There’s little to say about No. 2 Ohio State’s upset loss to Penn State that won’t have already been said by press time. The nature of a loss to an unranked opponent in college football: it sucks, no matter what; that later-season losses seem to feel worse than ones early on is just the nature of the beast.
The good news: the postseason path for Ohio State just became starkly apparent. Win out, beat upstart Northwestern and top-10 Nebraska and top-3 Michigan, beat Wisconsin or Nebraska again in the Big Ten title game, and the playoff is probably yours. Do anything else and that dream is dead. (“How we gentle our losses into paler ghosts,” the novelist Peter Heller once wrote. Is there any other option for a college football fan?)
In a vacuum, that’s still a comforting scenario. This was, after all, supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Buckeyes; two or three losses at this point wouldn’t have been unreasonable. Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t do a whole lot to take the sting out of a loss to a team that’s played Ohio State close in recent years, and a fanbase so recently aware of the taste of bitter disappointment that beating a team like Ohio State is as good as a Super Bowl win.
Here’s how the whole turd-in-punchbowl scenario went down.
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Marcus Baugh, TE: It’s been a refreshing change of pace to see Ohio State get the ball to the tight end this season. Baugh has been a real factor in the offense, and at times on Saturday, it felt like he was putting the whole team on his back. His second and third efforts on J.T. Barrett’s only touchdown pass of the evening were Herculean, and late in the game he fought for a few extra yards to convert a crucial third down. This was the best game of Baugh’s career, and he deserves credit as one of the game’s lone bright spots for the Buckeyes.
Curtis Samuel, H-Back: On just two carries, Samuel matched the rushing total that Mike Weber earned on 21. Brooklyn’s Finest gained 71 yards on those two scampers. One was a three-yard loss, and the other was a 74-yard touchdown run on which it was made very clear that Samuel is going to be the best athlete on the field no matter who he’s up against.
This makes it all the more perplexing that Samuel seems to be an afterthought in the Ohio State playbook of late. He added eight receptions, but even 10 total touches is far too few for an athlete of Samuel’s caliber. That makes two out of the last three weeks for No. 4 seeing a reduced role in the offense. It doesn’t make any sense, truly, and it feels like Zeke-against-Michigan-State all over again for this offense. Get Samuel the dang ball.
Malik Hooker, S: Once again, Hooker proved himself to be a freakishly-talented safety on Saturday night. His coverage was sound, and late in the game, when the Buckeyes used him close to the line as a run-stopper, he proved himself up to the task there, as well. Penn State QB Trace McSorley was just 8/23 passing on the evening, and Hooker was certainly a factor in that paltry percentage.
J.T. Barrett, QB: Despite being hounded all night by Penn State’s excellent front seven, Barrett finished the game 28/43 for 245 yards and a touchdown, with no turnovers. We still saw a few of the misfires that have plagued him all season, but in general, Barrett was solid throwing the ball, and there were at least as many bad drops from his receivers as there were bad throws by the QB.
He also showcased his remarkable playmaking abilities again and again, avoiding sacks with ridiculous fluidity, even picking up a huge first down by using the dang ball as a crutch and keeping himself upright. It wasn’t a great day for the offense, but this one’s not on J.T.
Special teams play. Game plan and coaching aside, the score of this game came down to special teams. The Buckeyes...
- Missed an extra point.
- Had a punt blocked, which resulted in a short Penn State drive and field goal.
- Had a field goal blocked, which was returned for the game-winning touchdown.
- Saw so many cardiac-inducing punt return/fair catch attempts that it felt like the ghosts of Jalin Marshall and Ray Small were competing for touches on 4th down.
Prior to Saturday, Ohio State was ranked third nationally in special teams S&P+. This team has not screwed up on the game’s weirdest downs all year. But they got a season’s worth of mistakes out of this single performance, and it was enough to put a “1” in the loss column against an inferior opponent. Beyond frustrating.
The offensive line. Speaking of frustrating, J.T. Barrett was forced to do his best Christian Hackenberg impression all evening playing behind an offensive line that seemed to have spent the week studying film of matadors in bullfights rather than film of football games. Isaiah Prince looked especially out of sorts, but the whole line looked overwhelmed by the Nittany Lions’ onslaught. Barrett should look into whether or not NCAA meal stipends cover the cost of taking your linemen out to lunch.
BUY: Fair catches. Dontre Wilson certainly likes to keep things interesting. The dynamic athlete tried to play a little hero ball on the Buckeyes’ early punt returns, and the results were borderline disastrous. Wilson has explosive potential, but this isn’t the first time drops, bounces, and bobbles have happened; what’s to stop the team from deciding that (name a 5-star athlete) is just as promising and far less risky than Wilson back there?
SELL: The officiating. Look, if you’re a 20-point road favorite, you can’t let things get so close that one no-call by the refs determines the entire game. You have to be better than that. That said, the egregious no-call on an obvious case of pass interference meant no drive-sustaining first down for the Buckeyes; two negative plays later and they walked off the field with their first loss of the year. It was blatant, and it was beyond frustrating, especially given the missed late hit on Mike Weber in the first quarter, which would have added 15 extra yards to the play. Bad job by Ohio State, bad job by the refs, why do we even watch football, etc.
BUY: SB Nation’s advanced stats crew. Shouts out to Bill Connelly. Penn State’s offense did pretty much exactly what the advanced stats thought they would do: pass the ball inefficiently, but potentially break a few huge plays. And lo, Trace McSorley passed for 34.8% on the evening, but still delivered just enough backbreakers to win the game.