Ninety-seven yards and a cloud of dust.
On the opening kickoff of Ohio State’s game against Penn State, running back Saquon Barkley caught the kick on the Ohio State 3-yard line and took it the distance.
Kickoffs have been head coach Urban Meyer’s No. 1 complaint after nearly every game. The unit did not improve against Penn State, and it nearly cost the Buckeyes their season.
There was nothing inherently wrong with the opening kick. It was to the corner Ohio State is always shooting for, and the coverage converged on the spot. But there was a hole Barkley found on the left side, and he exploded down the sideline and into the end zone with ease, coming close to contact only momentarily after catching the kick.
By the time the game was over and the dust from Barkley’s run had settled, Ohio State emerged victorious against Penn State with a 39-38 win. But the special teams nearly cost the team its season on multiple occasions. Meyer was so flustered by his team’s poor play, he did not even want to discuss it with the team.
“Our kickoff coverage, I’m not even going to take questions on that,” Meyer said. “We’re just going to have to make serious changes on personnel and everything else. That was a comedy — comical.”
From that point on, the Buckeyes avoided Barkley on their kickoffs, but it didn’t seem to matter. On the third kickoff Ohio State sent, the Buckeyes stopped Penn State at the 20-yard line, but an offsides penalty on the call forced them to redo the kick. The result? A 6-foot-1, 237-pound linebacker named Koa Farmer caught the ball and brought it back 59 yards to Ohio State’s 23-yard line. Penn State converted the excellent field position into seven points.
Every time the ball was in the air, everyone in the stadium collectively held their breath waiting to see the end result. At one point, the Nittany Lions began their drive at their own 30-yard line, causing a roaring ovation from the fans that the damage was limited.
For the most part, Penn State’s offense was kept relatively in check. Barkley was limited on the ground to only 44 yards on 21 carries, and McSorley was only 17-for-29 with 192 passing yards and two touchdowns. The problem for Ohio State was that the Buckeye defense found itself starting in its own territory nearly every time the Nittany Lions received the ball. It got to the point where all Penn State had to do was travel 50 yards or less to score points.
The struggles at kickoff have led to a revolving door of players tasked with kicking off the ball. Freshman Blake Haubeil opened the season as the kickoff specialist before alternating with redshirt junior Sean Nuernberger over the past couple games. Against Penn State, it was all Nuernberger.
But as has been well documented, the blame is not solely the kicker’s to bear. Often it would appear the kick was placed exactly where the Buckeyes wanted the kick to land, and still the coverage would fail to do its part. Both the touchdown and the return from Farmer were on kicks executed nearly as well as Ohio State could ask for. The rest of the unit missed tackles and allowed the returners to get free and break off big runs.
By the end of the game, Ohio State was squib-kicking the ball down the field, exchanging the potential to pin the opponent back and the risk of a big return for the safety of a near guarantee Penn State would not return the kickoff for a touchdown.
The last drive of the game for Penn State, with the Nittany Lions down by only a single point, began on a squib kick that was caught before it could get too far and put Penn State at its own 40-yard line with 1:45 to go. All Penn State needed to do was drive 30 yards or less to be put in field goal position and potentially win the game.
The defense prevented them from moving forward and sealed Ohio State’s victory.
But the kickoff unit for the Buckeyes put them in compromising position after compromising position almost every time it was forced to take the field. Ohio State managed to escape with a win this time, but those problems could become major obstacles in Ohio State’s path to another title.
Meyer might not want to talk about the problems in front of the media. But he will need to address them eventually if the team is going to add a ninth championship banner.