Kyle McCord’s first drive of his Ohio State career couldn’t have looked much uglier.
His first pass attempt as a Buckeye sailed wide on a sprintout throw to Garrett Wilson. His second throw, which came on a backward pass, also sailed past its intended target and went out of bounds, resulting in a 6-yard loss. His third pass, a deep ball intended for Jaxon Smith-Njigba on 3rd-and-16, also sailed out of bounds.
After that, though, Ryan Day was able to calm his true freshman quarterback down.
“Just take a deep breath and find the speed of the game and just trust your eyes, trust your reads. You’ve had a lot of preparation to get here,” Day said he told McCord. “And then I thought he settled down a little bit.”
McCord started the game by completing just two of his first five passing attempts – six if you include the backward pass, which went in the box score as a fumble – and each of his first two completions came on shovel passes, one to Smith-Njigba that went for a 22-yard gain and another to Chris Olave that went for a 5-yard touchdown.
After that shaky start, though, McCord ended up finishing the game with 319 passing yards and two touchdowns on just 13 completions and 18 attempts. Smith-Njigba, who caught five of those passes for 93 yards – including a 34-yard touchdown in the second quarter – was impressed by how the first-time starting quarterback performed in place of C.J. Stroud, who was held out of Saturday night’s game against Akron due to a shoulder injury.
“I thought he stepped up in a big way,” Smith-Njigba said. “I thought he looked very confident. Had a slow first drive, but everything came to him and I thought he responded well.”
Much like Stroud in his first start at Minnesota, where Stroud completed 13 of 22 passes for four touchdowns with one interception, McCord’s impressive numbers came with plenty of help from his receivers. Wilson turned a screen pass into a 57-yard gain on McCord’s third completion of the game. McCord got another 85 yards when Emeka Egbuka got wide open and did most of the work after the catch on a run to the 2-yard line.
Smith-Njigba’s 34-yard touchdown came on a downfield pass of more than 25 yards from McCord, but the pass was slightly underthrown, forcing Smith-Njigba to make an adjustment back to the ball – though that didn’t bother Smith-Njigba.
“When we complete it, it’s all good. It’s a good ball,” Smith-Njigba said. “I would like it to be easier. There’s an easier throw and catch. But I’m not complaining about it.”
All in all, Day expects the ups and downs of McCord’s first start – which also included an interception on an overthrown pass intended for Cade Stover on the opening drive of the third quarter – to be a learning experience for the freshman quarterback, who was not among the Ohio State players made available to the media after the game.
“I thought there were some things that were OK, I thought there were some things that we need to certainly clean up,” Day said. “He does a really good job preparing, excellent job. He puts a lot of work into this thing. And so it’s the first time he’s ever played in a college football game. He’s a true freshman. So I think the game was moving pretty fast for him early on. But he was working at hyper speed, I think. One of the things we talk about with all the young quarterbacks is finding the speed of the game. And I think there were times that he did.”
“I thought he stepped up in a big way. I thought he looked very confident.”– Jaxon Smith-Njigba on Kyle McCord
While McCord got the nod to start for the Buckeyes against Akron, Jack Miller also got the opportunity to play for most of the second half. After attempting no passes and playing just 10 snaps as a true freshman in 2020, Miller completed five of eight passing attempts for 66 yards in the 59-7 win over the Zips, including a 25-yard completion to Cade Stover on the first pass of his Ohio State career.
Day was pleased by what he saw from Miller.
“I thought Jack came in and had some poise in there and made some nice throws as well,” Day said. “I thought he did some positive things.”
Whether either of their performances against Akron will have any impact on the pecking order at quarterback is uncertain. Day was noncommittal when asked if he expected Stroud to be back for next week’s game at Rutgers, saying he would sit down with Stroud on Sunday to determine whether he will be healthy enough to practice fully in the upcoming week and play against the Scarlet Knights.
Day did say, though, that McCord and Miller’s performances against Akron would be evaluated as the Buckeyes consider how they’ll move forward at the position.
“We’ll kind of look at it,” Day said. “Probably not gonna make any hard decisions here. But it’s part of the puzzle, for sure.”
After entering Saturday with just one quarterback who had ever thrown a pass in an Ohio State game, the Buckeyes exited the Akron game with three quarterbacks who now have at least some game experience, and that will at least make Day more comfortable playing all three of them as needed as the season progresses.
“If we have one guy that we feel like or two guys that we feel like or three guys that we feel like can play and we can with a championship with, then we’re in pretty good shape. I think we’re still working toward that,” Day said. “This was an opportunity to get those guys some reps, get them in the game, get a real evaluation which is really gonna help them. Because in practice, you see things a certain way. But when it’s coming live and you get hit, it hurts. So I think this is a huge learning experience. Long run, this was great to have these guys get these reps.
“Do I think everything went perfectly? No, absolutely not. But the fact that they both played in the game and got some series under their belt I think was good,” Day added. “At least you have an idea of what you have when you get into the game, because you don’t know until you actually play, and now we have some things that we can build on and try to grow from, for sure.”