The Penn State Nittany Lions presented Ohio State’s second big challenge of the 2023 season. The Buckeyes went into the game missing a few key players, but still managed to come away with a 20-12 victory in Ohio Stadium.
Like any close game, there were a number of plays and moments that were frustrating or aggravating, and you can credit Penn State for some of that, but Ohio State did plenty to let the visitors hang around in the game and have some hope of leaving the Horseshoe with a win.
Here are the things that had me grinding my teeth down to stumps on Saturday afternoon.
The Buckeyes got a stop on Penn State’s opening possession, and then proceeded to drive, drive on down the field on their first offensive series. Kyle McCord started the game hot, hitting his first five passes, and there seemed to be at least a little room to run for Chip Trayanum.
However, that opening drive stalled in the red zone as the wheels came off for McCord. Once the team was in the red zone, a poor throw behind Marvin Harrison Jr. on first down put Ohio State behind the chains. Then McCord tried to force a high ball to Carnell Tate when he had Harrison wide open on the play (the same route across the middle that resulted in a touchdown later in the game). McCord threw poorly again to Julian Fleming on third down, on a play that probably wouldn’t have gotten the 10 yards anyway if he’d caught it.
The drive stalled and Ohio State had to settle for three. It worked out OK in the end, but that can’t happen against Michigan again this year. Never bring field goals to a touchdown fight.
Ohio State’s defense came up big again, as it would all day, getting the Buckeyes a chance to put an early stranglehold on the game. But the Buckeyes went nowhere on the ensuing drive, allowing the Penn State defense to build some momentum.
It started with another of those runs to the short side that haven’t worked much at all this season. Ohio State seems to be in love with this play, but is not capable of running it with much success. Second down saw another off-target throw that Harrison maybe could have made a better effort of catching, although I won’t quite classify it as a drop. The receiver expects that ball to be where he can grab it on the run and get extra yards after the catch, but not all passes are perfect and sometimes one has to sacrifice YAC just to haul in the pass.
Third down was a debacle as Trayanum completely whiffed on picking up the blitzer in pass protection. Johnny Dixon got an easy sack as a result of the miss, and Ohio State punted.
Soft in the Middle
After two solid defensive series, Ohio State gave the Nittany Lions hope with poor run defense on the first two plays of the third drive. With consecutive runs up the middle, Penn State went 20 yards and then 15, building some offensive rhythm that culminated with the visitors’ first points of the game. Penn State tied the game at 3-3.
Thankfully, James Franklin’s team curiously avoided committing to the running game on Saturday, despite seeing some success and entering the game with a solid rushing attack, so Penn State was unable to build on that success. Some of that had to do with Ohio State adjusting and not having the Buckeye defensive ends going as wide in the pass rush, but overall, there was probably some room to run more consistently had Penn State been persistent.
After conceding the field goal, Ohio State nearly had a miscue on the ensuing Penn State kickoff. On a short, in-between ball, Trayanum got in Xavier Johnson’s way, disrupting the timing of the return. As a result, he then failed to reach the 25-yard line. To make matters worse, he ran into teammate Ja’Had Carter, who had to be helped off the field.
In the third quarter, Ohio State’s defense had yet another solid stop and Penn State punted from deep in its own territory. The punt was short and Jayden Ballard opted not to run up and make the fair catch. He tried to warn his teammates to stay away from it, but Lorenzo Styles Jr. didn’t get the message. The punt bounced off of him and Penn State recovered. The defense held again, but the ensuing punt pushed Ohio State back to its own 10-yard line, costing about 40 yards of field position.
If you add in a lack of decent return yardage and a missed field goal in the fourth quarter, it was quite the day for Parker Fleming’s unit — but not in a good way.
McCord in the Middle
As mentioned previously, McCord started the game hot, hitting his first five throws. But from that point until halftime, he was borderline dreadful and it’s hard to give Penn State too much credit for that, as well as the Nittany Lions played on defense. He went 2-for-8 in the first quarter following his opening burst on the first drive, and then went just 4-for-8 in the second quarter. Meaning after his first five passes, McCord finished the first half on a 6-for-16 skid.
The young quarterback rebounded nicely in the second half, going 11-for-14 (6-of-7 in the third quarter and 5-of-7 in the fourth). That middle section of the first half was poor, both in terms of accuracy and reading the defense.
Run the Dang Ball!
The Buckeyes picked up seven yards on a rush by Miyan Williams late in the first quarter, moving the ball out near midfield. With two downs to pick up three yards, Ohio State went pass happy. McCord threw incomplete on second down, and on third down the pass went to Williams for a loss of one yard. Once again, the lack of trust in his team to pick up short yardage — this time with two downs to get it — ended an OSU drive.
Ohio State was driving and was in field goal range when disaster struck. McCord held the ball too long, had it knocked loose, and Penn State scooped and scored. Thans to a defensive holding penalty as the Nittany Lions struggled to cover Harrison (legally, anyway), the turnover and the touchdown were nullified. However, McCord has to be smarter in that situation and take care of the football. In a tight, defensive struggle, every point matters and you have to get rid of it and at least protect your field goal.
After Ohio State’s touchdown in the second quarter, an obvious hold right in front of PSU quarterback Drew Allar prevented JT Tuimoloau from getting to the passer. The play picked up good yardage and Penn State eventually kicked a field goal on the drive. Later in the game, another blatant hold right in front of Allar was ignored.
Not every hold is as blatant and I don’t expect the referee to call them all, but the ones that can change the game should be called, and few are easier to spot than one in space right in front of the quarterback. There was no traffic to impede the officials’ view of it on either of those would-be sacks.
Similarly, there could be no easier example of defensive pass interference than when Julian Fleming was held during his entire route down the field. No flag flew, Ohio State punted, and Jesse Mirco shanked it — another demerit for Fleming’s unit.
The Fourth Down
Ohio State eschewed a short field goal to go up seven points in the third quarter and went for it on fourth-and-goal. Penn State clearly knew what was coming with all of the Nittany Lions’ pointing and shifting toward the side of the field where the ball went. The Buckeyes were left to run a throw short of the goal line with not nearly enough blockers (one) to handle all four of the Penn State defenders. The play failed spectacularly, and points were left off the scoreboard.
Those are the things that made me throw up in my mouth on Saturday. Obviously, any win over a Top 10 team is a good thing, and the good outweighed the bad, as it usually does. Harrison had another monster game, Cade Stover gutted out a solid performance, Tuimoloau and the defensive line were dominant, and Jordan Hancock and Jermaine Mathews Jr. flashed all over the place. What stood out to you, good or bad?
Next up for Ohio State is a trip to Madison to face Luke Fickell and the Wisconsin Badgers in a road game under the lights.