Ohio State was in a dog fight until the offense clicked and their star defensive end took over in the fourth quarter to beat Penn State 44-31. The Buckeyes came out of the gate playing incredible football, jumping out to 10-0 lead in the first quarter, then a missed tackle and some questionable offensive play-calling allowed Penn State to answer.
In back-to-back weeks, the general feeling throughout the game was the Buckeyes were underwhelming on offense. Consistently moving the ball, but then getting in their own way by getting away from what was working led to drives stalling. For Ryan Day, it once again felt like a game where his overthinking was a detriment.
Luckily enough for Day, on the other side of the football J.T. Tuimoloau had one of the greatest individual performances in school history. In the moment, adding perspective to how good the performance was challenging to place, but the reality is Tuimoloau’s performance was an all-time great one in Ohio State history. Without his showing, the Buckeyes probably do not win this football game.
Despite trailing in the fourth quarter, Ohio State showed a toughness and an inevitability on both sides of the ball to emerge victorious. The issue once again was why it took so long to get there...
First half offensive struggles
This article could have been five clips of failed bubble screens, but there were issues that arose outside of the unusual amount of throws behind the line of scrimmage called. Ohio State’s offensive line and running backs were once again held in check. Penn State deserves credit for this, but the Buckeyes need to be able to overcome the physicality of opponents.
In the first scenario, Ohio State is in a 3rd-and-1, which through the first six games was picked up consistently. The Buckeyes even bring in their heavy package with Mitch Rossi at fullback and Josh Fryar as an extra “tight end.” Ohio State runs their inside zone concept from this formation, and after the snap the play goes south immediately. Penn State’s defensive tackle (No. 97) gets off the ball and into Ohio State’s play side offensive linemen, creating congestion. On the backside, Matthew Jones (No. 55) gets beat inside, and this allows the defensive linemen to make the play before Henderson is even able to react.
This trend continues in the next play. Ohio State is once again in a short yardage position looking to pick up the first down on the ground. The Buckeyes are lined up in their pistol single back formation with Henderson lined up behind Stroud. Tendency wise, this is usually a formational giveaway that Ohio State is running wide zone to the boundary.
After the snap, Ohio State does in fact run the play everybody is expecting. Still, the Buckeyes have the numbers and this play has a chance to be successful. The issue is there is interior penetration that stops the play before it can get started. This time Matthew Jones is play side, and the defensive tackle is able to get up field and cut off Henderson before he can get the edge. The predictability aspect is an issue, but we can see the play is there, the Buckeyes just need to execute to have success.
Now we get to the bubble screens — Ohio State’s new favorite play in every situation that feels important. Ryan Day explained this by saying he wanted to attack Penn State in all areas and challenge them to cover the entirety of the field. This to me is overthinking for the sake of trying to outsmart the defense.
Up to this point, Ohio State was attacking down the field getting chunk play after chunk play. Day isn’t wrong here: Ohio State had the numbers to the side, and the play would have worked if Cade Stover gets his block. Penn State does a great job defending this play, but once again failed execution doesn’t mean the play call is bad. Now, Day calling this play multiple times after it was stopped for no gain is another story. To me, the issues isn’t the bubble itself, it is sticking to the concept when the opponent has shown they aren’t going to be caught off guard.
Offensive concepts that were working
The offense had a huge day even though there were some struggles, and for the Buckeyes the ability to explode when needed is something that has always been there. As frustrating as it can be to watch the Ohio State flounder a few drives away, they have shown an ability to get it done when it matters most.
Early in the game, the Buckeyes found success attacking the middle of the field. The slant game and other inside breaking routes were open constantly. In this play, Ohio State runs a play-action pass with Marvin Harrison Jr. running a dig route. This opens up because the route concept attacks Penn State’s coverage tendencies. Harrison Jr. and Egbuka pushing vertical forces the safety to move over top of them, taking him away from the dig route that Harrison Jr. runs. Egbuka’s route forces the corner to stay in his area and carry Egbuka up the field. This leads to a huge window for Stroud to throw the ball, and allows Harrison Jr. to create yards after the catch.
This last concept showed that there was plenty of vacated space in the middle of Penn State’s defense to attack. On the very next play, Ohio State runs another inside breaking route, this time a quick slant, and the pass is complete again to Harrison Jr. who breaks off a big gain. This was not hard to see, and the question that I think most people want to ask coaches is why they don’t continue to run the plays that are working. Day showed that he still has the ability to get it done, but back-to-back weeks it took far too long to stick to what was working.
Moving forward to when the game was still hanging in the balance. This play was the last offensive play that I wanted to look at for two reasons: the level of design that went into the play, and then Cade Stover running with the ball after the catch.
