Ohio State Notebook: Players Miss Penn State's Whiteout, No Changing Justin Fields, Protecting The Quarterback, Marcus Hooker's Starting Debut

By Colin Hass-Hill on October 30, 2020 at 2:35 pm
Justin Fields

If the 2018 Ohio State-Penn State showdown doesn’t rank as Shaun Wade’s favorite college football game, it has to be among the top two or three. A wide smile washed over his face earlier this week as he again thought of the 27-26 come-from-behind victory in Happy Valley.

Among the reasons Wade enjoyed the one-point win so much was the crowd. Tens of thousands of white-clad Nittany Lion fans descend upon Beaver Stadium to create one of college football’s most impressive atmospheres.

“I really love the Whiteout,” Wade said. “I love the competition. I love their fans just trying to rile us up and all that. I love that. I love that. Because at the end of the day, when we go there and win, it shuts them up.”

Wade, however, won’t get the same experience on Saturday when the Buckeyes kick off an under-the-lights Halloween clash in State College, Pennsylvania, with their first ranked opponent of the season. The conference decided to limit the number of spectators, not allowing any fans into stadiums this fall.

Instead of a Whiteout, Penn State will treat Ohio State to an intra-division matchup with, in all likelihood, fewer than 2,000 people in the building.

“I think that's a really great environment,” head coach Ryan Day said. “It's loud. It's hard to communicate. It'll be different. It was different here last week, and so yeah, that part is strange. But it's the same for each team, week in and week out.”

Marcus Hooker, a Pennsylvania native, thought it “would’ve been great” playing amid what he described as a “tremendous amount of loudness.”

Earlier this week, Urban Meyer claimed the lack of a Whiteout evaporates a 7-10-point advantage typically gained by the Nittany Lions in their home games. Whether that’s the case or not, star quarterback Justin Fields – a former Penn State commit – hasn’t thought too much about 

“I wasn't really going there for the experience,” Fields said. “My plan is going there to win, to beat Penn State. So whether that's with fans or without fans, we have a job and I think our No. 1 goal is to go out there and beat Penn State.”

A man on the run

Looking solely at the stat sheet, it’s understandable to wonder whether or not Justin Fields tucked the ball and ran too often in the season opener. He picked up 54 yards on 15 rushes – the second-most in his career – against Nebraska. A deeper look at those, as Eleven Warriors’ Kyle Jones pointed out on Monday, shows only a couple were designed runs. The vast majority of the carries came on scrambles, along with a trio of sacks.

When viewing it that way, still too many carries? Day doesn’t think so. He said he believes Fields did a “great job” deciding when to take off.

“I thought he extended some plays really, really well,” Day said. “That's part of his game. There's going to be sacks, but there's also extended plays for huge plays. That's the game for Justin. It was different for Dwayne (Haskins). It was different for other quarterbacks. But for him, for every sack, you're going to get two or three extended plays. There's like three in particular. One was a touchdown run. If you tell him to throw it away there, he doesn't scramble for a touchdown. 

“So there's a give and take, and I think as the year progressed last year and even into this year, he's doing a good job of it taking care of the football, making the decisions at the right time. I think there are times, maybe, where he can keep his eyes downfield a little longer, but overall I thought it was a really good game for him.”

Fields’ health, of course, is of paramount concern. But part of what makes Fields special is his ability to turn nothing into something as a runner, both with wide receiver-like speed and underrated power.

Neither Day nor quarterbacks coach Corey Dennis plans to alter that aspect of Fields’ game. They do, however, want him to be aware of when to scramble and when to just get rid of the ball.

“There's a lot of scenarios where the time's right,” Fields said. “One maybe being if I see you open green grass and it's third down and we need the first down. That's one scenario where I might choose to scramble. And another is when nobody's open and I think I can get some extra yards rather than throwing the ball away. I might as well make it 2nd-and-6 or 2nd-and-5 instead of 2nd-and-10. I think it's different for a lot of situations in the game.”

An Unofficial Security Detail

Josh Myers is a serious guy when it comes to taking care of his business. And there’s nothing more important to him than keeping Justin Fields upright and healthy. The second-year starting center views it as important as anything else he has to take care of, and he shares the responsibility with the other four offensive linemen.

If Myers had it his way, Fields would never run the ball. He’d sit back in a clean pocket or hand it off every single time.

“I'd like Justin to get hit negative times the rest of the season, personally,” Myers said.

When Fields does take off, however, Myers and the linemen make sure to get to him as soon as possible. They want to help him up, dust him off and, most importantly, ensure “nothing's going on underneath the pile.”

“It's not something we're told to do or told to be aware of, but it's something that we are sure as hell going to be aware of,” Myers said. “I don't know if we've even talked about it, to be honest with you. I think we all just do it instinctively, maybe, even. There were certain points last season where things did happen underneath the pile to him, and we can't let it happen. We won't let it fly.”

Fields said bottom-of-the-pile antics went on “a little bit” in the season opener with Nebraska, with players “trying to twist my ankle and whatnot.” He’s used to it at this point, but it still doesn’t make a ton of sense as to why it happens.

“I would say it happens more so when we play the, I don't want to say worse teams, but the teams that don't have that good of a chance in winning,” Fields said. “They just try to do whatever, to be honest with you. And I think when we play teams that are more well-coached and better teams, I think it tends to happen less. I think it might come with respect, but I don't really know. I've never really seen the point into twisting another guy's ankle or trying to hurt him after the play's over. I just don't see the point in that.”

First-start Jitters

Malik Hooker called his little brother, Marcus, soon after the redshirt sophomore Ohio State safety wrapped up his first career start on Saturday. 

“He said that he could tell that I was nervous,” Hooker said this week.

Well, it didn’t exactly take Malik much to surmise that as such. Before the game, Hooker had told his older brother he had been overthinking everything. He continued playing out every single possibility in his mind. 

What if this happened? Or this? Or that?

On the game’s first drive, Hooker’s nerves got the best of him. Luke McCaffrey scampered down the sideline and Hooker took a good angle to him, but he whiffed on the tackle, allowing the backup quarterback to race for 47 yards instead of cutting the run’s length in half.

“I kind of beat myself up a little bit,” Hooker said. “But my coaches, coach (Kerry) Coombs and coach (Matt) Barnes, had talked to me before the game, and they said that no matter what happens, you're going to make a bad play. It's not always going to be perfect. So I had to just get over it at that moment because at that point in the game, it was just the beginning of the game. So I couldn't just dwell on that one play and force myself to dig in a whole to where I can't come back from and just make everything worse. So I had to let go of the play and just continue to play.”

Hooker didn’t miss any tackles the rest of the game.

“I thought he was solid, for the most part, after the first drive,” Day said. “He's only going to grow with more experience.”

As is the case with the rest of the players on this roster, a bigger test for Hooker awaits on Saturday.

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