A night like Saturday was brewing for a while.
Penn State’s problems on the offensive line finally caught up it.
The front surrendered 13 tackles for loss and a demoralizing final-drive sack in Ohio State’s come-from-behind 39-38 win. It’s actually surprising to see in the statsheet that the Buckeyes tallied only two total sacks. Trace McSorley was running for his life more often than not and rarely was he able to set his feet in the fourth quarter.
When asked how he thought the offensive line performed, Penn State head coach James Franklin said, “Obviously not good enough.” He followed that up by saying blame for the loss could be spread to other parties.
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But the unit — an issue for most of the season — caved when it could least afford to.
A month ago in Iowa City, the Nittany Lions almost lost because of their offensive line. The Hawkeyes’ defensive ends burned Penn State’s blockers en route to 11 tackles for loss, a strip sack and a quarterback hit that caused an interception. The Lions survived 21-19.
Defeat was never a thought in Penn State’s blowout wins over Indiana or Northwestern, but the O-line’s reliability was in-question. The line was a turnstile against the Hoosiers and Wildcats, giving up 23 tackles for loss and 10 sacks combined.
The Michigan win provided a ray of hope. The Wolverines’ touted front-four featuring Rashan Gary, Maurice Hurst and Chase Winovich was supposed to bury Penn State’s offensive line. To their credit, the Nittany Lions held their own.
But down the stretch in Columbus, a long-time Achilles’ heel brought the Nittany Lions to their knees.
Losing Ryan Bates didn’t help. Saquon Barkley accidentally rolled up on his leg midway through the third quarter, and the left tackle exited in pain. From that point forward, Barkley struggled to get back to the line of scrimmage, and McSorley felt constant pressure.
Look no further than the final drive. The Buckeyes pinned their ears back and attacked.
Two seconds after securing the first-down snap, McSorley was chased out of the pocket by three Buckeyes and had to throw it away. On second down, he was sacked in four seconds with Ohio State sending five. On third down, the quarterback had to throw into double coverage to avoid being eaten by Nick Bosa.
Fourth down epitomized the offensive line’s struggles. Penn State needed 15 yards to continue the game — to have a shot at a game-winning field goal — and McSorley didn’t even have time to let his target get past the first-down marker. Rushed from the pocket, he fired an incompletion with four grayshirts closing in on him.
It was a series, and night, to forget for Penn State’s offensive line.
▪ Earlier this season, linebacker Koa Farmer joked that he was a “retired kick returner.”
He didn’t look washed up on Saturday.
After Barkley housed the opening kickoff, Ohio State kicked away from him. In the second quarter, Farmer — Barkley’s up-back who was Penn State’s leading returner in 2015 — stunned the Buckeyes and legged out a 59-yard gain. It set the Nittany Lions up on Ohio State’s 23-yard line. Two plays later, McSorley found paydirt to push Penn State’s lead to 28-10.
Oh, and don’t overlook Farmer’s defensive impact. The redshirt junior tallied seven tackles (two for loss) and recovered a first-quarter fumble that led to a Nittany Lion score.
Farmer was all over the place Saturday.
▪ Much was made about referee John O’Neill’s decision to overturn the call on the field and award DeAndre Thompkins with a third-quarter touchdown catch. The Penn State faithful loved it, while Ohio State fans were still complaining on Twitter after the win.
What might get lost in that, though, was the actual play. Thompkins’ grab was exceptional.
On McSorley’s 37-yard heave into the end zone, Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward was in a better position to catch it than Thompkins. Ward turned toward the ball, and initially it looked as if it landed right in his breadbasket.
But Thompkins — with his back to the play and left arm stuck under Ward’s — trapped the ball to his chest with his right hand.
Thompkins’ first touchdown of the season was a beauty.
▪ In addition to Bates’ injury, losing defensive end Ryan Buchholz early hurt.
Buchholz — a 6-foot-6 bruiser on Penn State’s front-four — had to be carted off after the Nittany Lions’ first defensive play. Trainers were looking at his left leg on the field, and Buchholz later appeared on Penn State’s sideline wearing a boot with crutches.
Buchholz’s presence was clearly missed in the fourth quarter. Penn State’s front-four couldn’t generate a lick of pressure as J.T. Barrett picked the Nittany Lions apart.
Not saying it would’ve been a different outcome if Buchholz was in there. But his absence forced younger players such as Shaka Toney and Yetur Gross-Matos into a more prominent role.
“He’s a leader on the defensive line,” fellow starting defensive end Shareef Miller said of Buchholz. “That was a tough loss for us.”
▪ Franklin was disappointed in Penn State’s inability to cope with “sudden change.”
For example, the blocked punt stunned the Nittany Lion defense that had to then take the field. Two plays after the block, Barrett threw a 38-yard touchdown to a wide-open Johnnie Dixon.
But Franklin believes it’s a bigger issue than just that one instance. He’s seen this kind of thing plague Penn State throughout the season.
“I don’t think we’ve handled sudden change real well this year,” the coach said. “If something like the blocked punt happens, our defense hasn’t handled that well. That’s something we have to get better at. I have to take a hard look at that.”
▪ Boy, did Barrett have himself a game. The veteran quarterback connected on 33 of 39 passes for 328 yards and four touchdowns, while tallying a school-record 16 straight completions to end the game. Remarkable.
But the Nittany Lions’ rush defense was just as poor as its pass coverage. Sacks aside, the Buckeyes gashed Penn State for 206 rushing yards.
Barrett was an important part of that with 95 yards on 17 carries. But freshman running back J.K. Dobbins provided a burst, too, with 88 yards on 13 attempts. Six of Dobbins’ runs went for first downs.
The freshman back further proved on Saturday that he’s got elite talent. Penn State couldn’t handle him — and will have to face him at least two more times over the course of his Ohio State career. Have fun with that.
▪ McSorley was Penn State’s leading rusher with 49 yards.
When you’ve got the Heisman Trophy front-runner in Saquon Barkley, that’s an ugly, ugly statistic.