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Grumpy Old Buckeye: Ohio State vs. Michigan

A bit more venting is in order, because keeping it in is unhealthy.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Ohio State Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Look, Saturday was awful, so let’s just skip the preamble and get to The Things that made The Veins in my forehead pop out during The Game.

Again with the Pre-Snap Issues

Ohio State seems to shoot itself in the foot when trying to change tempo. That happened on the first drive as Paris Johnson Jr. was flagged for a false start when the Buckeyes went fast. It wasn’t the last time, but it was a trend that was never cleaned up all season long and is easily avoidable by not changing tempo. When it hurts your team more than the opponent, it’s a bad idea. This will be a theme of this column.

Dawand Jones had a false start later in the game after Ohio State had put together several successful plays. Derailing your own drives is maddening.

Secondary Failures

Denzel Burke had a great season in 2021, but his 2022 struggles continued on Saturday. At the beginning of the season, he looked like a completely broken version of the player we saw last year. In the middle of the year, he seemed to be better, but those issues resurfaced Saturday. Burke allowed a receiver behind him to let Michigan to make a huge third-down conversion early in the game after Ohio State opened the scoring, and it led to a field goal. It wasn’t Burke’s only mistake of the game, nor was he the only player in the secondary to fail spectacularly.

Ronnie Hickman and Lathan Ransom took unnecessary pass interference penalties, but the biggest mistake was when Cam Martinez was tasked with covering Johnson — and whatever he did on that play wasn’t coverage. It wasn’t even close to pass coverage, just like Martinez wasn’t even close to Johnson.

But wait, there’s more! A lack of covering the tight end down the field on the first Michigan drive of the second half allowed the Wolverines to take the lead, and they never gave it up. Ransom was trailing on the play, but whether that was his man, or he was trying to recover for someone else, in the end it doesn’t matter. If receivers are running free behind the entire defense, everyone is at fault — the players, the defensive coordinator, and the secondary coach(es).

The secondary failures were particularly frustrating because Michigan couldn’t throw on anyone all season. But you still have to cover the eligible receivers. Ohio State went the other direction and tried not covering them instead, and that doesn’t work as well.

More Unsuccessful Wide Receiver Screens

I have railed against wide receiver screens much of this season — not because I think they are unsound plays or that they are being called in the wrong situations. I hate them because the Buckeyes are not good at executing them. They haven’t been able to properly block for them on the outside, they’ve dropped several of them, and the receivers have often run right into the backs of their blockers rather than being patient and making a simple cut off of them to get whatever yards are there.

The second OSU drive was derailed by an unsuccessful wide receiver screen play for Xavier Johnson. That was the first — but not the last — time the offense got behind the chains due to calling plays that the team hasn’t executed well all year long. That’s poor coaching. If you can’t develop those plays so that they’re successful, but insist on calling them anyway, it’s a wasted down. Again, if it hurts your team more than the opponent, it’s a bad idea.

Catch the Darn Ball

Much has been made about Marvin Harrison Jr. not having dropped a pass all season, so obviously he dropped what would have been a nice gain against the Wolverines on the fourth OSU drive. That was tough to see, but matters got worse when Johnson dropped a pass on an out route two plays later that would have netted the Buckeyes a first down. Instead, they punted. That empty possession helped Michigan stay in the game.

The Cover 0 Fiasco Changed the Game

JJ McCarthy had done next to nothing in the game and Ohio State held almost all the momentum. The Wolverines faced a third-and-11 and looked a bit frustrated offensively, when Jim Knowles dialed up a Cover 0 (no safeties back) full pressure blitz. McCarthy got the pass away and Cam Brown missed his tackle, turning a bad play into a very bad play. Cornelius Johnson took a routine pass a long way and scored, which flipped the entire momentum of the game.

If Brown had made the tackle, things might have been different, but there was no need to risk putting him on an island when the front seven players were getting decent pressure and McCarthy was struggling to hit passes early.

