After watching this game, I was left with two possibilities, and I see each of them as equally likely. The first is that Ohio State isn't actually the best team in the country. The second is that Penn State is painfully close to being right up there with them. The truth almost certainly lies in between, but what makes tonight's loss so frustrating is that unlike some of the middling opponents who have hung with the Buckeyes in recent weeks, Penn State deserved to be in a close one.
That they weren't is less the result of a gross disparity in talent but failures of coaching and of execution when those plays mattered most. When Penn State lost 63-14 in Columbus two years ago, that final score was representative of the gap between the two programs, one soaring, the other reeling from sanctions. But tonight's final score is a painful reminder that unless something changes soon, Penn State won't be able to compete, recruiting rankings be damned.
There could have been made few excuses, tonight, for any of Ohio State's missteps. Playing in a first-ever blackout before the second-largest crowd in Ohio Stadium history, in a primetime game under the lights, it would be difficult to argue that the Buckeyes lacked motivation. Although Cardale Jones inexplicably started, and Urban Meyer called too many passes in the opening quarter, it wasn't long before J.T. Barrett took over, and OSU started running that vintage Urban Meyer spread-run offense. And it's not like Penn State got superlative performances from unexpected performers: it was Saquon Barkley and Chris Godwin leading the offense; Carl Nassib and Anthony Zettel were the standouts on defense. Penn State played this game much like they had played the previous six.
Unfortunately, that includes the negatives that have gone more than halfway through a season unaddressed. John Donovan understood the need to get the ball into Barkley's hands, but his playcalling was uninspired and predictable and, at the most important points, played directly into the strengths of Ohio State's defense. You'd be hard-pressed to find a third-and-short that didn't call for a run up the middle. You'd be just as hard-pressed to find one that worked. True, Donovan was hamstrung by the complete ineffectiveness of Penn State's passing game. But then, so too was he uncreative enough as to fail to try something, anything, to combat that weakness. Donovan coached this game like he was afraid of making a mistake, and playing "not to lose" isn't the secret to beating the number one team on the road, especially when you're unranked and uninspiring. That the only wrinkle we saw was a running back option pass in which no receiver went out on a route is as much the emblem of this season as Brian Gaia blocking Andrew Nelson was last season's lasting symbol.
But Penn State had its chances, and failed to execute, and the worst failures can be pinned on the players. The coaching wasn't particularly good, but neither was the execution. Mike Gesicki's first-quarter drop was particularly egregious, just another in a running highlight reel of drop after drop for the enormously disappointing sophomore. It might have been forgiven if Brian Gaia hadn't needlessly held on the edge to erase a Barkley touchdown run (though, given the officiating in these games, that penalty flag needn't have been thrown). Christian Hackenberg was clearly banged up, but his inability to even give his (wide open) receivers a chance on a pair of fourth down attempts can't be chalked up to the leg or back injury that turned him into a statue. And though the offensive line was terrific in opening up or sealing run lanes for Barkley, it didn't stand a chance against the Buckeye pass rush. But that was oh-so expected.
What might not have been so predictable was the breakdown--in the third and fourth quarters, once it had been worn down--of Bob Shoop's defense--though there probably isn't a defense in the country that could do much better against Ohio State's offense, especially when it's led by J.T. Barrett. And considering that the Buckeyes consistently had excellent field position, thanks to an impossibly impotent Penn State punting game, it's almost miraculous that they didn't score more. Both Chris Gulla and Daniel Pasquariello have booted some long kicks this year, but their combined incompetence tonight--and the last few weeks--has been almost unforgivable. On a campus of 40,000 undergrads, there must be some student who can kick a ball further, more consistently, than either of them. Next year, Blake Gillikin will be handed the job on a silver platter. Until then, we shall clench. Penn State's coverage and return teams were better today, but Ohio State showed them that a championship-caliber team can rely on its special teams. These Nittany Lions most certainly cannot.
The good news is that Penn State won't play a team nearly as good as Ohio State again this season--and more importantly, since this is essentially a lost year, that we'll have Saquon Barkley for at least two more. But the supreme dissapointment that has been the Nittany Lions' offense will probably be the takeaway, and once again, it lies at the feet of the offensive coaching staff.
