COLUMBUS, Ohio — The pain of a loss doesn’t last long at Ohio State.
The defeat at Penn State last Saturday was just the third regular-season loss during the five seasons Urban Meyer has coached the Buckeyes. In both cases, the Buckeyes finished the season by winning out, although each instance was different.
The 2014 team lost at home to Virginia Tech in the second game of the season before rallying to make the College Football Playoff and ultimately win a national championship. Last year’s squad lost in a way that eliminated it from the CFP hunt — the late-season loss to Michigan State knocked them out of the Big Ten race — but the Buckeyes were nothing short of dominant in the two games that followed. They stomped Michigan 42-13 and also handily beat Notre Dame 44-28 in the Fiesta Bowl to cap off the season.
Each of those performances left a high bar to clear for this year’s team, but they did so in different ways. The 2014 team transformed an offensive line that allowed six sacks in the fourth quarter of the Virginia Tech loss, turning that unit into one of the strengths of the roster. It also established a vertical passing threat, primarily via future second-round NFL Draft pick Devin Smith. Mostly, though, it was just about the Buckeyes being able to come through when they could.
Conversely, last season’s loss triggered seismic changes in the play-calling structure on the staff. Offensive coordinator Ed Warinner, previously down on the field while also coaching the offensive line, was moved up to the press box. By all accounts, that was the catalyst the Ohio State offense needed to shift into overdrive and destroy two of college football’s bluebloods.
That will not be necessary this season. Given that Ohio State already made that adjustment last season and kept that system around for this year — to tremendous results, mostly — there will be no major adjustments to the play-calling structure within the program.
“There’s not going to be any change in that process at all,” Warinner said. “We’re just going to do a better job all across the board.”
And there is the challenge for Ohio State: Can the Buckeyes do what they did in 2014, when that group solved its offensive line issues and became more dynamic as an offensive unit?
The Buckeyes have the same quarterback as they did in 2014, and Barrett has two years more experience. The team is also comprised of a bunch of new starters, and there are some parallels between the two seasons in the way those young players quickly acclimated.
There are some differences, too, however. Ohio State’s new starter at left tackle in 2014 had played right tackle the year before, whereas Jamarco Jones is currently in his first year in the lineup. The new starter at right tackle in 2014 was fifth-year senior Darryl Baldwin, who had three years’ more experience than sophomore Isaiah Prince does. And that unit was coached by Warinner, who now leads the tight ends in addition to coordinating the offense.
Furthermore, Ohio State has yet to create a vertical passing threat that can help the offense stretch the field. The Buckeyes have yet to find someone who can replace the ability of Devin Smith, who scored 12 touchdowns and averaged 28.2 yards per catch in 2014. Among Ohio State’s receivers with more than three catches this season, the highest yards per catch average belongs to Dontre Wilson, with only 13.8 yards per catch.
Unlike 2015, the timing of the loss allows the Buckeyes a clear path back into the title hunt, and the strength of schedule makes a playoff berth even more likely than 2014 if there are no more losses. What is less certain, however, is if the team can work out those issues that have plagued them on the offensive side of the ball. There won’t be a quick fix like there was in 2015. Instead, it will all come down to the players being able to match the growth and improvement in execution that their 2014 counterparts were able to utilize.
“We’ve just got to get a little better,” Meyer said. “And I feel OK with it.”