Aww Gee, Scott

Ohio State was very much in the game — and driving — when a holding penalty on Donovan Jackson brought back a nice pass play to Chip Trayanum, who played a much bigger role in this game than anyone expected. But rather than just losing 10 yards for the hold, Gee Scott Jr. set the team back an additional 15 yards by head-butting a Michigan player 10 yards out of bounds.

Honestly, that’s a super dumb thing to do no matter where you do it, but Scott went out of his way off the field to do it. That lack of discipline set the Buckeyes all the way back to 1st-and-35. The Buckeyes overcame the holding penalty yards, but not the personal foul yards. I don’t normally say things like, “he should sit out the rest of the game,” because I believe in giving guys a chance to make up for their mistakes, but this is one instance when I absolutely would have sat the player for the rest of the game.

The Cowardice

It’s no secret to Ohio State fans that Ryan Day coaches the team differently in big games. He falls in love with stuff in the game plan even if it doesn’t work, ignores seemingly obvious adjustments for far too long (like switching from outside zone runs to inside, more downhill type plays in recent games), and makes strange decisions. He did that in this game with some of his play calling. And sometimes he turtles.

Trailing in the second half and on the plus side of the 50-yard line, Day ignored C.J. Stroud’s emphatic desire to go for the first down, and instead punted. The Wolverines, who went for a fourth down deep in their own territory to start the half, outscored the Buckeyes 21-3 from that point on. Scared money don’t make money.

Don’t Interfere

I mentioned this briefly above, but the Buckeyes were McCarthy’s biggest helpers on Saturday. When they weren’t leaving guys wide open behind them, they were in position to make plays and decided to bump and grab receivers to extend Michigan drives.

Ronnie Hickman’s interference in the end zone came on a third-and-long situation, and a pressured McCarthy threw a desperation heave deep to the back of the end zone that would have required the catch of Ronnie Bell’s life. The referees decided that requiring the catch of one’s life didn’t quite make the pass uncatchable and flagged Hickman, albeit for a fairly soft bump that looked worse live than on replay. Refs don’t look at replays for pass interference in college.

That penalty was a four-point difference in Michigan’s scoring total. At the time, it was big, although later failures made it less significant.

Ransom later got grabby on a long pass that also would have required a highlight-reel catch when the coverage on the receiver was decent. Helping the other team with chunk penalty yardage is a recipe for… well, whatever it was we saw on Saturday.

The Long Run(s)

Still in the game? Not so fast, said the OSU defense. Ohio State apparently had 11 men at the line of scrimmage or on the right side as Donovan Edwards broke two long touchdown runs to ice the game on a day when the Buckeyes had limited the Michigan ground game to 10 yards in the first half. Edwards finished with 216 yards, but 160 of them came on two carries (80 yards per carry) after being held to 56 on his first 20 attempts (2.8 ypc). And those first 20 attempts came on plays where the Buckeyes suspected the Wolverines were likely to run, while those two long ones came on plays when Ohio State could be absolutely certain Michigan would call runs.

Whatever scheme Knowles was using and wherever the safeties were, it failed spectacularly, and cost the offense a chance to go win the game. As a team, Michigan ran for a total of 252 yards on the day, and was held under 100 until late in the game, which is when Ohio State most needed those stops.

Next up… well, who cares, really? Unless something really weird happens during the conference championship weekend, Ohio State will most likely go to a regular bowl game and some of the players headed to the NFL will opt out, so we have probably seen the 2022 team as we have come to know it for the last time. We’ll watch it, but it will be as unsatisfying as everything Day said after the game on Saturday.

And if somehow the bizarre happens and Ohio State backs into the College Football Playoff? Well then, in that case we’ll be a little more interested, but why should we expect things to be any different than they were on Saturday? These Buckeyes have told us repeatedly who they are, and we should believe them.

Saturday’s home loss may have combined all of the things that the team has done poorly (or wrong) in games throughout 2022 in one perfect storm of misery, but any of those individual issues on their own — especially the defensive ones — could derail a playoff run against the country’s best teams just as easily. Still, it would be nice to get a second shot at Michigan.