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Football: Kickoffs could play major role in Ohio State-Penn State game

Ohio State freshman kicker Blake Haubeil (95) sends the ball down the field during the 2017 season opener vs Indiana. Ohio State won 49-21. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

A blocked field goal try separated Ohio State from victory and defeat last season against Penn State.

With 4:27 remaining in the game, Penn State safety Marcus Allen blocked a kick from Tyler Durbin and cornerback Grant Haley scooped up the football and took it 60 yards for the game-winning touchdown, stunning an Ohio State team that entered the game ranked No. 2 and as a 20-point favorite.

Considering the shaky special teams play this season from the Buckeyes and a strong showing from the Nittany Lions, special teams could again play a major role in shaping the outcome of this matchup.

This season, the field-goal unit has not been the cause for concern. Instead, the primary issue has come on kickoffs.

The Buckeyes have been fortunate that, to this point, the kickoff concerns have been spotlighted only in games Ohio State handily defeated its opponents. The team will not have the same luxury Saturday.

Head coach Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes cannot afford to make mistakes against Penn State.

Meyer’s unit has tried to pin the kickoffs in the back-right corner of opposing teams’ return all season. Often the kick drifts too far to the right and out-of-bounds, or it drifts too far to the left where the coverage is unprepared for the return, sometimes leading to explosive returns.

 

“A lot of [the special teams struggles] has been the placement of the kick,” Meyer said. “We’ve adjusted that and it’s changed.”

Against Indiana on Sept. 30, Penn State’s kick returner Saquon Barkley returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, punching the Hoosiers in the mouth right out of the gate as the Nittany Lions ran away to a 45-14 victory.

That has been something of a trend for Penn State this season. Barkley has been a force to be reckoned with any time he touches the ball, and that extends to his role as a returner. The Heisman hopeful has the fifth-highest yards per return (30.3) this season.

Meyer said the team has been trying the same strategy all season and that it will need to change its kickoff plans to find more success.

“So what’s the definition of insanity? Keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. So we’re working extremely hard on that,” Meyer said.

Based on that answer, Meyer has been insane for quite a while this season. At no point this year has the strategy appeared to be kicking the ball out of the back of the end zone for a touchback. The coverage has seemed to remain the same as the Buckeyes have aimed for that same corner over and over again, expecting things to change.

In fact, Ohio State’s stubbornness in trying to hit the same corner has resulted in a similar amount of out-of-bounds kicks (four) as touchbacks (six).

The best returner the Buckeyes have faced this season is Maryland running back Ty Johnson. He currently averages the 12th-most yards per return among FBS players with 27.4 yards. In Ohio State’s victory against Maryland Oct. 7, Johnson returned a kick for a touchdown and returned a different kick 30 yards on another misplaced boot.

 

After that game, Meyer expressed his frustration with the team’s inability to pin teams back, stating Ohio State was “the only team in the country that can’t kick the ball down the field.”

In a game that will decide the fate of Ohio State’s season, the Buckeyes will need to become a team that can kick the ball down the field effectively. If issues on kickoffs linger, a special-teams blunder could once again be what separates Ohio State from a win and a loss. This time, it could determine a College Football Playoff berth.

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