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5 things that went wrong for Ohio State against Purdue— and how to fix them

Saturday scaries hit the Buckeyes, as they took one of the worst losses in the Urban Meyer era.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Purdue Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

West Lafayette, Ind., has been a spooky place for the Ohio State Buckeyes. They suffered losses there in 2009 and 2011— in addition to nearly losing to the Purdue Boilermakers in Columbus in 2012. On Saturday night, an electric atmosphere at Ross-Ade Stadium summoned the ghosts of upsets, as the Boilermakers found a way to not only upend the No. 2 Buckeyes, but dismantle them.

Typically, we do a “5 things learned” article after OSU games. There’s stuff to dissect and interpret, which helps forecast what the Buckeyes could do next in order to fix their problems, or become even better with their strengths. With Saturday night ending in a thunderous loss, we’re changing things up just a little. Instead of looking at what we learned, let’s take a look at what went wrong for Ohio State— and figure out where Urban Meyer and his team go from here.

1. Defensive lapses finally caught up

Throughout the season, the Buckeye defense has given up big plays. Oregon State, TCU, Tulane, Penn State, Indiana and Minnesota all were able to reel off big plays against the Scarlet and Gray. Purdue now can add their name to the list— and stand alone as the only team this season (at this point) to topple the Bucks.

A big reason for Purdue’s win: chunk plays. Quarterback David Blough completed 10 passes that went for 15-plus yards. Five of those passes went for 20 yards or more, and the chunk plays didn’t end in the air. On the ground, the Boilermakers had six rushes break a 10-yard threshold. Running back D.J. Knox was responsible for two of those rushes, with his chunk carries going for TDs from 40 and 42 yards out.

The big plays that OSU has given up this season have been the result of a plethora of reasons. Guys out of position, DBs taking the wrong approach angle, and poor tackling have allowed modest gains to turn into big ones. Rondale Moore exposed all aspects of the defense’s flaws on this one play towards the end of the game.

This was shades of the LSU national title game from the 2007 season: OSU guys semi-tackling themselves and allowing the wide receiver to split away. Did the Buckeyes give up the ghost toward the end? That’s open to interpretation. But regardless, letting Moore slip away like that encapsulates how the Bucks were doing all night on defense.

Are these problems fixable? Absolutely. It’s a lot harder to fix problems when you keep winning, because, well, you’re winning— and not losing. But when you take a humbling like OSU did against Purdue, everyone’s gonna show up to practice knowing that they have to get better, and the leaders were probably thinking about how to do that before they even left Ross-Ade Stadium.

With an idle week approaching, the team can get rest and rejuvenate before hosting Nebraska. I expect the defensive kinks to be ironed out somewhat, as this unit wants to get the taste of defeat out of its mouth. Specifically on the pass coverage side of the defense, Meyer will need to to decide who his go-to guys are going to be. In the week leading up to the primetime clash with Purdue, Meyer noted that nothing was set in stone in the DB department. If that is still the case— and after the loss, I expect it still is— then we could be seeing a lot more Shaun Wade in November.

Wade made a tackle on Moore in open field, and has displayed his ability to hold receivers in check. While he can’t do it alone, he’s been one of the bright spots on a defense that has been eclipsed by DB units of seasons past.

We’ve come to expect great things from secondary. The expectations are so high, that we routinely see guys around the revolving door of arriving to campus, playing for a couple seasons, and then exiting into the NFL as a high draft pick. This season looks to break from that mold, mostly because there was a vacuum left. When guys constantly leave early, you will always lose depth, experience and leadership. In this case, OSU lost all three. It also doesn’t help that Kerry Coombs isn’t there anymore to coach the DBs, as he left for a position on Mike Vrabel’s Tennessee Titan staff.

2. Backbreaking penalties that were repeated

Bad habits die hard. And penalties have been a bad habit of this Buckeye squad. It’s one of the necessary evils when you play an aggressive brand of football. However, when you constantly repeat the same penalties week in and week out, and in this case, within the same game, you have a problem.

Ohio State got called for 11 penalties against Purdue, with 10 of them actually being accepted. Five occurred on offense and five occurred on defense/special teams. The offensive flags were dominated by false starts. Rashod Berry had one of them, while Isaiah Prince had two. Both of Prince’s penalties came on third down plays, and put the offense into a jam. If it wasn’t a false start, it was a holding call. I’ll let the holding calls slide because, really, various amounts of it happen on every single play.

But the false starts— at this point of the season— are inexcusable. This is the football equivalent of playing chicken with deadlines. You fool around and submit stuff at 11:59 p.m. over and over again, one of the days something is gonna hiccup and you’ll miss the deadline. Offensive penalties were drive-killers in previous OSU games, but they always found a way to maneuver out of it; until they didn’t.

Three of the defensive and special teams penalties were hard to believe, and toed the line of being boneheaded. Not only did the Buckeyes have a running into the kicker call, but they had a roughing the kicker penalty, too. The latter gave Purdue a free first down, which quickly resulted into a touchdown.

Dre’Mont Jones had a roughing the passer call on third-and-11, which also led to a free first. Like the roughing the kicker infraction, Blough and the offense took the OSU gift for another TD.

