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You’re Nuts: Who was the unsung hero of the Penn State game?

Which lesser-talked-about Buckeye deserves more credit for the big win on Saturday.

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.

In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.

This week’s topic: Who was the unsung hero of the Penn State game?

Josh’s Take

While not pretty at all points throughout the game, Ohio State secured its second top-10 victory of the 2023 season on Saturday, this one coming at the expense of James Franklin and his previously No. 7 Penn State squad. The Buckeyes did just enough on offense, smothered the Nittany Lions on defense, and despite a final score that read 20-12, pretty much imposed their will for four quarters. As a result, Ryan Day ran his record to 18-6 against ranked opponents and a perfect 5-0 against PSU.

That last sentence has no bearing on what Gene and I are about to discuss, but I gotta defend my guy when I can.

Unlike most games that Day has won in Columbus and at Ohio State, it was his team’s defense that turned in a dominating performance against Penn State. The Buckeyes’ offense was once again stagnant for long stretches and unable to establish any semblance of a ground game, leaving most of the heavy lifting to Jim Knowles, Larry Johnson, Tim Walton, Perry Eliano, and several standout players on the defensive side of the ball.

Saturday’s performance against the Nittany Lions was, in my opinion, the best by an OSU defense under Day and hopefully a sign of things to come for that particular unit. At the very least, it was proof that Knowles and Co. are heading in the right direction.

So who gets or deserves the most credit for Saturday’s defensive destruction of Penn State? That was something my writing partner and I pondered before realizing the error of our ways... Because it’s a trick question, you see.

In reality, all defensive players and coaches deserve a tremendous amount of credit for limiting the Nittany Lions to two field goals and a meaningless late touchdown. Glory does not go to just one person, although Knowles is likely to receive the lion’s share (see what I did there?) of praise.

Regardless, what Gene and I decided to do for this edition of You’re Nuts is/was look at a few ‘unsung heroes’ from the PSU game. Players who don’t typically get their name(s) added to the marquee but turned in a baller performance against the Nittany Lions. Who did the dirty work, stepped up in place of others, and/or just made things happen when called upon?

And to kick things off, I just want to let you (all) know that I plan on cheating. Blatantly. Because if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’. Plus, Gene pretty much laid claim to the player I would have picked, forcing me to call an audible. Which is no big deal. Because we adjust, adapt, and dominate, just like Larry Johnson has done with his ‘Rushmen’. So he gets my nod as an unsung hero — for not only the Penn State game, but also the entire month of October.

Dating back to last season (and possibly even further), OSU fans, including myself, have expressed frustration with the Buckeyes’ pass rush. Or lack thereof. Where are the sacks? Why can’t Tuimoloau and Sawyer get any pressure? Who let Jean-Baptiste on the field? And for the most part, I believe this frustration was warranted. Ohio State finished near the bottom of the Big Ten in sacks in 2022 and was unable to generate pressure against the Michigans and Georgias of the world, when it was needed most.

The same pass rush issues appeared to be carrying over into this season, as OSU was credited with just five sacks in the team’s first four games. But at the same time, explosive plays (for the opponent) were down, guys were at least getting their hands on passes, and the Buckeyes were generally stout against the run. So I started to accept the fact that this group was not destined to be the ‘84 Bears... And that they could still be effective without a killer pass rush.

Then something clicked. The boys started getting home. Ohio State racked up five combined sacks against Maryland and Purdue, and Tuimoloau in particular started to resemble the monster we saw against Penn State last year. And what did he do against the Nittany Lions this past Saturday? Another sack to go with several impact plays.

However, Tuimoloau was not the only defensive lineman to make an impact. Kenyatta Jackson and Caden Curry were also credited with sacks, and Sawyer and Ty Hamilton led the DL group with three tackles each. Tyleik Williams was pushing Nittany Lions around, and Mike Hall Jr. was just sort of waiting for a big play that never came his way.

The entire DL group made life very uncomfortable for Penn State QB Drew Allar, as well as the Nittany Lions’ running backs. And this has been my long way of saying that Larry Johnson deserves a ton of credit for their improved play. The GOAT has been on the receiving end of much recent criticism, some of it deserved. But he continued to put his faith in Tuimoloau, Sawyer, and others – while coaching them up and teaching technique – resulting in a big-time performance in a big-time game.

So here’s to LJ. An unsung hero for many years and again against his former employer. Maybe the Buckeyes should keep him around just a little bit longer.

Gene’s Take

I do have to give credit where credit is due. I was very critical of Larry Johnson’s unit earlier this season. The defensive line was not getting the job done, with little to no pressure on opposing quarterbacks through the first several weeks despite a massive talent advantage for the Buckeyes. While it is still crazy to me to have a defensive coordinator and defensive line coach that are openly feuding, with Johnson still not allowing Jim Knowles to employ his signature ‘Jack’ position, the defensive line has rounded into form, and really put it all together against Penn State.

In our various postgame recaps here at Land-Grant Holy Land, we have given a ton of credit to many of the deserving players that helped Ohio State win that game on Saturday. Marvin Harrison Jr. and J.T. Tuimoloau are two of the obvious names that led their respective units, but guys like Cody Simon, Josh Proctor, Lathan Ransom, Jermaine Mathews Jr. and for the most part the offensive line also deserve a ton of praise for their performances against the Nittany Lions, among others.

However, the guy that I really wanted to highlight here is Jordan Hancock.

To the average non-Ohio State fan watching the game, they may not have even noticed that the Buckeyes were without their top cover corner in Denzel Burke, who was sidelined with a non-specified injury sustained in the second half against Purdue. To hold Penn State quarterback Drew Allar to 18-of-42 passing — a 42.9% completion rate good, the worst of Allar’s career as a starter — without Burke on the field is an incredibly impressive feat. A large part of that lockdown effort was because of the exceptional play of Hancock.

It has been a long and winding road for the Georgia native to get to this point. The No. 5 cornerback and No. 73 overall player in the 2021 recruiting class, Hancock was originally committed to Clemson before flipping to Ohio State in the summer of 2020. His career in Columbus got off to a rocky start, with his 2022 season being cut short as a result of a nagging hamstring injury. It led to Hancock’s breakout campaign arriving a year later than expected, but now healthy, the talented DB is finally able to put his full skillset on display, and he has become one of the Buckeyes’ most versatile players in the secondary.

When Burke is healthy, Hancock has spent the majority of the season as Ohio State’s nickel/slot corner, with Burke and Davison Igbinosun patrolling the outside. Without Burke, Hancock spent time both outside and in the slot, showcasing that versatility and a willingness to do whatever is asked of him to help the team win. In just his second official start of his Buckeye career, Hancock registered five total tackles — four of them solo — and a pass breakup on a 3rd-and-1 play in the fourth quarter. Burke’s absence could have really hindered Ohio State’s defense, but Hancock’s strong performance kept it at an elite level.

The freshman Mathews deserves a ton of credit as well, stepping into a larger role with no prior starting experience to draw on. Having already registered a pick-six this season, it is looking more and more like the former No. 1 player in Ohio in the 2023 class has a chance to be one of the next great Silver Bullets. But for now, when Burke is healthy — and there is a chance that he returns this weekend against Wisconsin — Hancock will continue to see the majority of the reps alongside Burke and Igbinosun.

Either way, Tim Walton has to feel good having at least four really good players in his room he can have the utmost confidence in day in and day out. Hancock did not fill up the stat sheet against Penn State, but stepping in for one of Ohio State’s best defensive players without the unit missing a beat is certainly impressive and worthy of a shoutout.