Second Thoughts: Ohio State-Penn State

Why was a game in which the Buckeyes were such a big favorite decided in overtime? We take a closer look at what went on between Ohio State and Penn State on Saturday night.

This game had a lot of interesting twists and turns, so I think I'm going to go with a bullet-point-heavy recap, but my overall feeling is still that Ohio State missed a chance to cruise in this game by overly complicating things early. Penn State had some nice things cooked up on third downs, but they conceded a fair amount on early downs that Ohio State didn't accept early in the game. Then they tightened up later.

Defensively, I'm sure the Buckeyes got everything they expected to see as far as screens and draws and short passes. The defense played well, but it also left some things on the field that could have at least let Ohio State avoid overtime.

This Penn State team isn't that different from most of them over the past decade. It has some definite studs but a lot of filler, which is still better than most of the rest of the conference, but that's a story for another day...

The Nittany Lions showed this Ohio State offensive line has issues with pass protection, and that comes both in terms of physical matchups and communication. They aren't as good at adjusting to different looks and thus avoiding getting schemed up by a blitz or stunt as the unit was last year, although pass protection was not that group's specialty, either. That said, this Buckeye offensive line is still very good at run blocking, at least as long as it isn't outnumbered. There were a couple of misses either from a communication standpoint or just a failed block, but most of the night they did what they could. Some of the running game's struggles were a result of bad reads by the quarterback, and I thought there were at least a couple of plays during the Wildcat-palooza in the second half that guys who aren't that experienced running between the tackles didn't read the hole or a block as well as they could have.

The protection issues certainly hindered the play calling, but I thought Penn State was more worried about preventing the big play than taking away the run, especially early in the game. With the tight camera angles, it is hard to tell how often there were guys open who were not getting the ball and how often J.T. Barrett just had no options (if he had time). This could be a case of Barrett trying to be too fine, trying too hard to avoid a mistake and thus not pulling the trigger. That's a big part of the learning process for a young quarterback, and he got burned on his second interception going over the middle against a zone. He also missed at least two big play opportunities because of poor throws.

That said, Barrett proved his leadership and grittiness beyond a shadow of a doubt. There were enough other things going on that I do think it makes sense to focus more on his overtime performance than the second-half struggles (as opposed to the defense, where issues were spread across the unit as a whole). He put the team on his back and won the game with both his mind (some great reads) and his legs. The coaches have to be relieved to see his being able to do that because they still haven't figured out how to scheme against a good defense without relying heavily on the quarterback's legs. (I think this is also a criticism that bears more examination in another story.)

I still think the idea Ohio State played too conservatively overall is wrong. More like they took their chances at the wrong time.

In the second half, I thought the conservativeness was warranted given the injury and game situation, but I felt like early in the game they didn't maximize what Penn State was giving them and could have built a bigger lead.

Penn State had 86 yards through 45+ minutes. Then Adolphus Washington sacked Christian Hackenberg to force another terrible Penn State punt early in the fourth quarter and Ohio State called a straight dropback pass play only to see the young quarterback throw into a fairly small window that shrank as his eyes took the middle linebacker to the ball. Josh Hull deserves credit for the read and the play, but this situation was avoidable.

Defensively, Ohio State played well, even considering how bad Penn State has been on offense against Big Ten teams. The Silver Bullet hopefuls had only 10 points scored against them in regulation, and seven of those came on a short field. Of course, allowing the Lions to go 77 yards for a field goal and then score a touchdown in the first overtime period are things to worry about in terms of building a championship-worthy unit. Still, it's apparent the Buckeyes have made a lot of progress from last season -- and every journey has to start somewhere.

Notes and observations:

  • We'll start with overtime. On second down of Ohio State's first possession, Penn State came out in a bear defense but dropped out of it when Ohio State audibled. Barrett then pulled off a perfect zone-read fake and scooted up the sideline with the help of great blocks from Taylor Decker and Mike Thomas. On the next play, Penn State stayed in the bear front so OSU went to a midline option, reading the tackle instead of the end (this happened to be C.J. Olaniyan on both plays), and with Heuerman blocking linebacker Nyeem Wartman and Decker handling Hull, Barrett was able to score.
  • The game-winning touchdown was (almost) all about Barrett finishing the play by running through Penn State's two best linebackers, Wartman and Hull... at least after he got great initial blocks from Boren, Elflein, Price and Decker.
  • Ohio State showed a bear-type look on the final play of the game with the center and both guards covered, but they ended up bringing only four players. Thing was, three of them flooded the inside and the line couldn't handle it. Not sure if the guard was correct in trying to pick up linebacker Darron Lee blitzing because he was inside and a more immediate threat or if he was supposed to leave him for the back, who jumped inside then fanned out to get run over by Bosa.
  • On Ezekiel Elliott's touchdown run, Penn State overloaded the inside but he made a great individual play by bouncing it outside and outrunning a couple of guys. Penn State put nine in the box, but Ohio State had a second tight end in the game to counter that. Still, the success of this play was pretty much all about talent.

  • Looked like on Ohio State's second kickoff, someone drifted out of his lane and there was a missed a tackle, but kyle clinton went after the return man. He made a pretty nice open-field play, not just waiting for the guy to make his move but taking it to him.