When you consider that Christian Hackenberg, for all his foibles, has as much talent as any passer in the country, that Saquon Barkley genuinely deserves to be mentioned alongside Leonard Fournette as one of the best backs in the country, that Chris Godwin makes two or three plays every single game that sends PSU Twitter abuzz, that in DeAndre Thompkins and Brandon Polk, Penn State has a pair of speedsters that Urban Meyer would love to plug into his offense...well, there's little excuse for performances like tonight. Imagine how good an offense led by those players, with a *decent* offensive line and offensive coordinator would be. They all deserve better.
And once again, Hackenberg deserves better most of all--once this game was out of reach, with Penn State down 3 and then 4 scores late in the fourth quarter, he remained in the game, if only to hand the ball off (though not before taking at least one more big hit, and coughing up a fumble). There was no reason not to let Trace McSorely take those garbage time snaps, especially given the beating Hack had been taking all night. The same goes for the other starters--ACLs can just as easily be torn in the final minute of an uncompetitive game. This isn't the first time it's happened, and it might not be the last, but it's coaching malpractice all the same.
I was watching the Michigan-Michigan State game earlier, and the ESPN commentators made a comment that I found supremely depressing. As Jake Rudock dropped back, and had all day to throw, they marveled that a unit that had been so bad last year, and returned so many of the same pieces, had transitioned from a weakness to a point of strength. The new coaches, they sad, had done a bang-up job coaching up those same players--experience was the key.
What I would give for some different announce crew to make the same proclamation next season about these Nittany Lions.
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On a personal note, this will likely be the last of these recaps I ever write. I’m starting my first real-world adult job on Monday, and I’ll be stepping back from my role here as an active contributor at BSD. I’m hoping I’ll still pop up every now and then, like Adam Collyer, but I don’t know the next time you’ll see my byline at the top of an article. The good news is Noel should be heading off to law school in the fall to fill that void in the masthead, one I inherited from Peter Berkes. Anyway, I’m sure a few people (including but not limited to the immediate members of the Donovan family) just fist-pumped, and I doubt I’ll be missed all that much. Still, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to reflect back a little bit.
There have been some starts and stops in between, but for the most part, blogging, especially about Penn State and Penn State football, has been one of the few constants throughout my adult life. I’ve been doing this for almost eight years now. In that time I’ve written for almost a half dozen websites, most of which have since become defunct. My first ever post was a piece for TheHeismanRace.com, which hasn’t existed for years, arguing that the graduation of Anthony Morrelli was addition by subtraction for Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions. I wrote that during journalism class in the computer lab at my high school on suburban Long Island. I’m writing this on the couch of the apartment I share with my girlfriend in Manhattan. It’s been a long, weird journey, but through it all, I’ve had blogging.
It’s hard even for me to believe that I’ve been at Black Shoe Diaries for almost four years now. When I started, and while I toiled over at NittanyWhiteOut (which, yes, has also since gone kaput), BSD was the evil empire, the established blog on a powerful network with a tremendous readership that I could never match. Now, I’ve outlasted some of my bosses here, guys like Chris Grovich, Jeff Junstrom, and Mike Pettigano who’ve had their real lives interfere. I owe Chris and Jeff the world for taking a chance on me which came, you’ll remember, in the wake of some personal notoriety and not without controversy. What a terrible decision they made. And Jared and Cari, these past couple years, have let me just run wild, have trusted me with these recaps and some other columns and appearances on podcasts and have let some of my crazier ideas come to fruition. Again, terrible, terrible decisions all.
I know I’m rambling, but the most important thing that’s just constantly been reinforced for me over these years has been the value of community--and that’s only a cliche because it’s true. I think I speak for most of my colleagues when I say that blogging isn’t about the writing practice, or even the exposure, or certainly about the money. We do it because we want to share what we’re passionate about, and I know no way to kill a passion and make it a chore more easily than feeling like you’re shouting helplessly into the abyss. I’d have hung up my keyboard months ago if it weren’t for this community.
Black Shoe Diaries isn’t just an outlet or a platform or a pulpit, but it’s all of you--and all of us, writing for you--and I couldn’t have kept at it without you guys being on the other side; reading, commenting, tweeting, sharing. You guys have kept me in check more than you’d know. You’ve made me a better writer and a better person. As I look back through the archives, I see a lot of articles I’m proud of, and some that might have been better off not written. Most of them are merely cromulent. But it’s hard to regret any. And I’m glad that I’m going out with a gamer like this, though I wish I'd hand the opportunity to be positive, just to shake things up a bit.
Thanks for everything, guys. It’s been so much fun.
And one last thing: Fire John Donovan.