Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins did not look like a Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback for most of Saturday night. The redshirt sophomore, in a raucous environment, was rattled. That is, until Penn State forgot how to tackle. Until four-yard throws turned into 40-yard gains.
Despite a stellar first half — one almost no one expected after lulls against Pitt, Illinois and Appalachian State — the Nittany Lion defense did not adjust. The unit was gashed by Ohio State’s bubble and halfback screens, and it cost Penn State a primetime win.
“They have really good players and good athletes, and we didn’t do a great job in space with them,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said. “It was a good plan by them. It was a nice adjustment that they made.”
Haskins was 11 of 12 for 157 yards and two touchdowns on screen passes. Otherwise, he went 11 of 27 for 113 yards with one score and an interception.
Haskins said after the game that Penn State purposefully took away the Buckeyes’ downfield attack, which Ohio State has leaned on this season. The Buckeyes led the Big Ten with 10 receptions of 30-plus yards entering Saturday night. “There was a lot of pressure,” the quarterback noted. “And I missed a couple of throws.”
But Haskins hit the easy ones — the ones that turned into game-changing plays. J.K. Dobbins scored on a screen from 26 yards out to cut the Nittany Lions’ second-quarter lead in half. And wideout K.J. Hill hauled in a bubble screen pass, avoided John Reid’s flailing tackle attempt and skated into the end zone untouched with 2:03 to go.
The Nittany Lion defense dominated early, holding the Buckeyes to five three-and-outs in their first seven drives and limiting them to 2.7 yards per play in the first half. But Penn State’s tackling in the secondary was appalling in space.
A friendly reminder: The weekly Good, Bad and Ugly shines light on what happened that didn’t receive attention in the CDT’s postgame coverage. History repeating itself with an Ohio State collapse, what happened on the critical fourth-and-5 decision and who earned player of the game have already been addressed.
- True freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth all but solidified his starting role with three catches for 44 yards, including a one-handed, fourth-quarter touchdown snare and a 27-yard reception on Penn State’s final drive. With the third-most catches on the team, behind Juwan Johnson and KJ Hamler, expect Freiermuth’s involvement in the passing attack grow going forward.
- Garrett Taylor — a redshirt junior safety who bided his time for years behind Marcus Allen — finally made his breakout play. In the second quarter, Taylor intercepted a tipped pass and returned it 45 yards to Ohio State’s 28-yard line. The Nittany Lions had to settle for a field goal on that drive (more on that later), but it was a heads up play by Taylor.
- KJ Hamler might be the fastest player to ever play in Beaver Stadium. Rewatch his 93-yard catch-and-run touchdown and try to convince me otherwise. “The Human Joystick” catches Trace McSorley’s pass at the Nittany Lion 14-yard line, and at the 25, he’s seemingly surrounded by three Buckeyes. Hamler hit the gas instead, dusting everyone on the field. Hamler — who did leave the game and did not return after an Ohio State targeting call — is now averaging 22.67 yards yards per offensive touch. He’s looking like a Tyreke Hill 2.0.
- Penn State crossed Ohio State’s 40-yard line on four of its first five drives, and the Nittany Lions had only three points to show for it. Penn State punted from the Buckeyes’ 39-yard line on its opening march. The series after, the Nittany Lions reached the 16 and settled for a Jake Pinegar field goal. Next drive, Pinegar missed from 46 out. Penn State moved the ball, but simply couldn’t finish. “We were in there a few times early on, and we just came up short,” wideout Juwan Johnson said. “We have to turn those into six points. We can’t settle for field goals against teams like Ohio State.”
- Ohio State’s third-down struggles were mentioned already. Now it’s time to address Penn State’s. The Nittany Lions converted 3 of 17 third-down opportunities. Three of 17. The average distance to gain was 9.18 yards. On seven of those attempts, Penn State faced third-and-13 or longer. That’s not a winning formula.
- Drops continue to plague the Nittany Lion wideouts. Johnson had a drop. So did Brandon Polk and Mac Hippenhammer. Maybe it has something to do with Josh Gattis now coaching at Alabama and wide receivers coach David Corley — who was the team’s running backs coach for a hot minute — taking over. Maybe this group isn’t as good as everyone thought in the preseason. The talent is there, but at this point, there’s no end in sight with this drop issue.
- Redshirt freshman CJ Thorpe — Penn State’s backup guard before being moved to defensive tackle this week — was on the field for Ohio State’s game-winning touchdown. The score wasn’t Thorpe’s fault. Not at all. This is more to point out the lack of depth along Penn State’s interior defensive line. Ellison Jordan, who didn’t travel to Illinois, is out with an apparent knee problem, and Antonio Shelton was ejected for targeting in the third quarter. That forced Thorpe — someone with no experience — into Penn State’s rotation. Not ideal.
- Penn State led 13-0 with a three minutes left in the second quarter with the ball. That is, before Miles Sanders fumbled. The tailback, who had issues holding onto the ball as a true freshman, had been reliable since. But two plays after he coughed up possession at Penn State’s 25-yard line, Ohio State found the end zone. It was a rare, yet costly, mistake from the bell-cow back.
- Ricky Rahne got too cute. That’s what it came down to. Penn State’s offensive coordinator spent all week and all Saturday night trying to cleverly outmaneuver Greg Schiano and Ohio State’s defensive staff. Instead, he overthought everything and went away the obvious...
- The Tommy Stevens packages should be limited to games against Big Ten basement dwellers Maryland and Rutgers. There’s a reason why Joe Moorhead didn’t put Stevens on the field last year at Ohio State. When the Nittany Lions’ offense gets in a rhythm — against a defense with speed like the Buckeyes — throwing Tommy in there just messes with the flow. On Penn State’s second drive, McSorley accounted for three consecutive first downs to get the Nittany Lions to Ohio State’s 17-yard line. What does Rahne call? A backward swing pass to Stevens, who doesn’t catch it cleanly and falls on the ball for a loss of 13. Penn State settled for a field goal when it should have had a touchdown. Yes, it’s fun to see Stevens and McSorley on the field at the same time. But it was ugly against Ohio State.
- Penn State made the correct decision to go for two up 26-14 with eight minutes left. But a jet sweep? Without Hamler in the game? Really? Two plays prior, McSorley bulldozed three Ohio State defenders for a 10-yard gain. The guy tallied 175 rushing yards, breaking a Penn State quarterback record that stood since 1933. You need two yards, and the Buckeyes weren’t stopping McSorley.
- Which segues perfectly into the final playcall. That fourth-and-5 decision that will haunt Rahne and the Nittany Lions until they get another crack at Ohio State on Nov. 23, 2019. McSorley is Penn State’s Michael Jordan, its LeBron James. He needs to take the final shot. Instead, Sanders was stuffed for a loss of two yards, and the Buckeyes escaped with another comeback win. It’s a shame, really, that on McSorley’s final play in a White Out — his final play against Ohio State — he was forced to stand there five yards away from the ball and watch as Sanders was ripped down with ease. McSorley deserved better. He deserved to have the ball in his hands when the game was on the line. The fact that he didn’t was stunning on so many levels.