Penn State Football

Penn State football: Defense wants to be better despite strong effort against Ohio State

Penn State’s Nyeem Wartman (5) and C.J. Olaniyan take down Ohio State’s Cardale Jones during the Nittany Lions’ 31-24 double overtime loss to the Buckeyes on Saturday.
Penn State’s Nyeem Wartman (5) and C.J. Olaniyan take down Ohio State’s Cardale Jones during the Nittany Lions’ 31-24 double overtime loss to the Buckeyes on Saturday. CDT photo

A little more than two hours before Beaver Stadium would shake from the nearly 108,000 fans that would gather to watch Ohio State and Penn State collide, Bob Shoop stepped out into an empty Beaver Stadium for a few minutes of serenity.

Somehow the stadium seems so much bigger when it’s quiet, still and empty.

There’s no telling if this is what Shoop thought as the Penn State defensive coordinator methodically lapped the boundary lines of the playing surface, pausing at all six pylons in each end zone, tapping each one of them in a calm, ritualistic fashion. Shoop knew No. 13 Ohio State would present a challenge and it wasn’t too big for the Nittany Lions despite losing 31-24 in two overtimes on Saturday.

If anything, Saturday’s performance in which Shoop’s defense — led by Mike Hull and Antony Zettel — further proved that Penn State won’t likely be without a chance in any game this season. Consider it an elite performance shutting out the Buckeyes in the second half of regulation where Zettel turned in a pick-six that got Penn State back into the game.

But it wasn’t just Hull, who was all over the field all night, and Zettel, who made the biggest play when he returned a J.T. Barrett pass 40 yards for a touchdown to start the second half.

It was a charged and freed-up Deion Barnes, who’s been able to impact games more with Zettel drawing increased attention beside him.

It was a savagely effective Austin Johnson who’s playing up to the standard set by former Penn State greats — DaQuan Jones, Jordan Hill and Devon Still — all of whom are in the National Football League.

It was a hard-hitting secondary led by Adrian Amos who popped multiple Ohio State defenders with hopes they wouldn’t want the ball on the next play.

It was young players stepping up — Brandon Bell as he’s done most of the year with another solid effort, playing an effective role as an extra pass rusher on blitzes. It was Marcus Allen who nearly came up with two interceptions starting in place of injured Ryan Keiser.

It was a performance that kept Shoop’s defense ranked atop nearly every major statistical category in the nation.

But for this group, it wasn’t good enough.

“It’s another eye-opener — how good we can be when we really put everything together,” Zettel said. “We need to get better, that’s a big, big thing. If we want to win games, and Penn State, this is a school where we win games, so losing’s not acceptable. And we’re going to stop losing. That’s basically what’s going to happen.”

The Good

The offense showed some measurable progress in this game, especially toward the latter moments where Penn State was able to move the ball against a solid defense.

In their first three Big Ten games, Penn State had very little left in the tank at the end. Save for the Rutgers game, Penn State hadn’t mounted a drive of more than 27 yards in the fourth quarter. Against Rutgers, Northwestern and Michigan, Penn State’s average fourth quarter possession lasted just four plays and went for only 15 yards. Against Ohio State, Penn State put together fourth-quarter drives of seven, eight and 19 plays and averaged an eight-play, 34-yard drive against the Buckeyes.

“I really don’t think that there are any moral victories,” quarterback Christian Hackenberg said. “For us, this is another notch in the ‘L’ column. I think that we can bounce back from this. We have some great stuff to watch on film and we are just going to keep working and prepare for next week.”

Although Penn State finished with a net of 16 rushing yards, the offensive line was able to open a few holes and Akeel Lynch, who led the team with 38 yards on 13 carries, hit them quickly and decisively. Although Hackenberg was sacked five times, he wasn’t running for his life the entire game and had more time to throw than normal.

The crowd actually cheered on an incomplete pass simply because Hackenberg had a pocket to step into. Other than the sacks, Hackenberg was knocked down only two more times. The extra time helped Hackenberg hit nine targets in total with 14 balls going to DaeSean Hamilton, who finished with 126 yards.

