BALTIMORE -- The game wasn’t supposed to go quite like this.
Ohio State was supposed to pummel Navy for four quarters on Saturday. It was supposed to immediately show life could go on without injured quarterback Braxton Miller, that it could look like a Big Ten contender no matter what. It was supposed to resume last season’s dominating red zone offense right off the bat.
It wasn’t supposed to show up on ESPN’s “Upset Alert” midway through the fourth quarter.
“Best thing about it,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said, “is it’s in the rear-view mirror.”
Yes, the Buckeyes moved on with the eventual 34-17 win, finishing with a solid fourth quarter. But it was clear from their faces on the sideline that this opener didn’t go quite as expected. Navy led at halftime, 7-6, and trailed by just a field goal early in the fourth.
Defensive lineman Donovan Munger stood off to the side, staring up at the huge video screen while biting his lower lip throughout the fourth quarter. His teammates didn’t crack a smile, even when the Buckeyes broke off a nice run. And there seemed to be no sense of relief, no sense of accomplishment, until that final whistle sounded and bass blared from the locker room.
It’s not quite time to hit that shiny, scarlet panic button. But maybe it’s time to reassess where this team is right now. Neither Meyer nor offensive line coach Ed Warriner was pleased with the line’s performance in the first half -- 19 rushes, 66 yards, 3.5 yards per carry – and it still has a while to go to meet last season’s performance.
With nine new starters on offense, four of whom are on the offensive line, the Buckeyes aren’t quite sure what their identity is yet.
“I think we’re still figuring it out,” running back Ezekiel Elliott acknowledged. “We got a lot of weapons and we spread the ball around. I think we’re going to keep developing.”
That wasn’t supposed to be how Ohio State’s opener transpired. This was supposed to be the easy W, not a dogfight. It was supposed to be a comfortable victory, not one that put the sea of scarlet at M&T Bank Stadium on edge. The good news for Ohio State is that two-touchdown fourth quarter will act as a huge boost to the team’s confidence. And it showed this can turn into a good team. But, on Saturday afternoon, did this really look like a squad that’s anywhere near as good as Big Ten rival Michigan State?
Even the defense, which boasted the nation’s No. 9 run defense last season, showed some cracks. Navy’s triple-option is certainly a unique scheme, but 370 yards and 5.9 yards per carry are also some pretty big numbers. That’s more than Navy averaged last season (325.4 yards per game, 5.5 ypc). Again, that -- allowing more than Navy’s average -- wasn’t entirely expected.
“They gained a lot more yards than what we wanted,“ defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “But, at the end of the day, the best team won.”
There is some good here. J.T. Barrett looked much more comfortable in the second half and went 4-of-4 for 130 yards and two scores. He also added 39 yards rushing. But, after that sluggish first half in a conservative scheme, it’s clear this offense is still a work in progress.
Big offensive plays were difficult to come by in those first two quarters. But, in the end, those plays saved the Buckeyes. Devin Smith took a pass 80 yards for a score in the third to give OSU a lead it wouldn't relinquish. A relieved Ohio State crowd exchanged high-fives, the band played on, and Brutus the Buckeye streaked down the sideline.
Navy’s good, but Ohio State was supposed to better. Much better. If not for those big gains -- or finding a handful of plays that worked to perfection in the fourth -- this outcome could’ve been different.
Without Miller, question marks swirled around this team before the opener. After its performance against Navy, there’s one big question remaining: Is the real Ohio State the one that struggled through two or three quarters -- or shined especially in one?
Washington smiled when posed that question. He leaned against the wall, grinned and simply said: “Definitely that last quarter.”
We’ll see. Win or lose, Week 1 wasn’t supposed to go like this. But, with that victory in the rear-view mirror, maybe the Buckeyes can parlay that success and challenge the cream of the Big Ten. Just like they’re supposed to.