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Grumpy Old Buckeye: Ohio State at Penn State

Saturday’s result in Happy Valley was good, but it came after an afternoon filled with petty aggravations and I’m going to let you people hear about them.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Ohio State traveled to Happy Valley on Saturday for what should be the team’s toughest true road game of the 2022 season. Games against Penn State rarely go exactly according to plan and instead end up becoming much more aggravating than they usually need to be. This was certainly the case on Saturday when the offense continued to stubbornly do things that never worked for three quarters before the Buckeyes stopped playing with their food and took care of business in the fourth quarter. Here’s what soured my stomach in Saturday’s 44-31 road win.

Continued Problems Getting Plays In

The ongoing problems getting plays in and the offense ready to go just don’t seem to be going away under Ryan Day and they were magnified on Saturday as the Buckeyes played with a silent count for the first time this year. On the first drive of the game, Ohio State faced a third-and-10 deep in Penn State territory and took a delay of game penalty. It was the second time in that set of downs alone in which the Buckeyes had trouble getting the play called in time to run it.

They had previously checked into a running play that went nowhere on first down and although I’ll admit I have no idea what that play might have been originally, but the play they checked into seemed to go into the teeth of how Penn State was set up defensively, so it was a weird deal all around. While Ohio State wasted a few first downs last week after having these issues, this time the Buckeyes thought taking the bad play and the penalty were the preferable way to go.

The third down resulted in an 8-yard pass to Cade Stover that might have given Day a decision to make had it happened on third-and-10 rather than third-and-15.

Not a Banner Day Blocking

Granted, Penn State has a defense that can create problems, but — coming off a game against a stout Iowa defense — the blocking all across the line of scrimmage was problematic at Penn State.

On the second series, tackle Paris Johnson, Jr. got completely blown up on a first-down run and Stover whiffed entirely on a third-down wide receiver screen that could have gone for big yards to the right if the initial block had been successful, as the defense loaded up the middle and was outflanked.

Stover later missed his block again on the left side on a similar play. Credit the Nittany Lions for good recognition and reacting faster than Ohio State but the wide receiver screens that Day says are part of the running game were useless in this game — mainly because the Buckeyes couldn’t block them properly — and the team kept running them anyway. A competent running game doesn’t need wide receiver screens to open things up.

The Touchdown that Almost Wasn’t

Miyan Williams pretty clearly got into the end zone for Ohio State’s first touchdown and it’s puzzling how the umpire didn’t have a good enough look at it to signal that he’d gotten in. Instead, with three-quarters of Williams’ body lying in the end zone, both sideline refs marked the play short of the goal line and Day and company seemed content to line up and run the next play without asking for a review. Just as the ball was being snapped for the next play, the replay booth buzzed down to ask the referee to look at it, which ultimately overturned the call.

Another Key Injury, More Short-Yardage Blocking Woes

Williams caught a pass out of the backfield and looked to have a good shot at a first down but he landed awkwardly with contact and was kept short of the chains. When he landed out of bounds, he stayed down and both the repeated replays and the speculation by broadcasters Gus Johnson and Trent Klatt had folks thinking it was Williams’ knee. Social media doctors were still diagnosing season-ending knee injuries when Williams walked off with a trainer holding his arm. Although Williams later tweeted “All good,” he didn’t return.

On the ensuing third-and-short situation, the offensive line again allowed the Nittany Lions to penetrate and blow up a short-yardage run in the backfield to force a punt. Ohio State has fixed a lot of things that hurt the team last year, but short-yardage running continues to be problematic. That seems likely to cost the team at some point and it’s one of the main reasons Saturday’s game was even close.

This might be fixable by spreading the defense out via formation and running with fewer defenders close to the line of scrimmage or burning an opponent with a play-action pass or two in that situation to keep them honest.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct

Penn State tight end Brenton Strange was called for unsportsmanlike conduct for hitting J.T. Tuimoloau in the head from behind. There’s no doubt it was a penalty, but taking a swing at an opponent, particularly from behind, should be an automatic disqualification from the game. While the act had little chance of actually hurting Tuimoloau, there’s just no place in the game for taking a swing at your opponent’s head.

Strange was allowed to continue and went on to make a key play in the fourth quarter. Ronnie Hickman forced a fumble at the goal line when he knocked the ball out of Mitchell Tinsley’s hands. Strange recovered and was initially given a touchdown despite the ball being out of the end zone when it was recovered — see earlier aggravation about officials’ rulings at the goal line.