The Buckeyes are lined up in 11-personnel in a tight end trips formation with Stover lined up in a wing alignment. Ohio State fakes their outside zone look with play-action. Stroud drops back looking to the field side, and Henderson runs a wheel route out of the run-action, taking the linebacker out of the picture. Stover at the top of the screen chips, selling the run action even harder and sucking up the linebackers who end up trying to bring pressure. After the chip, Stover slowly sneaks out and gets up field, creating an easy throw for Stroud.
Stover does the rest, breaking three tackles on the way to the end zone to make it a two-score game.
An all-time defensive performance
There are games that stay with you for a long time. Truly dominant performances that transcend the sport. On Saturday, J.T Tuimoloau had one of those afternoons. People all over the country were comparing this performance to Ndamukong Suh’s one man wrecking crew Big Ten Championship and Chase Young’s demolition of the Wisconsin Badgers. Having a performance like this creates a legendary aura for a player, and the Buckeyes needed every bit of that performance. With that being said, the entire defensive half of this article will be dedicated to Tuimoloau.
The first play set the tone for the day. Tuimoloau is lined as a stand-up edge rusher in a 3rd-and-short situation. Ohio State rushes three, and Tuimoloau actually drops into coverage right at the sticks. Clifford tries to fit the ball in at the yard-to-gain, but Tuimoloau had other ideas, breaking on the ball and intercepting it. For a defensive end to understand where he is on the field in coverage and then be able to break on the ball is incredibly impressive.
The next play shows the level of instinct Tuimoloau plays with and how his length is able to impact the game. In the play, Penn State is trying to run a tunnel screen. This is when the receiver comes inside to catch the ball behind blockers who are getting up field. Tuimoloau is lined up wide in what looks like a 9-technique to the field side. This gives him the angle to go right after the quarterback. The instincts come into play here, because Tuimoloau gets off the ball and is untouched with the tackle leaving to get up field to block.
His mind clicks immediately, understanding this means there is a screen coming behind him. Tuimoloau does the famous matching of hands and gets his hands up to deflect the pass. The ball pops up in the air, and then the other incredibly athletic defensive end in Zach Harrison deflects the ball to himself for the interception. This is just a remarkable play from Ohio State’s defensive ends.
Now the Buckeyes are in crunch time here, Ohio State had just taken the lead and the Nittany Lions got the ball back. Penn State’s opportunity to answer was disrupted by another incredible individual effort from Tuimoloau. The Buckeyes are in coverage and Penn State is in their stacked twins receiver look. They run switch concepts and Parker Washington comes open late across the middle.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, Tuimoloau was not done playing hero yet. Tuimoloau bull rushes his defender, and by forcing him into Clifford, the Penn State quarterback needs to step up in the pocket. This gives Tuimoloau the tenth of a second he needs to strip the ball and recover it. Ohio State would go on to score to make it a two score game just like that.
The last play was a dagger in every sense of the word. Penn State was still in the game and there was still three minutes left on the clock for the Nittany Lions to try to score and try an onside kick. Instead, Tuimoloau said this game was over. Remember earlier in the game when Penn State tried running a tunnel screen and Tuimoloau deflected it to Zach Harrison for an interception? Well, they tried running that same play to his side of the field again – this time to an even more detrimental result.
This time around, Penn State’s tackle tries to cut Tuimoloau, but the Ohio State defensive end was ready. He fights off the cut block, and once again jumps up into the passing lane, this time intercepting the pass and returning it for a touchdown to put the game on ice. The performance was truly legendary, and if the season goes as many fans hope, Tuimoloau’s big game will live in Ohio State lure forever.
Ohio State was battle tested in a hostile road environment against a talented football team in Penn State. Despite trailing with just over nine minutes to go in the game, the Buckeyes never wavered. The talented Ohio State players executed to perfection when it mattered most, and that should be the takeaway from this game.
The offense was frustrating at times, but Penn State deserves some credit. Ryan Day said it himself, they took away the easy stuff and made Ohio State work for everything on that side of the ball. Eventually, the Nittany Lions broke and the Buckeyes’ inevitability, which was compared to an avalanche, took center stage.
The offense got the help it needed in the way of J.T. Tuimoloau. There have been few performances as dominant as Tuimoloau’s, and he could not have done it alone. Despite having their worst overall showing on defense from a yards per play stand point and giving up some big plays, the defense showed a toughness we haven’t seen in some time. When the game mattered most, they rose to the occasion.
For now, the Buckeyes will look to stay unscathed as they head to down their final stretch, starting with Northwestern. Ohio State has time now to clean up the mistakes, because Nov. 26 will be here before they know it.