Despite controlling much of the game at Happy Valley on Saturday night and holding a 21-7 second-half lead, Ohio State gave up 17 consecutive points in the fourth quarter to become the first major upset victim of October in the 2016 football season, 24-21. The Nittany Lions achieve their first major victory under James Franklin, but the bigger story is what does it mean for the Buckeyes?
Let’s take a look at some of the fallout from the loss in a rainy white-out at Beaver Stadium, and how it affects everything from the Buckeyes to the Big Ten to the College Football Playoff.
Tim Beck and Ed Warinner need to figure out their offensive weapons and play diversity if OSU is to compete for a conference title
This was yet another example in the past two seasons where Ohio State has floundered on offense despite having more talent on the field than the opposing defense. While Penn State is playing fundamentally sound on defense this season, this unit has also been racked by injuries which makes it vulnerable to offenses like Ohio State and Michigan.
The Wolverines did their job against Penn State, putting the game out of reach early. Meanwhile, Ohio State did not finish the job, leaving a double-digit lead to go to waste just like the double-overtime game in Happy Valley in 2014. That raises serious questions about the offense and specifically the play calling, considering the weapons available with a Heisman candidate-type quarterback.
Curtis Samuel, arguably the most important player on the Meyer offense as a hybrid back, was ignored for the first 15-20 plays or so. While establishing tough runner Mike Weber was an admirable goal given the rainy and windy conditions, it was abundantly clear that Penn State was cheating up against the power run game. One of the few options Ohio State has to counter that type of defense is Samuel with his speed and acceleration, but it was rarely used in the first half.
Aggressive defenses can also be knocked off by misdirection plays and screen passes, but Ohio State only attempted a couple of those. As such, outside one broken long touchdown run (by Samuel, not ironically) and another single good drive, OSU was stifled all night by playing into the game plans of an aggressive Penn State defense.
If this offense refuses to adapt and both (a) use their best weapons more consistently, and (b) become less predictable, this type of loss will not be an aberration when teams of good quality (or even decent quality) have a good night against Ohio State. It may also lead to shifts on the coaching staff, should OSU continue to not figure out things on offense and rebound to win a division title this season.
Streaks are meant to be broken
Two notable streaks came to an end Saturday night. First, the 20-game road winning streak the Buckeyes had since the beginning of Urban Meyer’s tenure comes to an end. The record for that streak was 25 games to start a coaching tenure, and there’s a reason those streaks tend to end quickly: it’s incredibly hard to win in hostile road environments against quality competition every single time out.
If anything, Buckeye fans should appreciate how difficult it was to achieve the streak, as overtime escapes against PSU in 2014 and Wisconsin in 2012 and 2016 were part of that incredible run. While a young team with tons of underclassmen starters did not wilt in Norman or Madison, this is one of the toughest road slates a Buckeye team has faced in years. As such, it is not that surprising one of those tough road venues becomes a loss on the record books.
Likewise, kicker Tyler Durbin had hit on all 10 of his field goal attempts this season despite having to take over starting duties as a walk-on player only because of fall camp injury to Sean Nuerenberger. Thanks to rushing onto the field with the play clock running out and a poor snap to his holder, who is punter Cameron Johnston, the Nittany Lions blocked a fourth-quarter attempt and returned it for the go-ahead touchdown. Durbin also missed an extra point as well in the first half.
It’s hard to remain totally flawless and keep streaks alive. However, the latter streaks coming to an end leads to the next important point.
Special Teams is Critical in close games, and Ohio State must improve in that phase
Outside a fumble on a couple of poor decisions for Dontre Wilson to field punts against Wisconsin last week, the Buckeyes have not had many special teams negative plays, let alone big mistakes this season. Indeed, one could argue that Cameron Johnston’s amazing punts and Tyler Durbin’s perfect 3-for-3 night against Wisconsin is what saved the Buckeyes from losing a game earlier.
However, in the rain and muck of Happy Valley, the special teams totally fell apart, especially in the second half.
- Durbin missed an extra point in the first half thanks to a bad snap.
- Wilson again fumbled a punt return on a bad decision to field it (the Buckeyes recovered again).
- The Buckeyes failed to outrun the PSU punter to recover a snap over his head into the end zone, which turned a defensive touchdown into a safety, a 5-point difference in the beginning of the second half.
- Cam Johnston had a punt blocked for the first time in recent memory, setting up one of the three scores for Penn State in the fourth quarter.
- The aforementioned field goal block and return for touchdown to put Penn State ahead when Ohio State rushed the unit on the field instead of calling a timeout.
Although not a mistake per se, the kick returners for Ohio State also brought a couple of kicks out of the end zone and did not reach the 20-yard line, which is simply inexcusable when the touchback offers 25 yards on a night when field position is incredibly important.