  • On the first failed third-and-short, Penn State brought a safety into the box for an extra defender and he helped make the stop, but the play was made by Wartman, who took on both Boren and Elflein so that there were two unblocked players. Deion Barnes jumped up and celebrated after the play but all he did was jump on the pile after Elliott was stopped. On the failed third-and-short midway through the second quarter, Ohio State had the men to block the front but the line miscommunicated on who was picking up the nose guard. No one really did. Fine play call, bad execution.

  • First play of Ohio State's third drive Penn State had eight in the box but Ohio State had two tight ends. This play was blocked superbly and the safety who was supposed to come up and fill did a poor job delivering a blow. Price, Boren, Elflein and Heuerman all made great blocks. Next play Ohio State went empty but brought Heuerman in as an H-back and then ran quarterback power with Heuerman essentially throwing a trap block. Price neutralized Hull and Barrett set it up well then got up field when he needed to. Two deep safeties meant lots of room.

  • At the 13-minute mark of the second quarter, color analyst Todd Blackledge suggested Ohio State would be wise to take a shot. They tried and it set off a chain reaction that led to a field goal on a drive that had started very promisingly. Ohio State came up to the line with favorable numbers to run with but stuck with the pass play. No one was open because there were seven guys in coverage, and Price whiffed on Barnes. Barrett did a nice job avoiding him but Hull did a good job coming up to clean up and make a nice open-field tackle. Here things unraveled. The successful first down started to get the crowd back into it and may have emboldened PSU to draw up a blitz. Showing that caused a false start penalty, then OSU had to call timeout, getting the crowd more into it. Second down resulted in a short pass that was broken up and third down was a coverage sack made possible because they had to throw down the field.

  • As Meyer said Monday, Penn State schemed them up with the pick-six. They played man coverage behind the blitz and it looked like defensive tackle Anthony Zettel knew that's what Barrett's hot read would be so he was ready to snatch it.

  • Even after the pick-six, Penn State came back on the next play with only six guys in the box. OSU ran a successful jet sweep early in the third quarter on which Wilson made a man miss and got great blocks from Heuerman and Elliott. Should they have tried to do this more? I'm not sure. The PSU linebackers all run pretty well, but Ohio State has some great athletes who are dangerous on the edge.

  • There was a deep pass off a fake jet sweep is an example of where the quarterback needs more help from the receiver. Barrett put too much air under the throw, but it was right there for a big, athletic receiver like Thomas to snatch. Seems like forever since Ohio State has had a receiver do that. Ironically, Michigan scored a TD on a similar type of throw where Devin Funchess did take the ball away from a Penn State safety who looked at first like the intended receiver.

  • Ohio State's hopes of capitalizing on momentum from Tyvis Powell's very impressive interception went by the wayside when reserve end Carl Nassib made a really nice play on the inverted veer. He squeezed the gap tightly enough to give Barrett a "give" read but was athletic enough to get a piece of Elliott after Barrett handed off to him. Could have been a big play otherwise because they were arc blocking and had it covered down field.

  • I'd say Ohio State's coaching staff knew they were going to have to stop a variety of screens, because the Buckeyes were mostly fantastic against them almost all night. And it wasn't a matter of just outrunning mistakes. Guys stayed home and player their responsibilities and beat blocks and made good tackles.

  • I wondered if moving the pocket more would serve Penn State, but Hackenberg doesn't throw well on the run.

  • Welcome to college football, Eli Apple. I agree with those who feel the redshirt freshman has a promising future, and his night was a reminder how hard playing cornerback is these days. He had a handful of very nice plays but was also victimized in single coverage a couple of times. That's going to happen, especially against the receivers PSU has. Overall there was more good than bad. He certainly looks the part athletically.

  • Wasn't that period where they were running wildcat nonstop weird? I'm assuming it was in part because of Barrett having a gimpy knee, but it is a reminder this offense kind of falls apart without the quarterback being able to run the ball. For better or for worse. I guess this is why in the earlier days of the spread I was always an advocate of a more diverse system, although as poorly as Ohio State tried to go back and forth between power and spread schemes under Jim Tressel, we know that's sometimes easier said than done.

  • The first play of the drive that started nearly midfield with about five minutes left was an example of when they probably should have gotten out of a first-down running play because Penn State responded to Ohio State's 12 personnel (two tight ends) with nine in the box. C.J. Olaniyan was the option man and made a nice play, but there was not much room to operate either way. On the next play, they again faced a stacked box and stayed with the power read against a bear-type front when trying to get outside would have been a better option. That set them up for something that was not a good situation all night: Third and long. Penn State got its best defensive player (Zettel) isolated on Price, and he put a serious spin move on him, but Barrett almost made it work anyway with a great spin move and run.

  • Ohio State tackled pretty well all night, but Bell and Apple missed tackles at an inopportune time on the final drive to let Penn State convert a fairly long third down with a screen pass.

  • Bosa is clearly a great player, but he got some help from his linebackers on more than one occasion. An example came on the final drive when they blitzed Curtis Grant and he occupied both the center and the guard, leaving Bosa isolated on the right tackle (who started at center). That was a mismatch to say the least. Nice scheme. Nice execution. Lee pulled a similar trick earlier in the game and again at the end.

  • I wouldn't blame Penn State fans if they have some concern about Hackenberg (Of course they probably don't). I realize he's had a lot of pressure all season, but I don't think he's responded to it as well as he could. He makes a lot of bad decisions, including two on the final drive of regulation that should have ended the game. Certainly the talent is there. This also makes me wonder about the grooming he is getting this year versus last year, when he had a bona fide QB guru as head coach. I don't think this offense is as quarterback-friendly or sophisticated.
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