Just when it seemed like we could count on J.T. Barrett coming up small in big games and that there was a new Big 2 in the Big Ten, Ohio State reminded the playoff committee not to forget about them. Ohio State had a miserable first half, but good teams make other good teams make mistakes. That script flipped 180° in the second half, particularly the fourth quarter. Penn State got off to a great start, jumping out 14-0 after Saquon Barkley ran the opening kickoff back and Penn State converted a fumble into a touchdown. Unlike seasons past, when a big early lead had caused a foot-off-the-gas offensive strategy, the Nittany Lions kept the pressure on, extending the lead to 21-3 and later 28-10.
But lost in the tidal wave of early points was an undercurrent of defensive concern. Ohio State finished the first half and the game with nearly double Penn State’s offensive production across the board. The Lions should have and did have an advantage in special teams, but the ease with which Barrett attacked the secondary was surprising. Grant Haley had looked like a shut-down corner, but had an abysmal game. The defensive front, so successful throughout the year in sacking the quarterback and preventing points, was a half-second late getting to Barrett. Despite the three-score leads, it never felt like the Buckeyes were out of it.
There were instances of déjà vu. Similar to last year’s game, the #2-ranked team blew a double-digit lead on the road and used a blocked kick to ignite the go-ahead score. Like the Rose Bowl, though, Penn State got way too conservative with its playcalling, running three times inside the OSU 10 before settling for a field goal. When games get tight, Penn State seems to only trust Barkley or Trace McSorley running or a jump ball to Gesicki.
Unique to this year’s game might be that both starting quarterbacks were also their teams’ leading rusher, with Barrett tallying a game-high 95 yards. The Nittany Lions (and many others) have always struggled with Barrett’s running. Barkley again hovered around 50 yards rushing, though, which has become an unsettling trend for both his Heisman hopes as well as the team’s success. Defenses seem to know how he’ll be used, and while he will still turn 2 yard losses into 8 yard gains, he is being contained each week now. Ryan Bates’s injury was horrible, as it caused McSorley to constantly be under duress, in turn disrupting the timing with his receivers. The offensive line feels like to biggest barrier to Penn State reaching its goals from here on out.
Penn State is far from out of the discussion for the playoff, whose inaugural 2017 rankings come out Tuesday evening. They should fall to 6th in the AP and Coaches polls, behind Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Wisconsin. But they now need a lot of help to reach the playoff, with the conference title nearly out of the question. Ohio State still has games against the Michigan schools, so they are not out of the woods yet either. But this game did expose some of the weaknesses we’ve been able to overlook when the team was winning games. The coaches will need to clean those up going into Michigan State week.
About the Author:
Adam Kimmel is the founder and Principal at ASK Consulting Solutions, a technical writing firm specializing in engineering content writing. A 2003 graduate and avid fan of Penn State, Adam has followed Penn State football for over 25 years, attending nearly 50 games and researching historical players and teams. He is also a Manager of R&D, and can be found on LinkedIn