Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien has had to defend defensive coordinator John Butler in the wake of his team’s embarrassing loss, and it is pretty easy to side with the critics.
It was hard to pinpoint just a thing or two that went wrong for the Nittany Lions defense, although pretty much nothing went right.
Whatever Penn State did, Ohio State had a counter, whether that was throwing a wide receiver screen when a linebacker was splitting the difference between the slot and the formation, running it inside when a linebacker was pulled out by the setup or just hitting the backside when the Lions were over-shifted, the Buckeyes knew where to go more often than not.
This is of course a credit to the development of Braxton Miller and the rest of the offense. He understands where to go with the ball much more innately now, and the receivers have proven reliable to catch the ball and at least get what they can get when they are needed to stretch a team sideways. They could already go deep, but teams have become more likely to try to take that away, which makes a lot of sense. The receivers’ ability to break tackles still leaves something to be desired, but I guess one can’t have everything.
Carlos Hyde and the offensive line are still the best non-Braxton Miller options to ride for this offense, though, and that was the case again Saturday night. The OSU line handled a pretty solid front and Hyde did the rest, running through arm tackles and outrunning angles to turn short gains into medium ones and medium gains into long ones.
Penn State came out with a pretty passive scheme, which makes some sense given its unproven corners, but the Nittany Lions pretty much failed in their attempt to prevent big plays anyway. They were outflanked on several occasions, leaving Ohio State simply to exploit a numbers advantage, but even one-on-one was essentially a win for the Buckeyes because of the obvious difference in personnel.
Beyond that, the Nittany Lions didn’t show a lot of fight, especially as the night went on. They seemed pretty content to take their medicine, and Ohio State was happy to give it to them.
That is not to slight the Buckeyes, of course. Miller was decisive on his reads and Carlos Hyde sharp on his cuts. Dontre Wilson was able to get in space and make things happen, too. By the time Jordan Hall had come in, Penn State looked like it was ready to say, “No mas.”
As for the Ohio State defense, the advantage the Buckeyes had at defensive end proved to be pretty large. Noah Spence took advantage of Penn State’s shaky tackle play again and again when Christian Hackenberg dropped back to pass, and Luke Fickell supplemented the attack with a little more pressure than usual.
The Buckeyes continued to tackle well and keep leverage, but the run defense left something to be desired. After getting handled fairly well by Iowa, the defensive line was more stout this week but the linebackers weren’t very impressive. I don’t think they had as many blockers to deal with this week, but pursuit was lackluster, especially from Curtis Grant. He still seems to have a tendency to get caught thinking more than attacking.
That said, Bill Belton made some good reads and cuts throughout the night. He is skinny but elusive, a Michael Wiley type with maybe more wiggle. He deserves credit for getting more out of several runs than he probably should have based on how the play was blocked.
Penn State sort of plays a “pro-style spread” with athletic tight ends instead of slot receivers, and Ohio State responded by playing a lot of nickel.
Hackenberg looked every bit what he is – a talented player who is a freshman. He has a lot of poise, but he doesn't know it all yet. A few missed reads or executions really hurt him and the team, but that's part of life as a young quarterback in major college football. Penn State smartly used boot action to try to hurt the Buckeyes the way Iowa did, but Hackenberg didn’t execute the throws as efficiently as Iowa’s Jake Rudock, which is somewhat surprising.
Overall, Penn State’s first drive left me feeling like it was more good offense by Penn State than bad defense by Ohio State. And then the freshman quarterback either made a bad decision or a bad throw to ruin it. More likely he thought he could get it over Corey Brown to his tight end but the ball didn't come out of his hand cleanly based on how it was wobbling.
It was all downhill from there.
Other observations and play notes:
Ohio State’s third drive of the game (second scoring drive) was a thing of beauty. It had to leave Penn State wondering what it was getting into because the Buckeyes just imposed their will, going 88 yards almost all on the ground after utilizing a lot of passing constraint plays on their first drive. A couple of times, they had the play defended but couldn’t make a tackle. The end hit Hyde in the backfield on one play but couldn’t bring him down, then Hyde outran the next wave of pursuit for a big gain that should have been a loss. Miller got stuck with the ball against an unblocked defender on a zone-read keeper with Penn State playing a scrape exchange, but he still managed to make a man miss and pick up a couple yards. They crashed inside on another play but Miller gave it to Wilson, who followed a Hyde block then had the speed to bounce it outside and get 12 when an average talent would have had only a couple. At one point they rolled out the “Dave” play from the shotgun to beat an eight-man front on third-and-short. Mewhort and Norwell handled the tackle while Heuerman singled the end and a pulling Hall took care of the middle linebacker, giving Hyde the crease he needed to power through for the first down. On Miller’s 39-yard touchdown run, the formation pulled the linebackers to one side then Miller took advantage of that on the backside, where there were three blockers for three defenders. Linsley and Hall pushed the nose guard back into the weak-side linebacker, who reacted flat-footed anyway and then fell down. Decker handled the end and it was off to the races at that point with Devin Smith getting a block 35 yards down field to let Miller finish the run for a touchdown…. whew. Need a cigarette?
This was Marcus Hall’s best game. He battled well with some good interior linemen and got out in front of a couple of plays as a pulling guard.
As Jeff Svoboda pointed out during the game, OSU didn't have Roby shadowing Robinson. He remained the boundary corner all night, unlike against Wisconsin. This is probably because Penn State actually had more than one good receiver.
I’d rate Hackenberg’s second interception a bad decision because he tried to beat a safety with a throw to a tight end. If that were a linebacker against a guy as fast and athletic as Jesse James, that would be another story. C.J. Barnett made a very nice catch, though.
On the third scoring drive, OSU caught Penn State in their nickel near the red zone and ran Hyde up the middle three straight times. Easy yards given the blockers-to-defenders ratio. Then Penn State gave them eight in the box with no free safety and Herman pulled out quarterback counter trey to even the numbers for Miller to score the third touchdown. Checkmate.