Just a few months ago, Wyatt Davis had to wonder whether this moment would ever come.
In fact, on Sept. 11 he gave up all hope by announcing his decision to opt out of Ohio State's football season in order to spend the fall and winter preparing for April's 2021 NFL Draft. The momentum, however, suddenly shifted. Days later, the Big Ten reinstated a fall slate and Davis subsequently decided to suit up for the Buckeyes once more.
On Saturday, Davis took the field for what most assume will be his final season opener, helping Ohio State pull off a 52-17 victory against Nebraska at Ohio Stadium.
“That was the first thing that I was thinking about when I woke up this morning was just like, wow, I can't believe that a couple months ago it really seemed like this wasn't going to happen,” Davis said. “I was just so grateful that I was able to get reinstated and we were able to get the ball rolling with the Big Ten. I'm just really thankful for the opportunity and everyone behind it, coach Day, coach (Gene) Smith and our president (Kristina Johnson) coming along and vouching for us. It's definitely a blessing.”
Not everything that happened on Saturday went the Buckeyes' way. The Cornhuskers scored touchdowns on two of their first four drives, stuffed Ohio State's rushing attack for the most part and picked up some quality yards with quarterback scampers.
But to head coach Ryan Day and quarterback Justin Fields, the 35-point victory in their team's first game back on the field in 301 overshadowed whatever issues cropped up as the afternoon progressed.
“The No. 1 goal is to go 1-0, and I think that's the tricky thing here at Ohio State is you can't win championships and it doesn't matter how you win,” Day said. “It's just a matter of if you win. The best thing we can do is apologize for how we win. Like you said, to beat a Big Ten team like Nebraska 52-17, that's a pretty impressive day. Just to beat them by 1. Sure, the expectations are high, but the reality of it is just to go 1-0 is a great day. And that was the No. 1 goal. We're very proud of what we did today.”
“I think we played well for Week 1,” Fields said. “Of course, there's a lot of things we have to work on. That's just what the film's for. Tomorrow, we're just going to look at the film and find out what we have to get better at.”
Nebraska hung around longer than most anticipated – before getting rolled in the second half.
Late in the second quarter, the Cornhuskers remained tied at 14 points apiece with the Buckeyes. A 3-and-out that followed a Blake Haubeil led to a Master Teague touchdown, however, putting Ohio State ahead by 10 points entering the half. To open the third quarter, Fields scrambled for a 17-yard touchdown that was followed by Sevyn Banks' fumble return for a touchdown.
Combining what happened in the late second quarter and early third quarter, Ohio State piled on 24 points in a little over 10 minutes.
“I think when we came out that first drive of the second half and scored, I think that's when we started getting more momentum,” Fields said. “First half was a little bit slow, but I think when we came out the second half and got that first drive going in to score that touchdown, I think that's when we started to get going.”
“The stop we got at the end of the first half, and then we got into the two-minute drill, we score, we come back (and) score with the first drive of the second half and then quickly get a fumble return on a defensive touchdown,” Day said. “That's one heck of a run right there. It's the best way you could end a half and start a half. I thought that flipped the game. There was a lot of hard work put into this game. Talking about tackling and ball security and a high level of execution, penalities. You guys have heard me talk about staying up late at night worried about all the things I've seen on TV. I'm proud of our coaching staff. I think that the leadership of this team really showed, as well. Again, I think it's a really good start.”
That rally was a necessity given how Nebraska came out of the gates. It didn't overwhelm the Buckeyes, but Scott Frost's team tried to throw them off. For at least a little bit, too, it worked.
“Nebraska came out and played a really good game, I thought,” Day said. “They had a really good plan early on, and I thought that they kind of had us reeling a little bit early on. Give credit to our defensive staff and players for being able to adjust. Really, by the end of the first half and then into the second half, I thought they made really good adjustments and played really good football.”
Defensively, Ohio State stumbled out of the blocks.
The first time Nebraska had the ball, quarterback Adrian Martinez hit a nine-yard pass, rushed for nine yards, handed it off to Luke McCaffrey for a 47-yard gain, then found the end zone 10 yards away on the ground. On the fourth drive, the Cornhuskers went 78 yards on 11 plays for a game-tying touchdown.
Kerry Coombs, in his second stint at Ohio State but first game as defensive coordinator, chalked some of the early issues up to what naturally transpires in Week 1.
