Saquon Barkley fielded the opening kick at the three yard line on a chilly, snowy afternoon in Columbus, Ohio, and 15 seconds later was in the opposite end zone, putting Penn State up 6-0 early. You couldn’t have written a more perfect opening monologue if you were a Nittany Lion fan if you tried. These two heavyweights were set to go toe-to-toe, and immediately after the ringing of the bell, Penn State landed a haymaker, punching Ohio State right in the mouth. Less than two minutes later, the Nittany Lions found the endzone again. After forcing a fumble, the Nittany Lions used five plays to go up 14-0.
But, as we know, what separates good teams from great teams isn’t necessarily how they start, but how they finish. Those great teams put opponents away when they’ve landed the first few shots, especially when they’ve walked into the lion’s den that is the Horseshoe. Penn State simply didn’t do that yesterday, and the 39-38 loss they suffered was a direct result of sitting on their laurels instead of pursuing a dazed opponent. It’s the difference between remaining the number two team in the nation at 8-0 and being 7-1, ranked seventh in the nation, essentially needing a miracle to find their way back into the playoffs.
You could use all the cliches in the book, but the one that’s always been the most unsettling to me was that you learn more from defeat than victory. You can have your life lesson, I’ll take the win every day of the week. Alas, we did learn some things from this bout in Columbus.
1. Play Calling Was Poor In The Second Half
This might be in direct correlation with the team pulling off the gas pedal after taking said 14-0 lead early in the first quarter. Both offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and defensive coordinator Brent Pry became overly cautious in the latter portion of this game, and it cost them. On the offensive side of the ball, the Nittany Lions scored just ten points to the Buckeyes 22, as short drives derailed the momentum of the offense. After a ten play, 70 yard drive in which the team had little trouble marching directly down the field, the Nittany Lions had drives of five, three, three and four plays in four of their final five drives, going for a total of nine yards. Combined. Altogether. NINE. That;s unacceptable. I understand that the Buckeyes have a stout front seven and got a ton of pressure on Trace McSorley in the second half. The reason they were able to do that: halftime adjustments. Urban Meyer and his staff were thoroughly dominated in the first half. They went into the locker room and clearly made adjustment, whereas James Franklin, Moorhead and Pry visibly did not. On those five drives, Saquon Barkley carried the ball eight times for negative two yards. Of course teams have zeroed in on Barkley all season long, stacking the box with as many as ten defenders, but the offense never made the necessary adjustments to protect Trace McSorley and give Saquon Barkley some running lanes. Defensively, and I can’t stress this enough from this past weekend, soft zones do not work against J.T. Barrett. He is too good and has far too much experience to be given the time to pick apart zone coverage over the middle of the field. I sensed time and time again that the slot receivers and tight ends were finding the soft spot in an already soft zone, sitting there, and simply having a catch with Barrett. Barrett threw just six incomplete passes on 39 attempts all day. He also threw three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter alone. I praised the Nittany Lion defense last week, and still believe they may be the best in the land, but they were certainly exposed this past weekend by a tremendous offense. It’s clear that athletic, quick slot receivers and tight ends pose serious problems for the linebacking core. In particular, they were completly dominated by K.J. Hill, who hauled in 12 passes for 102 yards. While he didn’t score, he helped stretch the field for the Buckeyes all afternoon. The coaching staff is squarely to blame for this loss.
2. Trace McSorley Went Back To His Old Ways
Last week, McSorley was a revelation, picking the exact right times to pull the ball and keep it himself. He got upfield successfully all night at Beaver Stadium, rushing for 76 yards and three scores. This past weekend in Columbus, however, McSorley seemed extremely hesitant to use his legs as weapons. While he actually recorded more carries (13) this week than last, his decision making wasn’t nearly as crisp as it was against Michigan. He ran for 49 yards on Saturday and picked up a touchdown on a perfectly designed running play in which McSorley followed Barkley’s lead block in for a score. Beside that, however, his RPO decision making wasn’t necessarily sharp, and it hurt the Nittany Lion offense. What may have been more disturbing than McSorley’s poor decision making was his unwillingness to run the football out of the shotgun. He had multiple opportunities to step up, take some pressure off his offense, and grab a couple of yards on the ground. Instead, he decided to remain within the pocket, struggling to find receivers downfield. There was one drive in particular that stalled after McSorley overthrew Mike Gesicki on a third down play. McSorley seemed to have a ton of open field in front of him to scamper for the first down and to reset, grabbing a fresh set of downs. It was the small things that McSorley seemingly never even has to consider that he struggled with so much this past weekend.
