Few Ohio State fans expected to see their beloved team struggle against Penn State. Even fewer expected the Buckeyes to fall 24-21 in Beaver Stadium on Saturday after a thrilling overtime win in Madison, Wisconsin, just a week prior.
In a game that seemed to have an inevitable outcome when OSU led 21-7 in the fourth quarter, the team looked on in horror as a blocked field goal for Penn State was returned for a touchdown, giving coach James Franklin’s squad the go-ahead and game-winning score.
It was an emotional roller coaster for Buckeye backers looking on at the Scarlet and Gray trying helplessly to stop the charge of Penn State. In the end, the white out crowd was storming the field, and the Buckeyes had their first loss of the year.
OSU coach Urban Meyer said it was the play of his lines on both sides of the ball that hurt the Buckeyes the most.
“Any good team controls the line-of-scrimmage, you win the game. And I didn’t feel that way,” he said.
Although the first blow delivered to OSU came by way of an unranked Penn State team, a loss does not doom a team with playoff aspirations. But, it certainly doesn’t help the team paint a convincing picture.
Here are five takeaways from OSU’s gut-wrenching loss to Penn State.
OSU has developed an execution problem
Once in awhile, a team will come along that has sky-high expectations from its players, coaches and fans after months of offseason hype, even following a season that doesn’t go its way.
OSU was one of those teams this offseason, with many fans expecting a cake walk for the Buckeyes after a convincing win in Oklahoma. Saturday was proof that lots of fan backing and player potential gets you nowhere if the team as a whole fails to follow the game plan.
Sure, maybe the play calling was lacking at times, and maybe OSU played down to an opponent that is much less skilled than the Buckeyes are. Regardless of any outside excuses, the game was decided over one key element: a lack of execution.
During key moments, when the Buckeyes needed to limit the Penn State offensive attack, the defense allowed Nittany Lions’ redshirt sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley to buy time and scramble or locate an open receiver. When OSU was leading 12-0 just before halftime, a breakdown in coverage gave Penn State a chance to score.
In that instance, Penn State executed and OSU did not.
Questions will be brought up for the next week about co-offensive coordinators Ed Warinner and Tim Beck’s play selection, as well as the ability of redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett to lead the team from a late deficit. But the loss falls on the team as a whole, and the ability of the Scarlet and Gray to follow the game plan laid out for them.
And speaking of Barrett …
Barrett still figuring out young receivers
Barrett has been the man with the plan for the OSU offense since the season began. Meyer said he had the keys to the car, but there’s a slight issue arising in the 2016 campaign.
The timing between he and his receiving corp has been incredibly unreliable for OSU this year.
On a few throws, the perfect coordination between wide receiver and signal caller was there, like on redshirt sophomore Noah Brown’s late route that resulted in 34 yards. Brown broke open, and Barrett found him in stride with no one around.
For the majority of passing attempts in the past few weeks, Barrett has camped in the pocket, looking hopelessly downfield for somebody to get open. When a player does break free, the eyes of the OSU quarterback are looking elsewhere, with his progression making him move past that area of the field.
On Monday, Barrett said he thought his timing was the biggest thing he needed to work on in the week leading up to the Penn State showdown. He might have completed 65 percent of his passes for 245 yards, but the timing with wide receivers was simply not there.
In all, Buckeyes’ wideouts caught five of Barrett’s 28 completions, with Brown hauling in three. Overall, they were targeted just nine times out of a possible 43.
OSU has some true elite potential in its wide receivers, but until they can break open and get the rhythm down with Barrett, the rest of the season could be filled with nothing but checkdowns to running backs and curl routes to tight ends.
The offensive line is still inexperienced
An offensive line anchored by a pair of three-year starters is bound to be solid. However, introducing three new starters, including a true freshman, makes that offensive line a little more vulnerable.
Vulnerable is exactly what OSU’s offensive line looked like for most of Saturday’s game. Beaten off the edge and up the middle, the unit nicknamed “The Slobs” for their tenacity and grit was overmatched by a team that ranked 43rd in yards allowed.
Sophomore right tackle Isaiah Prince had an especially rough game. He allowed pressure in the pocket against Barrett and failed to set the edge on running attempts to his side on multiple occasions. The monster of a blocker from the Oklahoma game looked to be lost on occasion against Penn State.
“They schemed us,” redshirt junior guard Billy Price said. “They brought one more guy, and sometimes we could see, or they disguised the look. Got to give credit to Penn State.”
If a player with the experience of Price is struggling to decipher the defensive look of the opposition, that should spell out how the young players were feeling before each snap. The youth was as apparent as it could be. With each missed blocked, Penn State pass rushers had a free run at Barrett.
The Buckeyes pride themselves on the ability of their offensive line to dictate a game, but they will need to undergo a major growing-up phase if they hope to keep pressure from Barrett and keeping the running game alive.
Special teams not a bright spot for the Buckeyes
Cornerbacks and special teams coach Kerry Coombs has been coaching for over 30 years. He has been the mastermind behind OSU’s special teams for the last five. The experience of Coombs and his colorful attitude on the sideline are often a catalyst to success to the unit.
This year has been an entirely different story. From muffed punts to missed extra points, OSU had a rough couple of weeks to start the year.
Against Penn State, OSU had one of its worst games on special teams in recent memory. The Buckeyes had breakdowns in kick coverage on multiple occasions to go along with a missed extra point and two blocked kicks.
In a word, OSU’s special teams performance was bad, very bad.
The play of the special teams unit for OSU was far from the only reason for OSU’s loss. But the rough outing for Coombs’ squad is just another issue to add to the list for an OSU team that has been underwhelming in the last three weeks.
Playoff hopes are still alive in Columbus
A team coming off back-to-back close games against opponents ranked below them might not seem like a convincing playoff unit. But things are still looking bright for the Buckeyes, as long as they can turn the tide.
Penn State is a 5-2 team, with no real convincing win other than OSU. Still, a strong finish for the Nittany Lions would benefit the Buckeyes.
Two ranked opponents still lie in wait for OSU in Nebraska and Michigan. Wins against both could very well thrust the Scarlet and Gray into playoff contention.
The rest of the season must turn out one way for Meyer and company if they hope to reach the playoffs: win out.
If the team can figure out how to fix the problems from the last few weeks and perform like the team that toppled Oklahoma, OSU has a real shot at making it to the Big Ten championship as well as the College Football Playoff.
Otherwise, the Buckeyes will be looking for ways to enjoy themselves in another bowl. Outback Bowl anyone?