STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Some final notes, quotes, thoughts and observations from Ohio State’s first loss of the 2016 campaign, a 24-21 defeat at the hands of Penn State.
The most stunning of all the losses
• Of the five losses the Buckeyes have now suffered in the Urban Meyer era, this one was the most surprising.
In the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game against Michigan State, the Spartans jumped out to a 17-nothing lead. In the ensuing Orange Bowl, Clemson entered the fourth quarter with a 34-29 advantage. Against Virginia Tech in 2014, the Hokies held a two-score lead in the second quarter before the Buckeyes battled back. And against Michigan State last November, neither team ever led by more than a single score.
On Saturday, however, Ohio State entered the fourth quarter leading by 14 points. Penn State’s passing game had completed just 5 of its 18 attempts for 95 yards. Every indicator seemed to be the Buckeyes had won the game.
Even when Ohio State lined up for what would wind up being the game-deciding play, the Buckeyes had an 86.2 percent chance of winning, according to ESPN’s win probability calculator. Either Tyler Durbin would connect on the 45-yard field goal and put Ohio State up by a full touchdown or the Nittany Lions would have to score another touchdown against a tough-as-nails Buckeyes defense.
As it turned out, there was a third option. One Marcus Allen block and 60 Grant Haley return yards later and Ohio State was shellshocked in an ecstatic Happy Valley.
Putting special teams unit in a tough spot
• The problem with the play wasn’t the execution so much as it was the spot Meyer put the Buckeyes’ kicking unit in.
Facing a 4th-and-7, the Ohio State head coach appeared indecisive about whether he wanted to kick the field goal, punt the ball or go for the first down. He sent the field goal unit out to the field with barely enough to set up its kick. The play was rushed and Penn State made the most of the opportunity.
“I was going back and forth,” Meyer admitted after the game. “That would’ve put us up by seven. Obviously it didn’t work out. You punt it there, I think it was on the 30-something yard line — I went through it my mind, but I had confidence in Durbin to kick that thing because he does it all the time.”
It was ugly, win or lose
• Games aren’t won or lost on a single play and even if Ohio State had escaped State College with a win, it would have been of the ugly variety.
There were plenty of other issues that plagued the Buckeyes on Saturday. Play-calling was a concern, although Meyer downplayed the fact that Curtis Samuel didn’t touch the ball until the 24th play of the game and only attempted two rushes — including a 74-yard touchdown — in addition to eight catches.
Even after noting opposing defenses have begun to game plan to take away the player he’s called his best playmaker, Meyer conceded that the 10 touches Samuel received on Saturday weren’t enough.
“We just have to do a better job,” Meyer said, establishing a theme that would emerge throughout Ohio State’s somber postgame meeting with the media.
Make no mistake though, this wasn’t like last year’s Michigan State game, where Ezekiel Elliott’s infamous emotional outburst came as the result of having received just 12 carries in the Ohio State loss. At least that’s not how the Buckeyes saw Saturday’s light usage of Samuel.
“I’ll tell you, from here on out, there’s not going to be any, ‘Hey, let’s get Curtis the ball on this play,'” quarterback J.T. Barrett said. “It’s not going to be like that. We’re going to run our plays and if Curtis happens to get the ball, then Curtis gets the ball. That’s how our offense runs very well when that happens.”
That may be the case. But I’d be surprised if Samuel went another game without tallying at least 15 touches this season.
Still struggling to pass the ball
• As for Barrett, despite his stat line (28-for-43, 245 yards, one touchdown), the OSU passing game once again struggled on Saturday. And for the third time in as many weeks, a new culprit emerged.
While Barrett was to blame for a lackluster outing against Indiana and the receivers didn’t look great against Wisconsin, this week, it was the pass protection that limited Ohio State’s passing attack. The Nittany Lions sacked Barrett six times on Saturday, including on each of the Buckeyes’ final two offensive plays of the game. Right tackle Isaiah Prince, in particular, struggled in State College.
“We just didn’t get our job done,” said senior center Pat Elflein. “We didn’t get it done tonight.”
Where to from here?
• So where do the Buckeyes go from here? As far as their playoff hopes are concerned, they’re still very much alive and seemingly will control their own destiny in the Big Ten title race, as I wrote earlier. Ohio State’s path to the playoff is the same as it always was: win out and beat still-undefeated Michigan — which will likely be ranked second in the nation when the polls are released on Sunday — before punching a ticket to the playoff in the Big Ten title game. Should a three-way tie for the Big Ten East title between the Buckeyes, Wolverines and Nittany Lions emerge, Ohio State would own the tiebreaker.
The only realistic potential problem for the Buckeyes now — aside from suffering an additional loss of their own now — is if Michigan suffers a loss between now and Nov. 26 and Penn State wins out against a pretty average schedule. In that case, Ohio State and Penn State would find themselves in a two-way tie with one another, with the Nittany Lions owning the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Of course with the way the Buckeyes looked on Saturday — and really the last three weeks — all of this playoff talk appears premature. Ohio State has a lot to fix and will have an opportunity to reprove itself in front of a national audience against Nebraska in two weeks. But for now, even looking ahead that far in advance appears unwise.
“We’re not a great team right now,” Meyer said. “We got to regroup and get guys healthy and come back and keep swinging.”