UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Through the first two games of Ohio State’s 2020 season, the Buckeyes have seemingly abandoned the receiver rotation that had been an annual staple of their offense in recent years. Only four wide receivers saw playing time on Saturday night at Penn State, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba only played occasionally, with Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson almost never leaving the field and Jameson Williams joining them in most three-receiver sets.
As long as Olave and Wilson keep playing the way they have in Ohio State’s first two games of the season, that probably isn’t going to change much, at least not in big games.
Simply put, Olave and Wilson have both proven themselves to be too good to leave the field when the game is on the line. And with Justin Fields on the passing end of the throws they’re catching, Ohio State’s passing offense has ascended to new heights through the first two games of this year.
Fields was spectacular again on Saturday night at Beaver Stadium, completing 28 of his 34 passing attempts for 318 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions. Two games into the year, Fields has now completed 87.3 percent of his passes (48-of-55) for 594 yards and six touchdowns without a pick.
It’s early in the season, but those statistics have also come against a pair of conference opponents – one of who was expected to be the Buckeyes’ top competition in the Big Ten East this year. If he can continue to play anywhere near that well for the rest of the season, he could be on track to have the most efficient passing season in Ohio State history.
Ryan Day isn’t surprised by how well his quarterback is throwing the ball because of how hard Fields has worked to be great at his craft.
“I’m proud of his preparation. He worked really hard this week to get prepared in the meeting room, and he was on it,” Day said after Saturday’s game. “And no, I’m not surprised at the way he plays. He does it in practice, and when you can start to take the meeting room to the field quickly, that’s when you really become special. And I think that’s what separates young players from really good veteran players, and he’s starting to do that. He just has a good way of being accurate, he’s got good anticipation and he’s strong.”
The vast majority of Fields’ big plays through the air have been in connection with Olave and Wilson, who were also tremendous against the Nittany Lions. Olave caught seven passes for 120 yards, including a pair of deep-ball touchdowns from 49 and 26 yards out, while Wilson caught 11 passes for 111 yards after taking a handoff for 62 rushing yards on the game’s first play from scrimmage.
Wilson now has 18 receptions for 240 yards while Olave now has 13 receptions for 224 yards in just two games this season. In the process, they became the first pair of receivers in Ohio State history to both surpass 100 receiving yards in back-to-back games.
While Fields’ passes to them have been consistently accurate, there’s no question that each of their ability to make plays on the ball – and the rhythm that Fields has developed with each of them – has played a huge part in his success.
“They definitely make my job easier by the way they perform on the field, so I’m just glad they’re on my team,” Fields said. “I’m glad I get to throw those guys the ball.”
Chris Olave caught a deep ball from Justin Fields with his fingertips for a 49-yard touchdown at Penn State. (Photo: Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC)
Fields said he feels “very confident” in the way he’s throwing the ball right now, and that’s been evident in Ohio State’s first two games. Day’s confidence as a play-caller has also been evident, as he’s been unafraid to let Fields throw deep balls to Olave and Wilson and routinely called passing plays in third- and fourth-down situations on Saturday night.
That confidence, according to both Fields and tight end Jeremy Ruckert, is rooted in the work Fields and his pass-catchers put in all offseason, even when they weren’t sure if they’d be allowed to play this fall.
“We practiced so many days throughout this summer when we were planning on playing on time and then once we got shut down, we didn’t skip a beat,” Ruckert said. “We stayed out there and just really worked on our timing with everybody. I think that’s what you guys can see with Justin is how smart he’s been with the ball lately, he throws it on time and where it has to be every play and doesn’t really force a lot of passes.”
While Fields is unquestionably Ohio State’s best player right now, one could make a case that Wilson and Olave have been right behind him as the Buckeyes’ second- and third-best players to start the season, and that trio’s ability to consistently make plays through the air is the biggest reason why Ohio State looks like it could roll through the Big Ten once again this year and contend for a national championship.
It’s certainly not just those three, though, that enabled Ohio State’s offense to hum for 526 yards on Saturday night. Ruckert caught two touchdown passes against the Nittany Lions while the running backs – particularly Master Teague – and the offensive line took clear steps forward from the season opener against Nebraska, as well. And Day believes it’s the combination of all those parts that gives the Buckeyes’ offense so much potential.
“We got a lot of weapons. And the good thing is, when you just have one guy, sometimes they can kind of take that away. But when you have several guys like that, and then you have the offensive line like we have and the running game, now that really makes them play honest,” Day said. “And when you can do that, that’s when you can really attack defenses, when they can’t overload one thing or the other. Can they double-team Chris on third down? Well, no, because we could run the ball or Justin could scramble. Can they just spy Justin? Well, if they don’t, then Garrett Wilson’s running a crossing route. There’s a lot of give and take here, and that really helps.”
After an offseason of wondering how Fields could take his game to the next level after he was already one of college football’s elite players in 2019, Ohio State’s quarterback has shown that he really was just scratching the surface of how great he can be, while the playmakers around him – especially Olave and Wilson – have taken their games to new levels, as well.
If they can keep playing at such a high level, they could ultimately cement themselves as one of the greatest quarterback-receiver trios in Ohio State history. And that’s certainly what they’re going to try to do, as they’re not going to simply be satisfied with their early-season success.
“We’re gonna go in tomorrow, look at the film and just try to get better each and every week,” Fields said. “We’re just going to keep improving each and every practice, and just keep getting better.”