Last week, the Buckeyes found a way to win in a tough road game when they probably should not have overcame a 10-point deficit. This week, the Buckeyes and especially their special teams found a way to lose in another tough road game when they probably should have won. OSU out gained the Lions by nearly 150 yards but special teams was the equalizer on a night when PSU had their own couple of special teams mistakes (blocked FG attempt, muffed punt return lost fumble, the safety on a punt).
In short, what was a huge advantage and strength of the Buckeyes all season betrayed them in nearly every way. If Ohio State has designs on a Big Ten championship or a playoff appearance, what happened to cause this loss on special teams cannot happen again.
J.T. Barrett needs his legs and his receivers to go win games
Remember back in the heady days of mid-September when Noah Brown, who missed 2015 with a broken leg in fall camp, exploded with 4 touchdown receptions against the Oklahoma Sooners? He then shuffled right back into the rotation with about 10 other receivers and tight ends over the next three weeks, earning about as many targets and receptions as anyone else on the two-deep.
Instead of turning into the next superstar wide receiver, Brown and everyone else in his position group unit have not helped the passing game develop much more since September. Barrett has not always been on his game with sharp passes, but when he has been, the receivers often drop the ball. It happened again on the final drive against Penn State, with a 40-yard strike bouncing off the face mask of a wide open receiver deep in field goal range (the Buckeyes were down 3 points).
Likewise, Penn State was able to play aggressive and bring effective pressure against Barrett because his receivers are not running routes that get themselves open in a reasonable amount of time. This has been a repeated issue and perhaps explains why nobody outside Curtis Samuel has been a staple in the receiving corps.
If the receivers cannot get open, then Barrett must rely on his legs to run Ohio State to miracle third-down conversions and big plays. He did that on a number of occasions Saturday night, but you could also tell he and the Buckeye coaching staff wanted him to hold back from taking as many hits as he did against Indiana and Wisconsin. When you don’t have a proven backup option like the past few seasons, losing Barrett is a risk the Buckeyes did not want to take.
However, Barrett running out of bounds or throwing the ball away rather than risking hits removes one of the best weapons for explosive plays the Buckeyes have. That approach very well may end too many drives prematurely for the Buckeyes to win a conference championship, especially if that hesitation to run is paired with receivers not performing up to a reasonable level, as was the case against Penn State.
The rivalry is back with Penn State
These border rivals have played every season since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993, and PSU has almost always treated it as a bigger rivalry than OSU thanks to The Game (Michigan) taking away Ohio State’s attention. But Penn State has risen up to play OSU tough almost every time in Happy Valley. Likewise, OSU dropped a couple of tough home games to PSU in conference title seasons in 2005 and 2009.
With Michigan State fading, there’s a new season-ruining moment for Ohio State to rally around outside the Michigan game, and that’s PSU. Nothing breeds true rivalry like upsets and close games, which is what Penn State may have finally brought back to this series on Saturday night.
The season is not lost for the Buckeyes
A clear downside to having the Big Ten become one of the best conferences (if not THE best) in college football is that running the table for undefeated seasons is incredibly difficult. That’s been the case even for Alabama in the SEC over the Nick Saban dynasty. However, it also means an early or mid-season loss can be overcome thanks to the other potential resume-enhancing wins on the schedule.
For Ohio State, a ranked opponent and potential Top-10 opponent is on the docket in two weeks when Nebraska comes to Columbus. The season then ends with Michigan and potentially a Big Ten Championship against Wisconsin or Nebraska, another likely ranked opponent. Add to that the road wins against ranked Oklahoma, which might win the Big 12, and Wisconsin, and you’ve got more than enough to win a College Football Playoff berth. It certainly removes any room for a further slip-up for the Buckeyes, but other than that, this loss has little effect on them.
The one potential risk would be Penn State holding the tiebreaker on Ohio State, should Michigan lose before the OSU game and then to the Buckeyes (leaving PSU and OSU tied, barring another Nittany Lions loss). Thus, the Buckeyes need Michigan to win out, or Penn State to lose once more. PSU’s remaining schedule, for the record, includes Purdue, Iowa, Indiana, Rutgers, and Michigan State.
However, the tiebreakers if all three end up 7-1 in league play would go to the College Football Playoff rankings, which if OSU is coming off a win over Michigan, likely strongly favors the Buckeyes. Thus, not all is lost for the Buckeyes.
Likewise, Urban Meyer has never won a national championship with an undefeated team. Didn’t happen at Florida, and it did not happen two years ago. Nick Saban also has won more national championships (4) with a loss than undefeated (1, in 2009).
For the Big Ten, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State are all still very much in the national championship picture. This upset changes none of that, even though it changes the picture for now (and likely removes any chance of 2 Big Ten teams in the playoff).
Of course, whoever wins the conference needs to play well to absolutely assure that they are considered one of the best four teams in college football, but it is hard to imagine a Big Ten champion being left out this year barring some further crazy results.
The magic of the crazy college football upset is an incredible thing to witness. We will see if there’s more that awaits in the twists and turns of the 2016 Big Ten football race.