After each Ohio State game during the 2021 football season, LGHL will offer its market analysis of the Buckeyes’ performance. Using a standard bond rating system, we’ll evaluate the offense, the defense, and the special teams, according to this formula:
AA (yeah, I may also use + and -): Very Strong
BB: Facing Major Uncertainty
Then, we’ll take a look at any individual players whose performance stood out (in one way or another!) and assign them a stock rating: Blue Chip, Solid Performance, Penny Stock (akin to a junk bond, dangerously high risk).
For the past month, or so, as the Buckeyes have amassed yards and points in unbelievable numbers and earned accolades like “unstoppable” and “best offense ever,” we tried to pretend not to see the asterisk after the statements. In fine print, it said “Akron, Rutgers, Maryland, Indiana – pretty weak competition. As we saw last night, the level of competition does matter. Oh, I know how badly Penn State played against Illinois last week. But, in terms of pure talent, quality players, they’re the best team (including Oregon) that the Buckeyes have faced. The game was close, hard-fought, and a win.
I’m sure that some will declare this game a step backward for Ohio State, a return to the early part of the season where mistakes on both sides of the ball told a sad story. I see the Penn State game as a reality check. How would these young Buckeyes perform against a good team? They won. And I think that the game, its closeness and the problems the Bucks encountered, will serve them well in this tough, final third of the season.
The Buckeyes can forget the “best ever” hype and play football. They’re not going to score 19 touchdowns in a row; they may not roll over another opponent. They have the talent to win out and make it to the playoffs. I hope that they have the fire, the drive because the days of putting up five touchdowns and coasting may be behind them.
Against Penn State, the much-touted Ohio State offense scored two touchdowns in 11 possessions (not counting the final one, where Stroud took a knee). Jeremy Ruckert lost a fumble on the first drive. There were three punts and a 38-yard touchdown by Chris Olave. The other six Buckeye possessions took them to the red zone, a generally productive place for this bunch. But last night? Six trips: one touchdown, four field goals (all short), and one failed fourth-down play. This disappointing red zone performance is one main difference between this game and the previous five.
Another big offensive difference is the failure of the running game to provide any consistency. We’ve been waiting for TreVeyon Henderson to play the whole game, get 20 carries. Last night he did. He ran 28 times for 152 net yards, a 5.4 average. Not his usual 8.6 – but not bad, right? But if we take away his 68-yard scamper in the third quarter, he averages 3.1 yards on the other 27 carries. Obviously, the weak running game and the lack of red zone success are closely related.
The offensive line, which we’ve come to rely on, was strong in protecting C.J. Stroud. Penn State had no sacks and often applied little pressure on the young quarterback. On the other hand, the line couldn’t really open holes in the Nittany Lion defense for the run, and many plays were stopped for losses. Moreover, the offensive line committed a number of snap and false start penalties. “Shooting ourselves in the foot,” is how Stroud put it in his post-game interview.
Stroud completed 22 of his 34 passing attempts for 305 yards and a touchdown. Most of the long plays were accomplished by receivers making good runs after the catch. Stroud looked frustrated at times, frustrated with the penalties and the inability to run the ball.
The Bucks totaled 466 yards. Short of their average, but pretty good against a good defense. The Penn State line and linebackers were stout, and the defensive backfield was the best the Bucks have faced. Both Henderson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba were caught from behind on breakaways. Not many teams have players who could have done that.
All told, the Buckeye offense was good enough to win. But they have some things to iron out before heading to Lincoln.
Overall rating: BBB Adequate
Plenty of plusses and minuses for the Ohio State defense. First, there was a lot to like. Penn State, a team that likes to run the ball, netted only 33 rushing yards, on a paltry 1.1 yard average per attempt. The Bucks were much more aggressive with their pass rush, blitzing frequently and harassing Sean Clifford all night. They collected four sacks and a lot of hits and hurries. The Buckeye defense intercepted a pass and forced two fumbles, the fleet-footed Jerron Cage returning one 57 yards for a touchdown. Good stuff!
The Buckeye defense, though, struggled mightily against the Penn State passing game all night. The suddenly-healthy Clifford withstood the pass rush and was accurate over the middle and to the sidelines. He threw for 361 yards, completing 35 of 52 passes. Standout wide receiver Jahan Dotson caught 11 balls for 127 yards. I guess that Denzel Burke couldn’t handle him after all.
But the real problem for the Buck defense was one that we saw earlier in the season; they couldn’t stop a drive and get Penn State off the field. The Lions converted 11 of 18 third-down opportunities, almost all passing plays. They got 27 first downs. Their three touchdown drives were 13 plays/89 yards, 12 plays/75 yards, and 11 plays/75 yards. They couldn’t do that against the Illini.
No doubt, some of the defense’s performance was by design. The Bucks played a lot of zone, keeping plays in front of them. But there wasn’t any domination here, as the game’s outcome was in question until Penn State’s final possession. The defense played well enough to win.
Overall rating: BBB Adequate
At least the Buckeyes have a good kicker, as Noah Ruggles made all of his field goals and extra points. Jesse Mirco’s punting was OK, but his 33-yard average was below par. There weren’t any returns to speak of during the game.
Overall rating: A Strong
Noah Ruggles. Ruggles is the only offensive player that I’m placing in this highest category this week. The Bucks needed his foot, and he stepped up. Ruggles made all four of his field goal attempts, and, although they weren’t very long – 35, 23, 25, 28 yards—Ohio State sure needed the points.
Tyreke Smith. With some really good defensive line play lately, Tyreke Smith has been somewhat overlooked. But we couldn’t overlook him last night. He seemed to be leading the pass rush for the Buckeyes, finishing with five tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble.
Ronnie Hickman. Once again, Hickman led the Buckeyes in tackles; he collected 14 total stops. Marcus Williamson, second in tackles, had six. It was Hickman making all of those tackles over the middle on completed passes. He kept plays in front of him, as Clifford’s longest completion was 32 yards, catch and run.
Jerron Cage. It’s a sight we won’t soon forget: the 300-pounder sprinting (yes, sprinting!) for a touchdown. All too often the defensive lineman, in his attempt to scoop up a fumbled ball, will kick it out of bounds or lose control. Not Cage. He scooped and ran. We might have been expecting a receiver of running back to catch up, but they didn’t.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba. I had Smith-Njigba in this same category after the Indiana game – and for the same reasons. Last night he led the Buckeye receivers in yards (97) and was second in number of catches (6). His game-high 58-yard catch and run indicates how hard it is for a safety to contain him from the slot receiver position.
TreVeyon Henderson. It might be surprising to see Henderson here. He didn’t have one of his better games. But, on a night where every yards was a contest, he showed us something. Never frustrated, never complaining, he took the ball and ran hard, confident probably that he would break a couple. He did. It was a good test for the young running back, and in my grade book he passed.
Cameron Brown. Good game all around, with five tackles. But it was the interception that puts him on this list. He took the ball 25 yards to the Penn State 28. Too bad that the offense couldn’t get a TD out of it.
Luke Wypler. Wypler has played well at center all season, so I hate to single him out here. But I must. Late in the first quarter and early in the second, Wyplet started having trouble with the snaps, creating penalties for “snap infractions” and false starts. Stroud’s frustration was showing here, as OSU drives were thwarted. Though he had a good block on Olave’s touchdown, Wypler had trouble (he wasn’t the only one) controlling his man on running plays.
Next week provides an opportunity for the Buckeyes to put things back together against obviously weaker competition. Let’s hope that the Bucks grow from this experience.