Akron turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for Ohio State football Saturday.
The 10th-ranked Buckeyes, a young squad dealing with the usual expectations that come with donning the Scarlet and Gray no matter one’s age, needed not just a win but a boost in confidence before getting back into Big Ten play.
What better way to do that than to play a team from a conference without a win against you in more than a dozen decades?
Even with starting quarterback C.J. Stroud and several others sidelined, the Buckeyes dominated after a slow couple of series on each side of the ball and won going away, 59-7.
They not only handled their business and beat an overmatched foe soundly, they addressed a handful of specific issues that have been persistent early in the season (if not before).
While the running game continued to roll — four backs combined to average 8.1 yards per carry — the passing game was more efficient even with true freshmen Kyle McCord making his first college start.
McCord needed to throw only 18 passes to get 319 yards. He completed 13, including 12 of his last 14.
Jack Miller III was also solid in relief, completing five of his first eight college pass attempts for another 66 yards.
Regardless of the level of competition, those two showing head coach Ryan Day they can execute in games could give him more confidence to turn to them if necessary in the future.
That is no small thing to college coaches famously averse to the unknown.
“Do I think everything went perfectly? No, absolutely not,” Day said. “But the fact that they both played in the game and got some series under their belts I think was good.
“At least you have an idea of what you have when you get into the game because you don’t know until you actually play, and now we have some things that we can build on and try to grow from for sure.”
Now what is unknown is what will happen with the quarterbacks.
Day said the staff would evaluate Stroud, who rested a sore shoulder in practice last week and was available only on an emergency basis against the Zips, and then decide who will prepare to be the starter against Rutgers.
He did not commit to handing the job back to Stroud, who put up big numbers but had some ups and downs to be expected of a first-year freshman starter, if he receives a clean bill of health.
“We’ll practice (Sunday) and we’ll see how he’s doing,” Day said. “Seems like today he was feeling stronger, feeling better. So we made that decision last Sunday (to rest him), and now we said we’re gonna sit down tomorrow and kind of figure out what the plan for the week is and you know hopefully we can get him up and going this week.”
While the offense had some inconsistencies in the first three weeks but still put up big numbers through the air and on the ground, the defense was more the opposite.
The Silver Bullets mixed in flashes of competency with long stretches of struggles against Minnesota, Oregon and Tulsa, but against Akron many of the questions that have followed the Buckeye defense for more than a year were answered.
For one night at least, the Buckeyes rushed the passer relentlessly, forced turnovers, stopped the run, tackled well and showed multiple coverages to keep the quarterback guessing.
Day hopes that success begets more as the season moves into its second month.
“I think that is part of it, feeling comfortable about what you’re doing and building off of it,” the coach said. “The more times that some of these younger players start making plays, you look at the guy next to you and that builds confidence because you know he can do it.
“This is new for our guys. Some of our guys do not have a ton of reps, but now they’re building it.”
He used Ronnie Hickman as an example.
After playing sparingly his first two seasons, Hickman has blossomed in the hybrid “Bullet” position that calls for him to be a linebacker on some plays and a deep safety on others.
Hickman returned an interception for a touchdown against the Zips and continues to lead the Buckeyes in tackles with 33.
“A lot of people didn’t know who Ronnie was four weeks ago; now he’s really doing it,” Day said. “Cody Simon is starting to show up, and we had some steps in the right direction, and I thought we were aggressive overall and we tackled well.”
Rutgers will present a greater challenge next week, though the extent of the increase is somewhat uncertain.
In their second year of the second tenure of Greg Schiano, the Scarlet Knights appear to be much better than they were — but they had a long way to go.
Rutgers started 3-0 before losing to unbeaten Michigan on Saturday.
Schiano’s squad became the first to slow the Wolverines’ revamped running game and dominated the second half but could not quite recover from a 20-3 deficit and lost 20-13.
Day, who shared the Ohio State coaching staff with Schiano in 2016-18 when both were assistants to Urban Meyer, said last week he measures the Buckeyes against themselves regardless of the opponent anyway.
“Overall in the game I thought we did some good things,” Day said. “I think there are still some things to build on. You can certainly see there are a lot of guys out there that need these snaps and this experience to keep building, and that’s the idea. If we keep building, then we will have a chance to get to where we want to be by the end of the season.”