The Bad

Penn State spent more than $10 million to upgrade its video boards in the end zones at Beaver Stadium over the summer.

But apparently the 156-by-42 feet high definition displays can’t be used for replay reviews even if the equipment officials on the field and in the review booth is malfunctioning.

This startling, and preposterous standard, cost Penn State dearly.

A technical difficulty prevented referee John O’Neill and replay official Tom Fiedler from seeing a complete view of Vonn Bell’s interception in the first quarter in which the ball hit the ground. It was ruled an interception on the field and stood to the disdain of Penn State fans who saw the replay clearly with the ball hitting the ground as Bell failed to gain control of it.

Afterward, O’Neill said no provision exists to us in-house replays and that he and Fielder had just a single overhead shot of the play.

The officiating was bad all night. Ohio State, which scored a touchdown off the incorrectly ruled turnover, got a field goal when it should have gotten a penalty for a delay of game. The Big Ten confirmed, acknowledging “a breakdown in officiating mechanics” in a release Sunday evening.

On-field clock mismanagement and drawn out reviews for obvious scoring plays also bogged down the game late. It was an embarrassing job by O’Neill and his crew and a shameful day for Big Ten officiating in general.

If the Big Ten moves to centralized replay reviews — where all replays are conducted by off-site officials and then relayed to stadiums, as it should — it will be because of this game.

The Ugly

Injuries aren’t good for any football team. For a team with 47 scholarship players — not counting true freshman who will likely redshirt — they can be devastating.

It wasn’t a pretty night for the Nittany Lions in this department. Ryan Keiser was out of the lineup and Penn State lost another senior leader on the game’s first play when Zach Zwinak went down with a left leg injury. Zwinak had to be carted off. Later, left tackle Donovan Smith was hurt and did not return to the game.

“That’s three starters,” Franklin said. “They are guys that have had significant roles for us that we didn’t have for a good portion of the game. And that’s magnified, obviously, because you guys already know some of the challenges.”

Tight end Mike Gesicki and receiver Geno Lewis also missed a few series after absorbing jarring contact on passes over the middle.

Day to Remember

This may have to become the Mike Hull Award. The senior linebacker had another hair-on-fire game as he was everywhere again against the Buckeyes. He made 19 tackles — the most since Gerald Hodges made 19 against Illinois in 2011. Hull also intercepted a pass and made two tackles for losses.

“Mike Hull is the best player I’ve ever played around,” Zettel said. “He’s the hardest worker every day in practice. Every single play he’s giving 100 percent, he’s like a little speed demon. It’s unreal the intensity he brings, never complains. Playing with him, people make mistakes and he always covers for it. That’s how good of a player he is. I just can’t say enough about him.”

Day to Forget

Bill Belton wasn’t very effective as evidenced by his eight yards on nine carries and the senior running back spent most of the night running sideways rather than North. On short yardage runs, Belton had four carries for zero yards although he did get a one-yard run for a touchdown in overtime.

Otherwise, a third of Belton’s carries went for no gain or negative yardage and he was not on the field in the final overtime when Penn State needed his pass protection abilities. Instead, Akeel Lynch got more time and as a result was the player who Joey Bosa drove into Hackenberg to end the game.

Key Play You Already Forgot

The Nittany Lions led 24-17 after scoring to start the first overtime and their defense set up to defend Ohio State’s second play of its first extra series — a second-and-7 from Penn State 25-yard line.

With the crowd as loud as it had been all night, Barrett, who fakes handoffs with the best of them, ran the read option and pulled the ball from Ezekiel Elliott at the last second. He scooted around a crashing C.J. Olaniyan around the left flank of Penn State’s defense and got to the 5 for a 17-yard gain before Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas brought him down.

It was Ohio State’s longest play from scrimmage since a 21-yard gain in with less than three minutes to play in the first quarter and it set up a five-yard run on the next play that tied the game. Ohio State wouldn’t trail again.

“At the end of the game when he needed to go make a play, he did it for us,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.

Hidden Stat That Matters

Penn State didn’t have much time to work with offensively in the first half. The Buckeyes held onto the ball for 18:35 over the first two quarters while Penn State managed just 11:25.