The message was heard loud and clear as evidenced by the slew of underclassmen that produced solid numbers in their second game in the Horseshoe on Saturday.
Playing against an overmatched Kent State squad, Ohio State’s youngsters quickly set the tone of the game. Sophomore "H" Dontre Wilson returned the opening kick 38 yards to give freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett and the offense great starting field position. Barrett decided to keep the ball in the hands of sophomores, which turned out to be just what the Buckeyes needed. Wilson, running back Ezekiel Elliot and receiver Michael Thomas were the beneficiaries as those three gained all 58 yards on the drive that ended on a 14-yard touchdown catch from Thomas.
After two touchdowns from Rod Smith and a 41-yard field goal from freshman Sean Nuernberger, Thomas delivered once more on a 63-yard catch and run to put the Buckeyes ahead 31-0. It was the team-leading fourth touchdown reception on the year for the redshirt sophomore from Los Angeles. After a frustrating first two years, it appears Thomas is fully entrenched in the youth movement sweeping over the team.
“When a play comes I got to make,” Thomas said after the game. “You may not get as many chances with a lot of guys (playing) because you know we got a lot of talent at wideout, so just take advantage of my opportunities.”
Thomas was not the only player given opportunities, as a big one was given to an unlikely player on the Buckeyes’ next series.
After driving 92 yards, the Buckeyes had a first-and-goal on the Golden Flashes’ 2-yard line. With nobody out wide to the left, redshirt freshman tight end Marcus Baugh got into the game and lined up tight on the left side. He ran an out route and Barrett hit him in the corner of the end zone for not only his first touchdown, but also first collegiate reception. The tight end has had a much maligned career thus far in Columbus after serving suspensions both last year and this season, but he made the most of his first collegiate game action Saturday.
Devin Smith gave fans something familiar to end the half on, as he took a bomb from Barrett 50 yards to the house to put the Buckeyes ahead 45-0 at the break.
Youth continued to be served in the second half, though, as two more freshmen had their first ever touchdowns while donning the scarlet and gray.
The Buckeyes’ first drive of the third quarter started at the Golden Flashes’ 28 after redshirt freshman "H" Jalin Marshall had a 15-yard punt return. Marshall’s reward for the giving the Buckeyes good field position was receiving a short shovel pass from Barrett for a 3-yard score.
“It was a dream come true,” Marshall said of his first collegiate touchdown. “Looking around at all the fans going crazy and then especially with my teammates. Then I looked up at my mom and she blew me a kiss and that was just icing on the cake.”
The Buckeyes’ final two touchdowns came off the legs of running back Curtis Samuel, the freshman that everyone has raved about all fall. He ran in scores of 3 yards and 1 yard to finish the offensive outburst at 66 points. The freshman from Brooklyn finished the day with 15 carries for 100 yards and four catches for another 40 yards.
“I was very excited. Coming into this game I just wanted to play at my highest level,” Samuel said after his career day. “Today I felt like I played up there, but I know can do much better, so every week I’m just (going to) prepare myself better and take my game to the next level.”
Defensively, two true freshmen also made sure their impact was felt on the field.
Safety Erick Smith got his first action in the defensive backfield after only playing special teams the first two games. He finished with an interception and a tackle, leaving his coaches impressed with the performance.
"It was nice to get Erick Smith in the game and get an interception,” co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash said. “We had wanted him to get the opportunity to get in the game and get his feet wet at least a little bit, and he was able to do that today on both special teams and defense."
Linebacker Raekwon McMillan, perhaps the most heralded recruit in the past recruiting class after being named Scout's No. 50 player in the nation, got on the field in the second defensive series and continued to play throughout the rest of the game. He showed he had a nose for the ball immediately by registering a sack on his first series. He ended up leading the team in tackles with seven in addition to two sacks and three tackles for loss.
Despite his impressive stats, McMillan said there is still more for him to learn.
“Our philosophy is four to six, A to B, relentless effort. Even if the ball is on the other side of the field I’ll keep running no matter what,” McMillan said afterwards. “I think I did OK, but it’s some little things here and there, the small things that really matter. The small things like hitting the right gap on blitzes, setting the lineman up in a good position for them to make a play and helping my back end out with what routes the receivers are running, little stuff like that.”
Other true freshmen who burned their redshirts today were receivers Johnnie Dixon and Noah Brown, linebacker Dante Booker, defensive lineman Jalyn Holmes, cornerback Damon Webb, and offensive linemen Jamarco Jones and Marcelys Jones.
The amount of playing time the underclassmen received proves how much the coaching staff trusts in them. Although they were playing an inferior opponent, they still produced in big ways.
It will be interesting to see if any of them continue to earn time on the field when the conference schedule ramps up, but they showed that they received the message coach Meyer was sending all week. After the response on the field, it’s clear that their time is now.