Offensive line dismal in every phase for Buckeyes … Barrett has no time, and backs have no room to run … Loss can be overcome, but Ohio State will have to win out to make the playoffs.
Ohio State could pin this loss on the first two major foul-ups of the season on special teams. A blocked punt led to three freebie points, and a blocked field goal was returned for the decisive touchdown.
But while the Buckeyes were out-scored 17-0 in the fourth quarter, thanks mostly to those gigantic miscues, the real culprit in the 24-21 defeat to Penn State was their over-matched offensive linemen.
They don’t blow anyone off the ball, making it difficult to get in a rhythm on first down. They were woefully weak at pass protection, meaning quarterback J.T. Barrett was under siege in the pocket. And they piled up false-start and holding penalties like boy scouts collecting merit badges.
Barrett was sacked five times in the second half, including his last two plays. Rushers went through tackles Isaiah Prince and Jamarco Jones like turnstiles. And that’s not going to be an easy fix.
Despite all of that, though, this was a game the Buckeyes flat-out gave away.
With a 21-7 lead, they had two chances to seal the outcome late in the third quarter.
They took over at their 44- and 40-yard lines on back-to-back possessions. That’s prime field position.
They picked up one first down each time and had to punt.
Given life, the Nittany Lions produced two chunk plays and scored to make it 21-14 with 12:11 to go.
On the Buckeyes’ first play after that, Mike Weber was dropped six yards behind the line and almost lost a fumble. Prince was shoved into the running back, and his hip knocked the ball free. Weber flopped on it, but that play pretty much summed up their offensive ineptitude in the second half.
After the punt mishap — shocking, given how good Cameron Johnston has been — the defense forced a field goal, maintaining the lead at 21-17.
The Buckeyes were on the move after that but couldn’t cash in. They tried a 45-yard field goal to make it a seven-point game again with 4:27 to go, but Tyler Durbin’s kick was blocked and turned into a 24-21 Penn State lead.
Given one last try, Barrett engineered a pair of first downs. And he’s such a clutch performer, he might have pulled off the comeback if only the line could have kept him upright.
Barrett did appear close to completing a bomb to James Clark, which would have put them in field-goal range. But the refs missed a pass-interference penalty on Penn State, and the ball bounced off Clark’s helmet because he couldn’t raise his arm for the catch.
After that, it was sack, sack and jubilation in Beaver Stadium.
Happy times in Happy Valley.
Urban Meyer had been perfect away from home as Ohio State’s coach, winning his first 20 true road games. (He’s been pretty spectacular at home and neutral sites, too). That’s why the collapse was so unexpected.
But I thought this game was troublesome from the beginning, and if anybody would have asked about that 20-point spread, I would have emphatically said, “Take Penn State and the points!”
The Buckeyes aren’t really an explosive team that cranks out big numbers. Yes, they tallied 77 against Bowling Green, but Memphis also hung 77 on the 1-7 on Falcons.
They gashed Oklahoma for 45, but the Sooners are soft defensively.
The passing game is pedestrian. Even when Barrett has time, usually by maneuvering from the pocket, the receivers have trouble getting separation — which is astonishing given the amount of stars attached to their profiles as recruits.
The Nittany Lions were also going to be whipped into a frenzy with a White-Out crowd of 107,000, while the forecast called for nasty weather — not the kind of climate that promotes crisp offense.
Plus, the schedule-makers did the Buckeyes no favors by giving them their second straight road game at night against a quality opponent that had a bye week to prepare. After beating Wisconsin in overtime, Ohio State returned home at 5 a.m. Sunday. That travel not only blows up the next day, but it puts you behind with practices and leaves players fatigued.
I’m not sure how anyone, given those factors, could have seen a three-touchdown difference between the teams.
Of course, the Buckeyes would have skipped out with a victory if not for those fourth-quarter gaffes. But Penn State also had some self-inflicted wounds: a muffed punt, a field goal blocked and a high snap for a safety.
Neither team came close to having a clean game.
The loss, while costly in the short term, isn’t a complete disaster. The college football playoff committee will take into consideration the quirky nature of how the game flipped.
The Buckeyes also get a lift as long as Oklahoma and Wisconsin keep winning.
They’d make the playoffs as a one-loss Big Ten champ, providing the other four power-conference winners aren’t undefeated (that’s never happened).
But they’ve lost their margin for error. They can’t afford another setback.
And with the damage this may do to their collective psyche, it’s hard to see them winning out.
What we witnessed at Penn State was one of those bumps we expected with all that youth. There are 43 true freshmen and redshirt freshman on the roster, including two on the offensive line.
A popular theme about the Buckeyes was that they had put themselves in the national-title hunt a year ahead of schedule.
What’s more likely, though, is that they really are a year away from being serious contenders.