depth perception. He can time up balls down the field, but he also has strong hands underneath. He's worked really, really hard this offseason and it's starting to pay off.”