66. 50. 52. 56. 17.
Which one of these – Ohio State’s point total in regulation the past five games – is not like the others?
It’s obvious that OSU didn’t quite have the offensive performance many had come to expect through its previous four games, the first time in school history that the Buckeyes reached 50 points in four consecutive wins.
At Penn State on Saturday, the Buckeyes got to 17 points by halftime but were shut out in the second half and gave up two turnovers that allowed the Nittany Lions to claw back into the game and force overtime in the 31-24, two-OT OSU win.
And usually when Ohio State struggles to put points on the board, the question becomes – was it play-calling? Was it execution? Was it the other team? Was it a combination of all three?
Yes, it’s usually all three. Penn State entered the game first in the nation in rush defense, sixth in points and yards allowed and 22nd in passing efficiency defense, and the Nittany Lions did nothing to dull thoughts that they boast one of the best corps of stop troops in not just the Big Ten but the country, as head coach Urban Meyer deemed Penn State one of the top-five defenses in the nation.
“To give Penn State credit, they had a phenomenal game plan against us, and that is a stout defense,” running backs coach Stan Drayton said. “They showed up and played extremely well. So give them credit.”
Of course, with Ohio State, the story can’t end there, as the Buckeyes’ demanding fan base wants to know how a team can go from four consecutive games of 500 yards of offense to not even breaking the 300-yard mark after two OTs against Penn State.
And to put it bluntly, the offense didn’t look like it did the previous few games. There were more between-the-tackles runs, less shots down the field into the teeth of the nation’s top rush defense while facing a team that lost a starting safety to injury before the game.
But according to the Buckeyes, that was somewhat the plan. Ohio State thought it could move the ball on the ground, and did so throughout the first half, posting 84 yards in the first quarter and ending up with more than 200 for the game to nearly quadruple Penn State’s average.
“We knew coming in to Penn State they were going to be a loud crowd so we had to take the crowd out of the game, so the solution is you’ve just got to run the ball and run the ball effectively,” said Ezekiel Elliott, who topped 100 yards on the day. “We did that really good when we first came out.”
But the offense did bog down in the second half, for a couple of reasons. The Buckeyes wanted to shepherd the game home in some ways, with the defense keeping the Nittany Lions off the board for their first nine possessions.
“It felt like we were playing really good defense, and we didn’t want to take a ton of chances in the throw game because we knew it was kind of hit-or-miss whether we could block them up front for as long as we needed to,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said.
Meyer admitted that the Buckeyes’ offense didn’t exactly have the tempo that the Buckeyes were used to as well, but that was also be design, especially once the team had the lead.
“We kind of slowed it down a little bit,” the head coach said. “That was one of those games where I kind of – not kind of. We were playing very good defense, playing pretty good field position. It's a little bit like Wisconsin a couple of years ago. We threw the pick-six and I saw a rattled quarterback, so we kind of got conservative there for a little bit, and as a result didn't get as many yards or as many first downs as we normally get.”
Meyer also said the Buckeyes will check their tendencies as well as there was a feeling the Nittany Lions knew what was coming at times.
But within those answers, there were also hints that the coaching staff was also worried about the team’s execution in the cauldron of noise – more than 110 decibels – that was Beaver Stadium. In particular, Barrett wasn’t the same QB who had dominated the previous four opponents, throwing a pick-six to a dropping D-lineman and also throwing a first-down pass in the fourth quarter to linebacker Mike Hull in a zone.
Herman said after the game that Barrett missed a few throws – something the quarterback admitted in his postgame press availability – and also said the pass protection didn’t give Barrett a chance at times. The offensive line, strong since the fourth quarter of the Virginia Tech game, had occasional issues in both the run and pass game.
One drive late in the third quarter seemed to encapsulate Ohio State’s issues. The Buckeyes took over at the 30 but Elliott lost 6 yards on first down when Barrett seemed to make the wrong decision on a read play, as he appeared to have room to run on the outside. On the next play, Elliott – normally a staunch pass blocker – failed to pick up a blitz on a play-action pass and Barrett was sacked for a loss of 7. OSU could only run a draw on third down.
“We weren’t always executing our fundamentals, to be honest,” OSU running backs coach Stan Drayton said. “In the course of a high-intensity game like, you tend to let your emotions get in the way sometimes of your fundamentals. They start to press, and they want to do well and they’re pleasers, and in the process of doing that, they make mistakes. We didn’t always execute in the way we want. We need to become more consistent in that if we want to be the offense that we’re capable of becoming.”
For as much success as the Buckeyes had in the four games before Penn State, the youth and inexperience on the attack remain. There is talent for sure, but the road to what the Buckeyes hope is a championship at the end of the year won’t necessarily be a smooth or linear one.
“I tried to keep telling you guys,” Herman said. “You guys wouldn’t listen. We certainly are a work in progress, like I said. We’re playing with a quarterback that now has seven games under his belt and we’re playing with a few guys up there that this was really their first road test in a ridiculously hostile environment.
“Hats off to them. They played their tails off, and obviously their crowd is a big factor in what they do. It was exciting to see us keep responding, keep responding, keep responding. Although it took some time, at the end of the day our guys pulled it out when they needed too.”