COLUMBUS — How much did Ohio State miss its No. 1 receiver Chris Olave when it had to play the Big Ten championship game without him?
More than its coaches and players said they did after that 22-10 win over Northwestern, judging by how glad they are to have him back when they play Clemson in the Sugar Bowl in a College Football Playoff semifinal on Friday night in New Orleans.
Olave was one of the Buckeyes who were unavailable against Northwestern because of COVID-19 issues.
“I miss Chris being out on the field. He’s a great leader for the receivers, he’s a great player. Having him back will make our offense better overall,” OSU quarterback Justin Fields said on a Zoom conference on Monday.
“I think Chris and I have a great chemistry on the field. Having him out there will definitely improve our offense a lot,” he said.
Olave (36 catches, 528 yards, 5 touchdowns) and Wilson (38 catches, 621 yards, 5 touchdowns) have been one of the more dynamic duos among college football receivers this season. Without Olave on the other side of the field, Wilson noticed a difference against Northwestern, a game in which he had only four catches.
“Playing in that game was a little frustrating,” Wilson said. “Chris, being a great player, he’s going to open everything up in the offense. The defensive backs can’t lean one way or another. Chris opens up the whole offense. Getting Chris back, that’s going to be huge,” Wilson said.
Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson obviously is glad to have Olave back, too.
“He is a tremendous player. It’s good to have him back practicing. He’s one of the best deep ball trackers, not just because he’s fast but also because of his baseball background, playing centerfield.
“He took last year personally, a little more than he should have, but that’s what great competitors do,” Wilson said, referring to Olave breaking off a pass pattern that resulted in an interception on OSU’s final offensive play in a 29-23 playoff semifinal loss to Clemson last season.
Fields had 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions in Ohio State’s first three games this season but has four touchdown passes and five interceptions in the Buckeyes’ three games since then.
Getting him back on track against what is probably the best defense OSU has faced this season would also be big.
Fields said his mistakes have driven him to work even harder.
“To be honest I feel like everything happens for a reason. What happened in those games and me not playing as well as I wanted to, maybe God was sending me a message that I need to do more and work harder. That’s kind of how I’m looking at it,” he said.
“For this game I’m preparing my butt off. I haven’t prepared like this the whole season. I’m not mad at the way I played. After the game I was mad but now I’m just motivated. I know all of my teammates are motivated and ready to go.”
Ohio State coach Ryan Day said, “He left that field wanting another shot and now he has another shot. He’s not the only guy who felt that way. There are a lot of guys on our team who felt that way.”
Day did not identify the players who missed the Big Ten championship game because of COVID-19 but said several of them should be able to play Friday night.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys back and they’re practicing with us but it’s not like you put them back in there and they’re going a hundred miles an hour right away,” he said.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who voted Ohio State No. 11 in The Associated Press Coaches Poll, spent five minutes explaining and defending his vote during a Clemson Zoom conference on Monday.
“There’s no question Ohio State is good enough to beat us. They’re good enough to be the national champion. I didn’t rank anybody who played nine games or less in the Top 10,” he said.
“People take it personal but it’s nothing personal at all. I just don’t think it’s right that three teams have to play 13 games and one team has to play eight. If people don’t agree with that, I don’t really care. To me, right is right. It’s not always easy to do the right thing.”
Ohio State’s players on Monday’s Zoom call had a variety of reactions to Swinney’s vote.
Tight end Luke Farrell shrugged it off. Offensive lineman Wyatt Davis said, “We’re going into this game not respected at all, which is a lot of motivation for us.”
Garrett Wilson said, “I’m not going to say we didn’t hear about it and we didn’t react to it. But it was just fuel to our fire.”