Ohio State may be opening its season without Coach Urban Meyer, but judging from this past weekend it won’t be missing much.
Meyer, the Buckeyes’ suspended coach, is an offense-first thinker. His teams frequently field stellar defenses, but Meyer himself is a former wide receivers coach who is credited with innovating the spread offense and tutoring standout quarterbacks like Alex Smith, Tim Tebow and J.T. Barrett.
But Meyer was not present for the Buckeyes’ preseason camp this season, and he has been benched for the first three games of the season. Both absences are related to an investigation that ultimately found Meyer had mishandled the case of a former assistant coach accused of domestic violence and other misconduct.
So, as the Buckeyes opened their schedule on Saturday, among the many questions about his conduct lurked a football-specific one: How, without one of the sport’s great offensive minds, would the fifth-ranked Buckeyes’ offense fare in its opening tussle with Oregon State?
As it turns out, the initial answer, at least against lesser opposition, is just fine. Ohio State opened with 42 points, five touchdowns and just one punt — in the first half. Two quarters later, the Buckeyes had stomped the Beavers, nominally another power-conference team, 77-31.
Quarterback Dwayne Haskins — a sophomore with the daunting task of replacing Barrett, the on-and-off starter the past for seasons — set a team record for a first-time quarterback with five touchdown passes. The senior running back Mike Weber added three more on the ground. And Ryan Day, the Buckeyes’ co-offensive coordinator and acting head coach, offered only boilerplate about how things went.
“My job is not to replace Coach Meyer,” he said. “My job is to just keep this place until he gets back.”
Though no one would have wanted it this way, the Meyer suspension may benefit Day in the long term. A few months from now, a half-dozen or more head-coaching jobs at prominent programs are bound to be vacant. Day already had a strong résumé, as a 39-year-old acolyte of Chip Kelly (who on Saturday lost his first game as U.C.L.A.’s head coach). Now he has the opportunity to steer the Buckeyes through an entire fall camp and through three games — the Oregon State victory, a game against Rutgers next week, and another away to No. 16 Texas Christian (1-0) on Sept. 15 — as the effective head coach.
In the off-season, will he replace former Meyer assistant Chris Ash at Rutgers if the Scarlet Knights have another rough year? Or former Meyer assistant D.J. Durkin, currently suspended by Maryland amid an investigation into a Terrapins player’s death in June? Perhaps.
Or maybe he will have a shot at one of college football’s best jobs, head coach at Texas, should the Longhorns prematurely tire of Tom Herman — another former Meyer assistant — after a couple seasons of underperformance?
Few could fault Herman, who previously went 22-4 at Houston, for last season’s 7-6 record: that was his first year in Austin, and the mark actually was an improvement on all three preceding seasons of the Charlie Strong era.
But Texas failed to beat a far less talented and more chaotic Maryland (1-0) on Saturday. Now the Longhorns (0-1), who play No. 15 Southern California (1-0) in two weeks before embarking on their Big 12 gauntlet, are risking regression.
Herman has not been untainted by developments in Columbus, either: last week, Ohio State confirmed that he was the previously unnamed fellow assistant coach who had attended a Florida strip club with Zach Smith, the fired assistant whose behavior has now tainted Meyer. Chances are leading the proud Longhorns to their fourth losing season in the last five — with a roughly $5.5 million salary — could prove far worse for Herman’s career prospects.
Meanwhile, at Ohio State’s rivals to the north, Jim Harbaugh is also an offense-first coach, a successful Michigan and N.F.L. quarterback who later shepherded the college career of Andrew Luck and the pro career of Colin Kaepernick.
Yet in Harbaugh’s three full seasons at Michigan, the Wolverines’ calling card has been on the defensive side of the ball. That would be all well and good if the offense did enough to compensate, but after two 10-3 seasons, struggles on offense held Michigan to 8-5 last year and, on Saturday, led to a 24-17 season-opening defeat at No. 12 Notre Dame.
Quarterback Shea Patterson, a junior who transferred from Mississippi, was supposed to answer Michigan’s offensive problems. Instead Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush, a redshirt junior, looked like the stud, supplementing an efficient passing day with 59 yards on the ground. Time and again he eluded Michigan’s rushers and turned potential sacks into gains. In contrast, Michigan’s hopes for a comeback in the final minutes died when Patterson fumbled the ball on a sack.
Fans of No. 14 Michigan (0-1) will take rightful comfort in their team’s coach not having to serve a three-game suspension for a failure of leadership. And Notre Dame may prove a tough out for all comers this season. Still, the fact remains that Michigan scored one offensive touchdown in its season-opener, and its toughest tests are likely still to come.
Barring the unforeseen, Meyer will be back on Ohio State’s sideline when the Wolverines face the Buckeyes in Columbus on Nov. 24.