COLUMBUS — It was different. It was historic. It was weird. And it was quiet. Very quiet.
Ohio State’s 52-17 win over Nebraska on Saturday in its often-delayed and much-anticipated season opener was played in front of only 1,344 people because of Big Ten restrictions to try to contend with the coronavirus.
Family members and friends of players made up of most of the crowd in the outside seating areas of Ohio Stadium. Media, Ohio State media relations personnel and other workers were also counted in the total and some space was reserved for NFL scouts.
There was no band. No cheerleaders. The flag was already at the top of the flag pole when a recording of the national anthem was played before the game instead of a student in ROTC charging down the ramp behind the north end zone to raise it as usual.
Even the tradition of singing the alma mater, Carmen Ohio, after the game looked different with the players and coaches facing the west stands instead of the south stands because many of the parents were in seats on the west side of the stadium and no one was sitting in the south stands.
According to the Ohio State Football Encyclopedia written by longtime OSU historian Jack Park, the previous record for the smallest crowd at Ohio Stadium was 5,428 for a game against Wilmington College in 1926.
“It was definitely weird. I was looking up to the stands to celebrate with some friends but nobody was up there,” Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields said.
OSU coach Ryan Day said, “It was strange. I can’t sit here and say it wasn’t different.”
Weird seemed to be the favorite reaction of the day. “It was definitely weird but you’re so locked in, at least I am, that we really didn’t notice it,” offensive guard Wyatt Davis said. “Me, personally, it didn’t bother me at all.”
Fields said even though he missed the crowd, the lack of noise might have had an upside.
“I wouldn’t say it was easier (without noise) but there was definitely a sense of calmness around us,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Ohio State’s high-energy defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs missed the usual sounds of game day with 102,000 fans in the stadium.
“I’m not going to tell you it’s as much fun when that place is rocking that’s where you want to be. I missed it,” he said.
Back-up quarterback: For one game, at least, the answer to who is Ohio State’s back-up quarterback was freshman Jack Miller.
Miller entered the game with 2:53 to play. He did not throw a pass but carried the ball for 21 yards and two yards. His two-yard carry produced the Buckeyes’ final touchdown with 18 seconds left in the game.
Freshman receivers: Jaxon Smith-Njigba was the first of the highly touted freshman receivers for Ohio State to be targeted with a pass, the first to catch a pass and he made a spectacular catch.
Smith-Njigba, who had 82 touchdown catches in high school in Rockwall, Texas, got one foot down in the end zone on a five-yard pass from Justin Fields for a fourth-quarter touchdown reception.
Julian Fleming, who was rated the No. 1 receiver nationally in the 2020 recruiting class, had one catch for 13 yards.
Garrett’s return: Defensive lineman Haskell Garrett returned to the field and had a sack eight weeks after being shot in the face by an unknown assailant in an off-campus incident.
“I hugged him in the locker room after the game and said, ‘This is a miracle,’ ” Coombs said. “I know having him on the field was a difference maker for the Buckeyes in every way, shape and form.”
Attendance: There were also 4,770 cut outs of fans in the stands in addition to the 1,344 humans in the stadium.
By the numbers: Ohio State has beaten Nebraska six games in a row. It has won 21 consecutive opening games and has not lost an opener at home since 1978.
Targeting: Two Nebraska defensive players, cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt and safety Deontai Williams, were ejected for targeting in the second half.