Ohio State sophomore wide receiver Emeka Egbuka has successfully fielded several punts over his shoulder this season, yet he muffed his first return in Saturday’s 49-10 win over Rutgers, which allowed Scarlet Knights to score their only touchdown of the game just three plays later.
“That’s not good when you turn the ball over the first punt of the game,” head coach Ryan Day said during his press conference on Tuesday. “He’s been reliable for us and he’ll continue to be reliable for us, but I know he wishes he had that play back. Nobody wanted to make the play more than Emeka.”
You would think that moving Egbuka back just a few yards would easily solve this problem, but Day noted how the ball bounces on the new turf at Ohio Stadium and “rolls forever,” costing the Buckeyes valuable field position.
One example of this came late in the 21-10 win over Notre Dame, when a punt went over Egbuka’s head, bounced at the 30-yard line and rolled to the 11-yard line before it was downed.
Then, on the opening drive of the 45-12 win over Arkansas State one week later, the ball bounced in front of Egbuka at the 35-yard line and rolled to the 4-yard line, which is a difference of 50 yards of field position on two punts combined.
“Trying to find that sweet spot in there is difficult,” Day said. “Obviously that one got us, but he’s also done a good job of making sure to catch those because if you go too far back and it takes that big hop and rolls 30 yards, that’s three first downs, so we try to find that spot in there, and sometimes we do better than others.”
The wind was also blowing hard on Saturday, with the flags on the upper deck of Ohio Stadium flapping in a southerly direction. But the shape of the historic venue oftentimes creates a swirling effect closer to the field, making it even more difficult to track the ball in the air.
“Sometimes to try to get an idea of where that wind is taking the ball or holding the ball up is a little bit of a challenge, and we try to do the best we can out there,” Day said, noting they’ll try to get Egbuka some extra reps in practice when there are windy conditions outside of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. “We have all the confidence in the world that he’ll catch the ball when it’s in the air.”
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Egbuka successfully fielded two additional punts on Saturday afternoon, including one on Rutgers’ next offensive drive where he made another over-the-shoulder catch. The other was a fair catch inside the 10-yard line early in the second quarter, so he was able to put the miscue behind him quickly.
“It did bother me,” Egbuka said during his media availability on Wednesday evening. “Something I’ve been working on is just moving on to the next play, getting it out of my head and focusing on the ‘next-play mentality.’ But it’s something I’ve thought about and something we continue to work on during the week so that we’re never in that situation again.”
That said, similar conditions could await Egbuka when Ohio State travels to East Lansing to take on Michigan State this Saturday. The wind currents at Spartan Stadium have been tricky in the past, and punter Bryce Baringer is notably third in the nation with an average of 53.3 yards per punt.
“There’s a lot of wind up there,” Egbuka said, “but we’ve got to be ready for any environment that’s going to be thrown our way, so we’re doing everything we can to make sure that never happens again.”
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