The play was correctly overturned, but Penn State then scored on fourth-and-goal when Tommy Eichenberg couldn’t pull down Kaytron Allen in the backfield. That touchdown gave Penn State a fourth-quarter lead and may never have happened had Strange been ejected.

J.K. Johnson’s Tough Day

Cornerback Jakailin Johnson had a tough afternoon in Happy Valley. On the same drive that Strange took his swing at Tuimoloau, A short pass for a first down became a nightmare play that turned a 10-0 game into the tight battle it ultimately became. Sean Clifford completed a pass to Parker Washington for a first down and the Buckeyes were in good shape with both Tanner McCalister and Johnson closing in.

But McCalister went to the ground and lost his grip on Washington. Johnson did what far too many young defenders do and went for the big hit to knock down the receiver without using proper technique to wrap up. Johnson bounced off the receiver, who kept his balance and raced the remaining distance to the end zone to pull the Nittany Lions within 10-7, igniting the crowd and stealing momentum back from the Buckeyes. Penn State went on to win the second quarter, 14-3, and led at the half.

Johnson had plenty of other issues later in the game in coverage. The worst of those was when he committed pass interference on a seemingly uncatchable ball on which he had good coverage on a Penn State third-and-16 play. That came at the start of the same drive on which Strange fell on the fumble near the goal line and allowed Penn State to take a fourth-quarter lead. The young corner will have better games than this one, and in fact, already has had several.

First Half Endgame a Masterclass in What Not to Do

Marvin Harrison Jr. picked up a big first down with seven seconds remaining in the second quarter at the PSU 8-yard line. Some fans, like me, were incensed that Ohio State opted to spike the ball rather than use its final timeout, wasting a second and leaving six on the clock. There was some confusion as to whether Ohio State had any timeouts remaining because the FOX broadcast graphic showed one remaining, as did the official stats broadcast used by the media. However, the Buckeyes had actually used their three, with two of them coming within a two-play span earlier in the drive (one was erroneously announced as a Penn State timeout by the on-field official).

On the ensuing play, Stroud did not get the ball out quickly despite the game clock winding down. He double-clutched and was hit, losing the ball. Although Luke Wypler fell on the football, the game clock expired, making it not matter which team came up with the recovery, and the Buckeyes got no points to show for their final drive. Stroud’s awareness of the game situation was a big mistake, as the quarterback should have made one read and then fired the ball over everyone’s heads and out the back of the end zone to preserve time for a go-ahead field goal. The Buckeyes trailed 14-13 at the half instead of leading 16-14 because of the error.

Despite the timeout situation not ultimately being what many thought it was, Day was still largely outcoached in the first half and that’s been a problem in big games since he took over. Ohio State’s second-half adjustments, the final results on the field, and the Buckeyes’ record have largely masked it, but Day’s first-half coaching performances in big games have left a lot to be desired since he took over the program.

When a couch potato like me can look at the alignment of the defense and then watch in horror as Ohio State runs unsuccessfully into the teeth of that defense, losing yards on critical, possession-wasting plays, it seems logical that the coaches paid millions can also see that the play isn’t going to work. I’m all for saving timeouts, but when using one can keep the team out of a bad third-and-1 play and extend a drive as a result, maybe it’s good to take one.

The Cosmetic Touchdown

I’m going to preface this section by saying I hate the term “style points.” However, when people across the country only see the final score, sometimes the margin of victory means something. Ohio State went up by 20 points on the road against the nation’s No. 13 team and then played softly on Penn State’s final scoring drive. The Nittany Lions had their easiest drive of the game, coming right down the field on a drive that covered 75 yards on eight plays but took only a minute and a half. For those around the country, 44-24 would have seemed more impressive than 44-31 and given Tuimoloau’s dominant performance, it would have more accurately reflected the game. As for the gamblers who took Ohio State to cover, well, that’s not my problem because I don’t have enough disposable income to wager some of it on the whims of 18- to 22-year-olds playing a game.

Those are the items that got me heated on Saturday. What irritated you? Let me know in the comments below. Obviously, there were plenty of good things too, such as Tuimoloa’s incredible game, Zach Harrison doing some similar things on the other side, Marvin Harrison Jr. having another huge outing, and TreVeyon Henderson hitting one of his long-awaited home runs.

Next week, the Buckeyes will travel to Evanston, Illinois to take on the Northwestern Wildcats. There’s always something aggravating about Ryan Field.