COLUMBUS, Ohio — It took an awful lot to go wrong for Ohio State to lose to Penn State Saturday night, but an awful lot did.
The team that spent the first half of the season looking like the clear-cut biggest challenger to Alabama’s reign instead resembled a squad replacing 16 starters from last year’s team. Enter the healing power of losses, however.
The Buckeyes fixed glaring issues following both of their previous regular-season losses under Meyer. The offensive line improved into one of the best in the country after melting down in the 2014 defeat to Virginia Tech, and moving offensive coordinator Ed Warinner upstairs after losing to Michigan State in 2015 transformed the Ohio State offense.
With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the issues that might need to be fixed for the Buckeyes to be able to win out against their remaining regular-season opponents that still includes No. 7 Nebraska and No. 2 Michigan. There’s a poll at the end where readers can vote on what they view as the biggest problem.
Why worry: Ohio State has had problems crop up throughout the season, which is uncharacteristic of a Meyer-coached team. The Buckeyes almost never attempt field goals longer than 40 yards, choosing instead to take its chances with the offense on fourth down. That’s an understandable approach, but the Buckeyes might have found themselves wishing Saturday that they’d gotten some more game experience so that the first 45-yard field goal of the season didn’t come when the stakes were so high.
Ohio State’s punt return role appears to be more cursed than Hogwarts’ Defense Against the Dark Arts position, with Dontre Wilson already drawing comparisons to Jalin Marshall’s panic-inducing stint in that job. Throw in the fact that a muffed punt by Philly Brown played a huge role in the Buckeyes’ loss to Clemson in the 2013 season and they’ve got quite the streak going.
Ohio State fans, who gave you more heart attacks as a punt returner?
— James Grega Jr. (@JGrega11) October 23, 2016
Why not: Special teams plays come in high-leverage situations, but there are also only so many per game. Ohio State is usually good enough that it can win comfortably even with subpar play in this category, which is less true of other aspects.
Why worry: After an impressive start to the season, the wide receivers haven’t looked like an overly impressive unit. Noah Brown has made some big plays in key situations but looks more like a great red-zone target than a five catches per game-type receiver. There’s no true No. 1 option that Barrett can without question go to when things are tough or a play has to be made. Additionally, a deep threat in the mold of Devin Smith, who helped the Buckeyes to a national title in 2014, is nowhere to be found.
Why not: Barrett is still putting up numbers similar to his 2014 stat line, and Ohio State’s biggest problems have come in poor conditions. It can’t rain forever, can it?
Why worry: The play against Penn State was not great. Right tackle Isaiah Prince spent all night doing his best matador impression, and his counterparts had their moments as well. Additionally, the unit as a whole continues to commit untimely penalties. Having to replace three starters was never going to be easy, but it should have gone smoother than it did against Penn State. Barrett was under duress all game long, often immediately after catching the snap. If the protection had been better, there’s a good chance Ohio State is still undefeated.
Why not: At the end of the day, Ohio State still has third-year starters Pat Elflein at center and Billy Price at right guard to steady the ship. The Buckeyes have shown in-season improvement on the line in each season Meyer has been at Ohio State, and there’s no reason to think this one will be different. In fact, there might be more room for growth given that three players are new starters and one — left guard Michael Jordan — is a true freshman.
Why worry: For the second time this season, Ohio State went 20-something snaps without H-back Curtis Samuel recording a touch, a jarring occurrence given that Meyer has called him OSU’s best playmaker. Some weeks Barrett gets too many carries at the expense of Samuel and running back Mike Weber, and some weeks it looks normal. There are games in which Brown catches five passes and games in which he’s targeted once. This issue cropped up with last year’s team, and it’s maybe a little concerning to hear what Barrett had to say after the Penn State loss.
“We’re going to run our plays and if Curtis happens to get the ball, then Curtis happens to get the ball,” he said. “Our offense runs very well when that happens. We’re not going to start going backwards into, ‘This person has to get the ball, that person has to get the ball,’ because then you’re just predictable. That’s not how we play. That’s not good football.”
Why not: Maybe what Barrett said will prove prophetic and everyone will live in perfect harmony. Also, maybe Ohio State won’t wait three quarters to give a carry to the guy who scored a 74-yard touchdowns on his first handoff. Either one works.