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Column: Zone 6 finally arrived when they were needed most

For the first time in years, Ohio State’s receivers came up big against a great team.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

For the better part of the last three seasons, Ohio State’s receivers room has been led by a familiar stable of players. Going back to 2016, Parris Campbell, KJ Hill, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon have been consistently involved in an Ohio State passing offense that was downright awful at times. That core of the three seniors (Campbell, McLaurin, Dixon) and one junior (Hill) have been the talk of the town in Columbus for years now.

That wasn’t a good thing. While players like Noah Brown, Dontre Wilson and Curtis Samuel passed through and often served as the only playmakers in the passing game, the core four of Hill, Campbell, McLaurin and Dixon have stuck around at a program that usually sees players play just one or two years before leaving for the NFL. They’ve stuck around, because frankly, they hadn’t been very good. That happens to be why they were the talk of the town, after Ohio State was unable to pass in losses against Penn State and Clemson in 2016, and Oklahoma and Iowa last season. Every loss felt the same, and every one saw questions after the game about Ohio State’s lack of receiving production.

Last season, the group added two card carrying members, as Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor separated themselves as young potential stars, only to not see the touches many thought they were owed. There isn’t a more embattled position on this Buckeye team than the receivers. If the heat that comes with poor play and lack of development wasn’t enough, it was cranked up to an 11 last month when receivers coach Zach Smith was fired amidst domestic violence allegations. All eyes were on Ohio State to see how they’d respond, with eyes especially glued on the receivers to see if they could survive the loss of their coach one month before the season.

After three years of questions, and severe growing pains for every receiver on the team, “Zone 6” finally arrived on Saturday in Happy Valley. Ohio State’s receivers have found a true leader, and a real, actual football coach in Brian Hartline, and that showed as bright as day, deep into the night at Happy Valley.

It showed when, after an awful first half performance from the entire offense, the receivers continued to block downfield on completed passes. It showed in the fourth quarter, when instead of running the ball, Ohio State countered the blitz that had killed them all night long by trusting their group of veteran receivers with screen after screen piercing the Penn State defense.

Hartline’s impact, and above that, the work these guys have done to improve, showed brightest when the pressure was highest. Victor came off the bench, lined up on the right sideline just past midfield, cut to the middle of the field, and caught a nearly-too-high Dwayne Haskins pass over several defenders, contorting his body to make a play Ohio State desperately needed. Perhaps even more than the catch, Parris Campbell erasing a defender with a block, Rashod Berry doing the same, and Johnnie Dixon cleaning up near the endzone to open up a lane for Victor to score felt like the group that struggled for so long had finally figured it all out.

After another huge stop by the defense, Ohio State’s offense, which had struggled all night, had to cover 96 yards in four minutes to take to the lead. Once again they trusted their receivers. The receivers responded by giving absolutely everything they had, making massive blocks on a huge pass to JK Dobbins, a big gain on a screen to Campbell, and ultimately, winning the game on a beautiful Hill bubble screen.

I do think that Hill’s game winner deserves a deeper dive. It was a play that Ohio State had been setting up all drive long, and for good reason, because it couldn’t have possibly worked better. Austin Mack and Terry McLaurin ran hard at the defenders in press coverage on them, drawing them away and opening KJ up. As McLaurin kept going downfield, putting his defender completely out of position, Mack made a perfect read, turning from his man and sealing off the incoming safety perfectly, which gave Hill just enough of a lane—and a one on one matchup. Hill won, and had just McLaurin’s man in front of him, with a linebacker and safety close behind.

Past Buckeye teams probably get a first down on this play. It was set up well, so they probably grab 10 yards before the safety goes unblocked and makes a tackle. For the first time in years, Ohio State’s receivers were fully up to the task, and ready to be great when they were needed most. Terry McLaurin flew in from out of nowhere, crashing his man into the linebacker and safety, springing Hill for a completely clean final 10 yards.

Ohio State’s win over Penn State cannot be attributed to one play, one player, or one drive. No win can. However, there wasn’t a play in this entire game that mattered more than this one. It was the answer to all that pressure, all those questions. Ohio State’s receivers took the game into their own hands, and showed, without a semblance of doubt, that they have finally arrived.