Ohio State’s offense was difficult to watch at times this season. On Friday night in the Cotton Bowl against Missouri, the offense never got close to the end zone and was simply, well, ‘unwatchable’.
Arlington, TX – Hate on Kyle McCord all you want. I did my share. But Ohio State could have used the new Syracuse quarterback in the 88th Cotton Bowl.
The Buckeyes also needed to block better – a lot better – to run the ball well and to give a freshman quarterback a chance.
Instead, Ohio State’s offense resembled the offenses of the first Cotton Bowl in 1937 – TCU 16, Marquette 6 – the 1940 Cotton Bowl – Clemson 6, Boston College 3 – and don’t forget the 1947 classic – Arkansas 0, LSU 0.
Yes, No. 7 Ohio State set offensive football back 80 years in Friday night’s 14-3 loss to No. 9 Missouri.
Make excuses if you like. Devin Brown started his first game at quarterback, showed nerves and was knocked out in the first half with an ankle injury. That left the offense to true freshmen Lincoln Kienholz.
Missouri’s defense took advantage by snuffing out run plays and sending blitzers from all directions at a quarterback taking his first important snaps since playing high school ball in the fall of 2022.
“Lincoln got put in a tough spot there … to say the least,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “And I thought he battled his tail off, but, clearly, we didn’t help him up front. You have a young kid in there, you’ve got to be able to run the football and take some pressure off, and we didn’t do that well enough in order to win the game.”
We’ve been hearing that all season. Funny how we kept expecting it to get better.
The Buckeyes rushed for 97 yards, passed for 106 and averaged 3.6 yards per play. They converted two of 15 third-down plays and never got close to the red zone. The quarterbacks completed 10 of 24 passes, were sacked four times and threw numerous incompletions backpedaling away from the rush. The offensive MVP was Jesse Mirco, who punted eight times for a 48.2-yard average and pinned the Tigers deep three times. Punting matters, but it doesn’t win games.
The last time the Buckeyes failed to score a touchdown was the 31-0 Fiesta Bowl smackdown by Clemson in the 2016 playoffs.
This nightmare in AT&T Stadium was reminiscent of what Urban Meyer said after that ugly Clemson loss: “Ohio State is not used to this.” In the final moments of Friday’s loss, Meyer stood in the back of the end zone that had OHIO STATE in red letters across it. He probably had a similar thought.
Kienholz’s numbers: 6 of 17 and 86 yards. Was the moment too big for him? Hard to say. He rarely had time to execute the play that was called. He made a few good throws when he had time. He even had a good time.
“It was an awesome experience … just playing in the Cotton Bowl is crazy fun,” he said. “Being out there was hard at first, but I think the experience of playing a lot just helps me build my platform for the next four or five years.”
The next four or five years and the quarterback position? That’s interesting to ponder. But, first, Day has to figure out the position for next year. Another offensive season like this one, and the Buckeyes will end another season with a sour performance.
McCord played unevenly this season and left because he wasn’t guaranteed the position next year. Brown’s audition was cut short by a high ankle sprain after completing four of six passes. Kienholz played, but how do you truly evaluate a freshman put in that position with no help?
Day was asked if this game heightens a need to find a quarterback in the transfer portal. It also makes everyone eager to see how ready incoming freshman Air Noland will be.
“I’m just fresh off the game so it’s hard for me to process all of it right now,” Day said. “It’s hard to get much of an evaluation coming out of the game when you can’t get the balance. But we’ve got to figure out what’s the best for the team moving forward … in a lot of areas. So I’m going to take a hard look at that and get that figured out. But everything will be looked at.”
The offensive line needs a hard look, too. Day didn’t give a specific reason, but he removed freshman center Carson Hinzman from the starting lineup. Matt Jones moved from right guard to center and Enokk Vimahi started at right guard. The line problems were obviously deeper than that against Missouri and all season.
The line play was never consistent, never maintained a strong rushing game for four quarters against an average or better team and never struck anyone as nasty. Day’s offense, or anyone else’s offense, can’t flourish with inconsistent blocking.
Other than the Clemson debacle when has allowing 14 points not been enough for Ohio State to win? Dig deep in the annals for that one.
The defense came to play and stymied Missouri’s three-pronged attack of quarterback Brady Cook, running back Cody Schrader and receiver Luther Burden for most of three quarters. Ohio State led 3-0 on Jayden Fielding’s 44-yard field in the first quarter, and it was beginning to feel like a shutout could happen.
But sooner or later one of the offenses had to figure things out. Ohio State’s didn’t have a chance, but the Tigers, with an experienced quarterback, finally made some plays.
The biggest was the longest play Ohio State gave up this season – a 50-yard pass by Cook to the Ohio State 15. And the Tigers took their first snap in the red zone with a minute left in the third quarter. Schrader bulldozed in from the 7 on the first play of the fourth quarter to cap a 95-yard drive for a 7-3 Tigers lead.
The Tigers followed that up with a 13-play, 91-yard drive to take a 14-3 lead on Cook’s seven-yard touchdown pass to Burden.
“The defense played plenty good enough,” Day said. “I thought they played their tails off and ran out of gas a little bit down the stretch.”
Defensive end Jack Sawyer played his best game with three sacks to tie an Ohio State bowl record and one QB hurry. Cody Simon made 12 tackles. Denzel Burke made a couple great tackles in space. But in the end the Tigers put together two great drives and Schrader, the nation’s leading rusher, persevered for 128 yards on 29 carries.
Sawyer, Burke, J.T. Tuimoloau and others have decisions to make about whether to come back for another year or enter the NFL Draft. They won’t all make the same decision, and the immediate aftermath was not the time to talk about those plans.
“I’m not I really think about that right now,” Sawyer said. “I’m just upset about the game. I wanted to send the seniors out the right way. We put so much work in … it’s tough when you don’t get the outcome you want.”
For two years, the Buckeyes have finished the season with consecutive losses. The Michigan losses speak for themselves. The Georgia loss was bitter because of the blown lead in a national semifinal. This one was ugly.
Can anyone come close to being the go-to receiver that Marvin Harrison Jr. was?
Will TreVeyon Henderson return? On defense, can a unit that improved so much from last year continue to get better if lots of stars turn pro?
That’s a lot to process and plan for. But that’s the game.
If Sawyer is one of the players to turn pro, he didn’t want to leave his respect for Kienholz unsaid.
“I just want to give Lincoln a shout out for just stepping in there, playing with confidence in a tough spot,” Sawyer said. “I thought you fought your ass off, man, and it’s not easy. You did the best you could.”
But to a man, the Buckeyes will never say they collectively did the best they could in the 88th Cotton Bowl.
And no one else will, either.