“I think there are things that are concerning. I wouldn't disagree with that,” Coombs said. “And I do think it was a slow start. I think they're a good team. I think they're a good offense. And I think that any time you're spending a summer trying to get ready for somebody and you don't know exactly what they're going to do – new coordinator, different things – it's challenging. So I thought that Greg Mattison and Larry Johnson did a great job making some adjustments and having great communication about how we were doing some things differently in the run game, and Al (Washington) and Matt (Barnes) did a great job from both in the box and on the field of the same thing. It was very difficult.
“A lot of things that, probably, we hadn't seen quite the same way that we had practiced against them and those kind of things. And then I think the kids, I'm so impressed with these kids. They don't panic. They take the adjustments. They understand. They learn. And they go out and put them in place. So I thought they did a really, really good job after the first couple of series.”
More so than anywhere else, Nebraska hurt Ohio State with its quarterback runs.
McCaffrey totalled nine carries for 87 yards and Martinez tallied 77 yards and a touchdown on 11 rushes. Together, they accounted for 164 of their team's 217 rushing yards. Undoubtedly, getting better at containing quarterbacks when they scramble will be a point of emphasis moving forward for Ohio State – especially with Penn State's Sean Clifford (17 rushes, 119 yards vs. Indiana on Saturday) up next.
“I think that more the structure of what we were doing and how we were doing things and how we were doing things,” Coombs said. “I haven't watched the film, and I'd be disingenuous to tell you that, well, I've got a perfect answer for that. I know that we will have an answer. But I don't think early on in the game we were handling it very well in the manner in which they were doing it. I think that we came in, particularly at halftime, and made a couple of adjustments that I thought were very effective in the second half.”
Still, even with some miscues, Day felt pleased with the defensive effort.
“If someone said to me, 'If you hold them the 17 points, would you take that?' I would have signed on the dotted line,” Day said. “I thought very well done. Job well done. They hit a couple big plays on us and everything. But overall, I thought they did a really good job. I'm proud of the way the guys played.”
On offense, nearly everything went right through the air. Justin Fields completed 20-of-21 passes for 276 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Yet Master Teague (12 rushes, 41 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Trey Sermon (11 rushes, 55 yards) didn't get going consistently the way Ohio State hoped.
“I think that happens sometimes when you're used to going against a certain front for months at a time and seeing the same looks and the same fronts,” Day said. “Nebraska brings a bunch of different stuff. It was a little bit of a different fit. I thought we did fit some runs good there. That one drive on the goal line, we ran the ball pretty good in there. A couple of them didn't hit, like you're saying, the way that we want them to. But we did kind of throw the ball a little bit more in this game. But we'll take a look at the film and see.”
“It definitely had a lot to do with, I think, everything,” Davis said. “Ten months not having a game and then we go into one, and there was so much confusion with us being away from the program. But honestly, that's what comes with the first game. They were well-coached. They had a great scheme for us. We just have to look at the film and just adjust moving forward. But credit to them because they came out swinging. They got us for a little bit, but we responded and swung back.”
“I thought the offensive line still played really well,” Day said. “I thought they knocked people off the ball. And there were still some good runs in there. But we'll improve and we'll get better from this. I think part of that is what you're saying. Just a different look, different fit in the run game. There's a lot of that going into this thing.”
Like Day, don't count Davis among those worried about the run game in the long term, either.
“We've got a lot of young guys up front, with Harry (Miller) and Nick (Petit-Frere),” Davis said. “But I was really impressed today with how they've came along in this program. I really do believe that once we get rolling, our running game will be back to even better than what it was last year. I just think that we've just got to knock off the rust of not playing against another team and just really focus this week on film and what we did wrong and how we can get better. Really focusing on the little things.”
In six days, Ohio State will have a chance to show what it learned in primetime. It'll kick off Week 2 under the lights in Happy Valley against Penn State.
That matchup appeared destined to be a top-10 showdown. Indiana ruined those plans by topping the Nittany Lions on Saturday. Still, James Franklin's squad will welcome Ohio State to town as its first ranked opponent of the season.
“Now we've got a huge task ahead of us,” Day said. “We've got to go to Penn State on the road and win a night game. This is going to be a huge week in terms of preparation. It starts in a few hours here.”