3. For As Long As He’s At Ohio State, J.K. Dobbins Is Going To Be A Menace
I haven’t seen a freshman take control of legitimate Big Ten defenses like J.K. Dobbins did this weekend since, well, Saquon Barkley did it in 2015. I mentioned in my preview of this game that Dobbins was starting to give some ground to Mike Weber, but it was going to be a hot hand type running back committee. It wasn’t an even split, as Dobbins got things going early and never looked back. He carried the ball 13 times to Weber’s seven, and it’s clear that Dobbins is the more electrifying of the two backs. The stats may not even do Dobbins justice in this one, either. We know just how good the Penn State front seven is against the run. Coming into the game, the Nittany Lions had allowed 805 rushing yards to opposing offenses through the first seven games this season, averaging just 115 yards on the ground per game. They also allowed just over three yards per carry to the opposition. The 88 yards that Dobbins was able to muster averaged out to over six yards per carry. As I said, though, Dobbins really transcended the stat sheet. His ball carrier vision was what impressed me the most. He kept his eyes downfield throughout the entirety of his rushes, evading Penn State linebackers by kicking the football to the outside of the field when he needed to. He was especially dangerous in the RPO, as well. Pairing Dobbins with the likes of J.T. Barrett, quite possibly the ultimate weapon out of the RPO has been extremely dangerous. Barrett has the ability to use his size to his advantage in the RPO by holding onto the football until the very last moment before making a decision, as he’s able to shrug off would-be tacklers with ease. Dobbins provides the perfect spark in that offense, as he’s able to get out of the backfield quickly, running as if he’s been fired out of a cannon. The two provide the perfect tandem, and it was on full display against Penn State this weekend. Like I mentioned late last week, the Ohio State offense has become a plug a place style of rushing attack that plays behind an impeccable offensive line year after year, so it is sometimes difficult to understand how good these Buckeye backs are. But even through rampant turnover to the NFL, these backs continue to succeed at all levels, proving they are as good as advertised. J.K. Dobbins will be the next Buckeye back to succeed for as long as he wants to stay within the collegiate ranks. He’ll be running the football on Sundays in the near future.
4. Penn State Took Advantage Of Good Field Position
It isn’t all bleak and dreary, rainy Sunday night, bad news for the Nittany Lions. There were aspects of the game that I was relatively pleased with Saturday despite the loss. The Nittany Lions did a fantastic job of using field position to their advantage twice in the game. After the Barkley opening kick return for a touchdown, Manny Bowen stripped Parris Campbell of the football. Scooping it up was Koa Farmer, who was brought down at the Ohio State 23-yard-line. Five plays later, the Nittany Lions were in the endzone, jumping out to that 14-0 lead. Later in the game, after the Buckeyes decided they were no longer going to kick the ball deep to the dangerous Barkley, Koa Farmer was in on the action again, as he fielded the pooch kick and took it 59 yards to the Buckeye’s 23-yard-line. Something seems repetitive about that particular yard maker that Koa Farmer found important in this one. Just two registered plays later (there was an ineligible player downfield called on Penn State and a crucial pass interference called on Ohio State) the Nittany Lions were in the endzone yet again, the touchdown that extended the lead to their largest of the night, at 28-10. While the outcome wasn’t favorable for Nittany Lion faithful, this was at least a minor detail that was favorable in my eyes for Penn State moving forward. Usually when you see teams lose games, they don’t take advantage of these particular situations, either not converting at all, or turning these into mere field goals. The Nittany Lions found the endzone both times and still found a way to lose. Funny how the game works sometimes.
Mandatory Credit: Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports