Only once in Ohio State history has a kickoff returner ever had more yardage in a game than Emeka Egbuka did against Maryland.
Egbuka returned all four of Maryland’s kickoffs in Saturday’s game for a combined 166 yards, the second-most ever by an individual Ohio State player in a single game. Only Carlos Snow, who had 213 yards on five kickoff returns against Pittsburgh in 1988, has ever had more.
The true freshman wide receiver, who’s been Ohio State’s lead kickoff returner since the second game of the season, has provided a spark in the kickoff return game that the Buckeyes have been missing for years. For the season, he has now gained 275 yards – already the most by an individual Buckeye since Parris Campbell in 2017 – on just eight returns, an average of more than 34 yards per returner.
Ryan Day isn’t surprised by Egbuka’s early success.
“I gotta give credit to Emeka, because his approach has been very mature,” Day said after Ohio State’s 66-17 win. “Not much like a freshman.”
Ohio State still hasn’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since Jordan Hall in 2010, but Egbuka came close in the second quarter of Saturday’s game, when he returned a kickoff 67 yards to Maryland’s 29-yard line. Egbuka also had returns of 46 and 33 yards in Saturday’s game.
He hopes to end Ohio State’s 11-year kickoff return touchdown drought in the near future.
“I feel like that’s definitely coming, something I’ve just gotta keep going at,” Egbuka said. “We know we’re gonna bust one open soon.”
Egbuka, who was ranked as the No. 10 overall prospect in the recruiting class of 2021, has a combination of speed and shiftiness that makes him a threat to make a big play any time the ball is in his hands. Of course, he can’t do that by himself; Egbuka said a big reason why he’s had quick success as a kickoff returner is because he’s getting “amazing blocks” from his teammates.
“You can’t just return on your own, you need a really good unit in front of you, and I think that those guys have put a lot of work in and we’ve seen where it’s been one or two guys that just maybe didn’t finish their block and then it would have been at least on the kicker, and we got there today,” Day said. “That really flips the field for us. Getting the ball to midfield, it’s huge. But it’s everybody involved. There’s a lot of guys on that kickoff return that deserve credit.”
Egbuka believes the Buckeyes’ kickoff return unit is just getting started.
“Our mindset is to return every kick if we can if we have the opportunity, so we’re always looking to break one open,” Egbuka said. “We know we have the best kickoff return in the country, and we’re here to prove that.”
Coombs gets the game ball
Ohio State’s defense had another strong showing against Maryland, holding the Terrapins – who came in averaging 32.6 points and 469.6 yards per game – to just 17 points on 335 yards. The Buckeyes’ defense has clearly improved since Matt Barnes took over defensive play calling duties from Kerry Coombs and revamped the defensive scheme following Ohio State’s loss to Oregon, and Saturday was yet another step in the right direction as the Buckeyes also came up with two interceptions, including a 70-yard pick-six by Craig Young to score a defensive touchdown for a fourth consecutive game.
Just because Coombs is no longer calling the shots doesn’t mean he isn’t playing a role in Ohio State’s defensive improvement, though, and Day wanted to make that clear after Saturday’s game.
He did that by giving Coombs the game ball from the win.
“Kerry Coombs got the game ball, and it’s because of everything he’s been through the last couple of weeks,” Day said. “And he’s just continuing to show up every day. He’s a huge part of the defense.”
Coombs has been the only full-time defensive coach in the press box during games since Barnes moved down to the field to call the defense, and Day said Coombs has been doing a great job of providing information to the rest of the staff from the booth. And even though his responsibilities have been reduced, both Day and Ohio State’s defensive players say Coombs has been as committed as ever to his job.
“He’s been through a lot, but nothing has changed with him,” linebacker Cody Simon said. “Every day he comes in with the most energy, he’s always ready to go, always helping the defense out 24/7. I appreciate him because not everything goes your way, but he stuck through it and he’s still doing his thing, so we just appreciate Coach Coombs.”
Day praised all four of Ohio State’s full-time defensive coaches – Barnes, Coombs, defensive line coach Larry Johnson and linebackers coach Al Washington – for their efforts to improve the defense over the past month. He believes the synergy between them has gotten better and better each week, and it’s showing in the defense’s results on the field.
“I think (Coombs is) doing a great job of seeing it from the box, I think Matt’s doing a great job of calling it, I think Larry’s doing a great job with his guys up front, Al Washington’s starting to build some stability at linebacker and those guys all working together are starting to see it through one lens, and you can feel it out there,” Day said. “The confidence is there, it’s strong. We still have a lot of football to play and some really good opponents here in the second half of the season, so we haven’t done anything just yet, but we’re building on it.”
Day hopeful Garrett can return after bye
Even though Ohio State had a 49-10 lead after scoring on its first two drives of the third quarter, the Buckeyes decided to keep their starting defense in the game for one more series. It became easy for Ohio State fans to question that decision, however, when star defensive tackle Haskell Garrett went down with an apparent injury.
Garrett had to be helped to the sideline and into the medical tent after the injury, making it appear as though it could be serious. A more positive sign, though, came when Garrett was ultimately able to walk out of the medical tent and back to Ohio State’s bench rather than going to the locker room.
Day said after the game that Garrett had already been dealing with an injury going into Saturday’s game. That said, he’ll have some time to rest up as the Buckeyes are off next weekend before playing their next game at Indiana on Oct. 23, and Day expressed hope that Garrett would be able to play against the Hoosiers.
“We’ll see,” Day said. “It’s something that he’s kind of been struggling with, so hopefully we can get him healed up over the bye week.”
Garrett wasn’t the only key player on Ohio State’s defense who suffered an injury against Maryland, as cornerback Cameron Brown also left the game in the second quarter after taking a knee to his helmet while making a tackle on the sideline. Brown did not return to the game and no update on his status was provided after the game, but he was seen walking out of the locker room after the game, indicating that he was able to remain at the stadium despite his apparent head injury.
Ohio State left guard Thayer Munford also exited the game for part of the first quarter with an apparent leg injury after getting rolled up on, but he was ultimately able to return to the game in the second quarter.