Saturday night, Penn State played what might be the most important game for the football program in the next 5 years. And we really have to hope that it's not all downhill from here.
Penn State deserved better.
The coaching staff, the team, the fanbase. Given everything that's happened in the past 12 months, tonight was supposed to be a celebration, and a statement that despite the sanctions and the penalties and all the crap we've taken, that Penn State Is Back. Failing that, a reminder that at least we're still going to be able to hold our own, and hang with the big boys, that our coaching staff would push all the right buttons and our players' energy and guts would at the very least keep Penn State in games through sheer power of will.
And before the referees took over, we got exactly the game we wanted, though not necessarily in the way we expected it. We thought we'd get a shootout, but the first score didn't come until halfway through the second quarter. And we thought that Penn State's offense would continue its exponential growth, but it was the much-maligned special teams that came through, as Mike Hull added to his breakout season with the punt block that led to 7. Ohio State came out flat and confused offensively, but Penn State was aggressive and played downhill and bottled up Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde. The Beaver Stadium crowd was as loud as it's ever been, and something just feels right about the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes playing a tight, defensive battle.
True, there were the missed opportunities on each side--McGloin underthrew a wide open Allen Robinson that would've been six on the opening drive, but Braxton Miller returned the favor a drive later. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong dropped an easy pick-six, but McGloin forced a few into coverage himself. It was hard to ever feel comfortable in a game with so many potential swings, but at 7-0, Penn State fans had reason to at least be somewhat confident as the half trickled to a close.
But the play that changed this game wasn't one that Ohio State made, or that Penn State failed to make. What opened the door to Ohio State's comeback was, plain and simple, an absolutely indefensibly horrible penalty call--holding on Brad Bars during yet another Ohio State punt, for, apparently, having the audacity to touch a blocker who missed a chop block. That wasn't the first laughably bad call to go against Penn State--Adrian Amos had earlier been called for a personal foul for making a completely legal hit on a receiver who went up for a high pass--but it set the tone for the rest of the game.
Penn State might not have won the game if the officiating hadn't been so laughably bad, and plainly one-sided--it sure would be hard to blame the officiating for the Lions' offensive ineptitude--but it sure would've been nice to see them get a fair shot. Obviously, by now we all know what happened: the Bars penalty kept the drive going, Penn State's defense finally wore down (and continued to, as the game wore on), Braxton Miller got into the open field, and a touchdown lead going into the half turned into a tie game. That drive would be a microcosm for the rest of the game--bad calls, Braxton Miller doing Braxton Miller things, and a defense that just had nothing left by the end.
From there, it just spiraled downward and if you flashed back to the opener against Ohio, I won't blame you. Ohio State made the adjustments during the break, Penn State didn't, and this one got out of hand rather quickly. On the opening drive of the second half, McGloin hit a wide open Ryan Shazier for a touchdown, which would be nice if Shazier weren't a Buckeye linebacker. The offense didn't get untracked until Penn State was out of it, as problems arose that we thought had long been fixed.
The offensive line that Mac McWhorter had, in just one year, turned from a sieve into a dominant unit returned to its traffic cone-scarecrow-turnstyle roots--not only couldn't they keep McGloin upright, but the running game was completely shut down all night. A Penn State team that had been able to stay so balanced during its five-game winning streak suddenly became pass happy. And even when he had the time, and the open receivers, McGloin's couldn't make Ohio State pay. His passes, with alarming frequency, came out way too late. McGloin was rattled, and it showed.
It didn't help that Bill O'Brien seemed ill-equipped to deal with the multiple fronts Ohio State showed--even against the blitz, Penn State ran 5-receiver sets and empty backfields. He tried to keep the Buckeyes off-balance with the draw play, but only ran one screen--and on a 4th and 12--against a team that's so susceptible to them. I can't quite understand all the blame coming from some corners of the internet, but it certainly seems like all that Coach of the Year talk was just a little bit premature.
Defensively, Penn State played about as well as you could reasonably expect them to before Ohio State's massive time-of-possession advantage finally took its toll. And until the very last score, Braxton Miller's finest throw of the game--a 72-yard strike right over the top of an overmatched Jacob Fagnano, they more than held their ground against a Buckeye offense that doesn't need any help, but got it anyway from the referees.
Braxton Miller is a exciting, young, dynamic player, and given his miraculous recovery from the monster hit he took just a week ago, you might be able to add "indestructible" to that list of adjectives. He's still developing as a passer, and it showed, but by the time the offense got clicking for Ohio State, they barely needed to put the ball in the air. It helped that they were able to take advantage of an officiating crew that simply refused to call holding penalties--except, you know, on interior defensive linemen during punt plays.
