It wasn’t a nightmare, it really happened.
It’s the sobering, unifying thought Ohio State players, coaches and fans shared Sunday morning following the Buckeyes’ fourth quarter collapse against Penn State the night before.
On paper, it would be easy to write off Ohio State’s first true road loss in nearly five years as a fluke. The Buckeyes out-gained Penn State by 137 yards, nearly doubled the Nittany Lions in time of possession, and were significantly better at converting on third downs.
In reality, it was anything but that. The heartbreak in Happy Valley was weeks in the making.
Indiana proved that you could stifle Ohio State’s attack by stacking the box, forcing J.T. Barrett to make plays with the deep ball. Wisconsin reinforced that idea, while exposing new issues in the Buckeyes’ pass protection. Penn State didn’t teach us anything new. The Nittany Lions merely served as a tipping point.
Ever since Tom Herman departed as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator following the Buckeyes’ championship run in 2014, Urban Meyer has followed a simple blueprint in close games:
- Conservative offense. The quarterback run is your friend
- Suffocate your opponent with tight coverage and a vicious pass rush
- Consistently execute on special teams
At the end of the day, it’s hard to argue with this habit. Meyer almost always goes into games with the more talented team, and even if he sometimes coaches not to lose rather than to win, he still finds victories at a historical clip.
The problem with this strategy is that it leaves little room for error, even in games where on paper the Buckeyes should easily win. The offense was certainly conservative Saturday night. The defense was for the most part suffocating, save for uncharacteristically surrendering two long but quick touchdown drives. Maybe the handful of defensive lapses wouldn’t have haunted Ohio State, had the offense hit on a few more explosive plays.
Moreover, maybe the game wouldn’t have been decided by two special teams plays had Meyer properly deployed his offensive weapons, rather than wage a war of field position.
It’s fair for Ohio State fans to second-guess the team’s coaching following a game marred by such questionable decisions; Why are we still talking about the need to give Curtis Samuel more touches? Why did the Buckeyes dial up long passes to James Clark and Terry McLaurin, a duo that owns a combined 12 catches this season, during the most crucial moments of the game? Why didn’t Meyer call a timeout before the fateful blocked field goal, which his team clearly wasn’t ready to take?
Still, if you’re clamoring for this player to lose his starting spot, or that coach to be canned, then you need to channel your inner Aaron Rodgers and R-E-L-A-X.
Sometimes a loss is the best thing that can happen to a team in college football, and there isn’t a coach that epitomizes this truth better than Urban Meyer. In just fourteen years as a head coach, Meyer already has three national titles to his name, and each one of his championship teams suffered a loss along the way.
In 2006 Meyer’s young but talented Florida Gators quickly rose to be ranked as the #2 team in the nation, and rode into hostile Jordan-Hare stadium with a 6-0 record for a date with the Auburn Tigers. Florida led for much of that game, until Auburn took the lead for good on a blocked kick in the second half. Sound familiar?
The 2008 Gators might be the most talented team Meyer has coached to date, but even that unit suffered an early-season loss. No matter. Florida responded by dominating in each of its next ten games, beating six ranked teams by an average of 28 points along the way.
And of course there are the 2014 Buckeyes. Are you in the mood for a fun exercise? Go watch that Ohio State team lose to an average Virginia Tech side in its home opener, the abbreviated version will do. Then, enjoy watching those same Buckeyes in their finest moments against Wisconsin, or Alabama, or Oregon. Heck, if you have an excess of free time, watch all three.
It’s incredible to reflect on how much that team transformed in the span of a few months, and it speaks to Meyer’s ability to not just recruit talent, but develop it. By and large, Meyer’s teams have always improved throughout the course of a season. You should feel confident that this supremely young team will continue to develop, too.
Additionally, Saturday’s setback should serve as a catalyst for Meyer to identify the core issues that have plagued his team this season, and quickly find remedies. Like most coaches, Meyer is a stubborn individual. It’s possible that in light of his success, he sometimes needs to see a loss before significantly changing Ohio State’s approach.
Take last year, for example. Meyer needed to experience the meltdown against Michigan State before finally changing the staff’s play-calling structure, despite having an offense filled with NFL talent that looked pedestrian for its first ten games. Offensive Coordinator Ed Wariner was moved to call plays from the booth for the following two games, and the offense produced its two best performances of the season in response.
Last year’s loss came at the wrong time to the wrong opponent. Losing to Penn State hurts, but all of the team’s goals are still in tact. If Ohio State wins out, it will almost certainly find itself playing for a Big Ten Championship and trip to the playoffs in early December.
The road to Indianapolis will be a winding one, filled with potholes and potential pitfalls. The Buckeyes will have to rebound against a hungry Northwestern team, which seems to be playing better football each week. After that is Nebraska, currently the 7th-ranked team in the country. Then, after a trip to Maryland, the Buckeyes finish with both of its rivals from the state up north. Michigan State always plays Ohio State tough, regardless of records. Michigan looks every bit deserving of its #2 ranking.
The Buckeyes clearly need to fix their most obvious flaws to have any chance of beating Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines in that annual struggle. The tackles need to be better in pass protection, and the coaches should consider keeping a tight end or running back in to block when their main protectors aren’t getting the job done. Barrett needs to be more efficient in the passing game, and the coaches could help him develop better chemistry with his pass catchers by shortening the receiver rotation. Most importantly, if the Buckeyes are to fall again, they should go down swinging; not dodging punches waiting until the end of the round. This means getting its best play makers, like Samuel, involved early and often.
If you don’t have faith that Meyer will make improvements, then honestly, find another hobby. This ride he’s taking the program on is a once in a lifetime kind of thing. And there is arguably not a coach in the country more qualified to turn this ship around.
“A bunch of players are hurting, bunch of coaches are hurting,” said Meyer Monday afternoon. “This one’s put to bed. You’ve got to move forward.”
A bunch of fans are hurting too, but some perspective is needed.
It’s time to move forward.
On to Northwestern.