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Column: Ohio State’s penalty problem is getting dangerous

It’s not the only issue that the Buckeyes have, but it should be the easiest to fix.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

All penalties are judgement calls for referees; even the penalties that aren’t supposed to be judgment calls are judgment calls. That’s because every penalty is an evaluation of degree. If a corner hand-fights with a wide receiver this much, there’s no penalty, but if he does it this much, there’s a flag.

The old saying goes that, “You could call holding on every play if you wanted to.” Well, I don’t want to, and I seriously hope that none of the refs calling Ohio State’s remaining games do either, because the Buckeyes already have more than enough issues with penalties as it is, and they don’t need any more.

In their 49-26 victory over Indiana on Saturday, Ohio State was called for nine penalties for 82 yards. That means that those penalties negated the gains made by the Buckeyes’ leading rusher J.K. Dobbins, who ran for 82 yards. Keep in mind, that there were other flags thrown that either weren’t accepted, or offset with penalties from Indiana.

The undisciplined performance against IU moves the Buckeyes to the bottom of the Big Ten in terms of penalty yards. OSU has now been penalized for 485 yards this season on 51 fouls. Only Michigan has more penalties accepted with 52; the Wolverines have given up 473 yards to penalties through Week 6.

Speaking as a fan, I’ve just about had enough of the penalties. Now, I’ve yelled at the referees—via my TV—routinely when I think that they’ve blown a call (and there have been quite a few), but you can’t argue with the fact that this Buckeye team makes major mistake after major mistake, and is bailed out by their superior talent.

Whether that is missing tackles, blowing coverage, the refusal to abandon the outdated, ineffective zone-read offense, or the aforementioned penalties, at some point, they are going to mount up and become too much to overcome.

Fortunately for the Buckeyes, the obscene amount of penalties didn’t end up costing them against the Hoosiers, and probably won’t over the rest of the month, as OSU faces Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska. However, a rash of ill-timed flags can keep any game close, no matter the talent differential between the teams.

That being said, when the calendar turns to November, that lost hidden yardage could come back to bite them in their quest for a College Football Playoff berth. With games against Michigan State and Michigan (with Maryland in between) before a potential Big Ten Championship game, if Urban Meyer and his staff can’t get a handle on the epidemic, it could spell the difference between a conference (or even national) title and another year of dashed hopes and dreams.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are a myriad other things that the Buckeyes need to fix before fans should begin to legitimately entertain the idea of winning a second national title in four years. But, it just seems so obvious that the penalties should be the easiest to correct.

However, this is not a new problem for the Buckeyes. In 2017, OSU was again last in the B1G with a monstrous 943 yards in penalties—169 more than 13th place Maryland. That total was also bad enough to rank them No. 114 out of the 130 FBS teams.

Going back to Meyer’s first season in Columbus in 2012, the Buckeyes have averaged 729 penalty yards per season. In 2012-13—when the B1G had only 12 teams— OSU finished 11th and 10th in the conference. Since the league expanded to 14 schools, they have finished 12th, 8th, 9th, and 14th in the category.

Granted, the Buckeyes have had extra games in multiple conference championship and CFP runs, but the point holds: Ohio State has a penalty problem.

I don’t know what the answer is to this, especially since it’s gone hand-in-hand with the success under Meyer. Clearly, you want players to be aggressive, and that can lead to mistakes at times, but when does aggressive play turn to undisciplined play?

I feel very comfortable in saying that this Ohio State team is as talented as any in the country. And, thanks to Dwayne Haskins, I feel more optimistic about the offensive potential than I have in almost a decade, but I’m nervous that at some point, the team’s refusal to tighten up on the penalty front will cost them.

Giving back 81 yards of penalties per game is dangerous, and given the struggles that the Buckeyes have on defensive, it could ultimately be disastrous.