On Miller's first touchdown run--a juke-laden scramble straight out of a video game--Michael Mauti was so obviously held that, had it not been our team that was so blatantly screwed by the officiating, we'd have been tempted to laugh. If Urban Meyer and crew realized that the referees simply weren't going to throw a flag, and instructed their linemen to just grab Penn State defenders by their jerseys and hold on for dear life--and you can't convince me that wasn't the case--then kudos to them, I guess. It's often said that you could call holding on every play, but the ones that weren't called last night were among the most egregious you'll ever see.
But, as horrendous and as one-sided as the officiating outcomes were, Penn State could hardly make the case that they were the better team, that they would've won had it been called evenly. The offense didn't get going until the game was out of hand, and for the first time in a long time, we had the opportunity to continually second-guess the coaching staff. We'd been told that Ohio State's defense was a liability, but their front four dictated the outcome of this game. This was a let-down on most fronts, and it's a game that the Nittany Lions will need to distance themselves from, and fast. For a team so motivated by emotion and momentum, the worry is that this game was their Super Bowl, and that a loss to a better Buckeye squad will be more than just a blip on an otherwise triumphant season. Let's cross our fingers
Quarterbacks: C. McGloin got his numbers, but far too many came late, in garbage time. Early on, he looked more confident and comfortable and adroit in the pocket than we've seen, but as the offensive line began to falter, he matched their struggles. He missed far too many receivers with late throws and was lucky to escape with just one interception. But interspersed with the mistakes were a number of perfect throws, and if he hadn't been so knocked down and rattled, this would've been an entirely different game for McGloin.
Running Backs: C-. To fault the running backs for the failures of the running game would be to entirely misplace the blame--Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton were held to 42 and 26 yards, respectively, because the offensive line failed to open holes for them, and because Penn State couldn't get into its NASCAR offense, which allows them to run downhill. But it's not like they made too many tacklers miss.
Receivers: B+. After a drop-filled performance against Iowa, the receiving corps was mostly clean against Ohio State, and McGloin had more opportunities than he was able to take advantage of. Allen Robinson was able to get open downfield with relative ease, Kyle Carter continued this fantastic freshman campaign of his. I'm just wondering whatever happened to Alex Kinney.
Offensive Line: D. McGloin was sacked 4 times--under pressure far more--and Penn State ran for 32 yards. There's nothing else you can say that excuses those numbers. For the first time all year, McWhorter's unit, replete with a healthy Donovan Smith, didn't win the battle in the trenches. And that, more than even the officiating, is the reason Penn State lost this game.
Defensive Line: B+. Pete Massaro had a sack and, for the second straight week, looked like his pre-injury self. James Terry even came through with a sack. And if Jordan Hill and Da'Quan Jones weren't just being absolutely mauled by Ohio State linemen all game, they would've held Carlos Hyde to even worse than 2.5 yards per carry. You can't fault the defensive ends for periodically failing to contain Braxton Miller on the edge--the guy sells his read options better than anyone I've ever seen.
Linebackers: A. The fact that Mike Hull is Penn State's fourth linebacker says more than any numbers or praise you could possibly lavish upon the likes of Gerald Hodges and Mike Mauti. Hull wasn't just a force on special teams, with the blocked punt, but he also picked up a sack and narrowly missed another. Hodges and Mauti were their usual fantastic selves up front, and between them earned at least a half dozen uncalled holding penalties. That Ohio State ran for 234 yards ought not diminish the outstanding continued performance of this fantastic iteration at Linebacker U.
Defensive Backs: A-. If it weren't for Jacob Fagnano's poor coverage that led to Jake Stoneburner's 72-yard touchdown catch, which put the nail in the coffin on Penn State's third loss of the season, this unit would've earned an A+. Take that play away, and Braxton is 6/18 for 71 yards with an interception. And that's with the dropped pick-six from Stephen Obeng-Agyapong. For a group that started the year so absolutely terrible, they've come an astoundingly long way in the past six weeks.
Special Teams: A-. Mike Hull's blocked punt (and Yancich's recovery) got Penn State up early, and there really were no breakdowns at all from this group. Yeah, Alex Butterworth shanked one, but the rest of his punts were great, by his standards. Sam Ficken made his one field goal. And the coverage teams didn't allow a big return. Honestly, the biggest miscue from the special teams unit was Butterworth picking the wrong receiver on his fake punt--if he throws to Mike Hull, Penn State might have a touchdown.
Coaching: D+. Bill O'Brien was right to try and enable his receivers to make big plays--they were open deep--but he went to that well far too often, and didn't make the necessary adjustments once it became clear that Ohio State was dominating at the line of scrimmage. And it's absolutely inexcusable to go for 2, down by 12, rather than extending the game with the extra point (though obviously, that didn't end up mattering). I don't think all the criticism directed towards him is necessarily warranted, but there were ways to mitigate Ohio State's strategy and inherent advantages, and he was far too stubborn in the gameplan he'd devised.