At this point, I don’t know how you avoid the penalty bug. I feel like a broken record, as I said the same thing last season. Guys on the offense are probably thinking about not committing the silly false starts, which makes them so focused on not getting called for penalties, that they are psyching themselves into them. If I were a head coach, I’d have a hypnotist for the team to help with focusing and relaxing.

Think about it: if your main criteria for success is winning and you only have a finite amount of opportunities to make plays, wouldn’t you want your star athletes to be as focused as humanly possible? You bet. The last thing you want is for your starters to feel like they are losing confidence.

3. Off-balance offense

Balancing the offense between the run and the pass has been something that Meyer has constantly talked about throughout this season, and his tenure in Columbus. But, balance was not the name of the game on Saturday, as OSU had 73 pass attempts compared to 25 rush attempts. The passing outcome led to a school record, while the rushing, which netted 76 yards, is the lowest on the season.

When you have 1,000-yard rushers in J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, I don’t know how you’re not getting at least 150 rush yards per outing. It’s not the running backs that are the issue; it’s the offensive line. At some point, the development has to be put under the microscope. Why aren’t guys up front blocking? Why aren’t the holes developing?

Ohio State has skated around the run game issues by running screens outside. While it doesn’t technically count as a rush, the utilization of a speedy pass catcher masks problems with the offensive line. That’s a solid plan until it doesn’t work. Against Purdue, that plan you guessed it— didn’t work. When opposing defenses start undercutting your screens and make tackles as soon as the receiver gets the ball, you have no running game, and no short-passing game; hamstringing your offense.

My take: this problem has been here the whole season, but we’re putting the blame on Meyer because it really became apparent when he got back from suspension. If Ryan Day was coaching, I’d wager that the off-balance offense would still be here. With Haskins being so successful, why do you need a running game? Down the stretch, and especially close to the goal line, solid blocking and running lanes may have been enough to punch in two, if not three OSU touchdowns. That could’ve been enough to flip the game in favor of the visiting Buckeyes.

I’ll cut Meyer slack on being tethered to the pass game, because Haskins is a very different QB than what he’s used to. Haskins isn’t a dual-threat kind of guy— he’s a bonafide thrower. If OSU wants to run the ball on short downs, it’s increasingly looking like a good idea to have Tate Martell involved in the packages. A run-pass option strategy around him gives the offense a chance to run or pass the ball depending on what the defense shows. That’s what Meyer’s used to, so it makes sense to keep with the familiarity.

The doomsday scenario would be what happens if the running and passing game go missing. Then what do the Buckeyes do?

4. Red zone inefficiency

When you get close to the end zone, you gotta get points to show for it. Ohio State had four trips inside the Purdue 20, and only pulled out six measly points. While two field goals aren’t the end of the world, squandering opportunities that close to paydirt is pretty close to it in football terms.

Giving credit where credit is due, Boilermaker cornerback Antonio Blackmon broke up not one, but two TD throws in the end zone. Combine that with a missed field goal and a turnover on downs at the 2-yard line, and OSU left at least 20 points on the table.

For whatever reason, the play calling clenches up when the march into the red zone heats up. I remember the opening OSU drive in the 2015 Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes got deep into Alabama territory, but bizarre play calling led to just three points. Later, though, OSU woke up and scored two TDs in the final 20 yards of the Crimson Tide’s side of the field. But that was then, and this is now.

The stat sheet may say that OSU went 2-of-5 in the red zone against Purdue, but that fifth attempt happened at the end of the game—which shouldn’t really count as a true red zone opportunity.

Great defense caused Ohio State to struggle in the red zone on Saturday night, but weather conditions also contributed to the problems. If there’s a swirling wind, the kicker is in a tough jam. And when your offense relies on the air raid, you hope Mother Nature is cooperating. When the weather doesn’t cooperate, you’ll probably have a bad time. And sure enough, OSU had a bad time.

(Another reason why you need a functional running game that uses your star RBs.)

5. No momentum

Prior to this game, I had Purdue winning close. I thought the Boilermaker offense had the weapons and were going to expose the Buckeyes. Especially with it being a night game, the crowd was going to be a factor, too.

And then I watched “College GameDay” on ESPN. After seeing the segment on Tyler Trent, the 20-year-old Boilermaker who is battling a terminal cancer, and seeing how much he means to the team and vice versa, I knew OSU was in real trouble.

And when Trent announced on Twitter that he was going to be at the game in person, it all but confirmed my fear: OSU was toast.

When a team or individual plays with purpose, they are a tough to crack— but still beatable. But when you throw in the element of playing for a person, the team or individual is unstoppable in the near term. And like the runaway train they were last night, the Boilermakers were damn well unstoppable Saturday night.

Even if OSU converted on all the red zone attempts, in my opinion, they still would’ve lost. Even if Haskins didn’t throw that pick, they still would’ve lost. Even if that Purdue fumble was placed back at the initial spot as it appears it should have been by rule, Ohio State still would’ve lost.

With Purdue playing for Tyler, there’s nothing the Buckeyes could’ve done to overcome that momentum. It is the kryptonite to any team, and it not only beat the Bucks, but it broken them down on national television for all of the college football world to see.