Christmas came early to State College, Pennsylvania this year. The forecast for October 22nd in Centre County was clouds, wind, and a bit of rain. Instead, we had a full blown White Out.
The Penn State Nittany Lions and the Ohio State Buckeyes engaged in a contest of American football under the lights of Beaver Stadium on Saturday evening. Penn State improbably emerged victorious, 24-21. I have many thoughts, which are randomly set forth below:
- At various points throughout last week, Penn State was a 20+ point underdog against Ohio State at home. By the time smoke from the pregame fireworks cleared, the line had settled at Buckeyes -17. That’s a lot of points to give against a home team in a very hostile environment.
- The anatomy of an upset by a 20-point dog is as follows - the dog plays uncharacteristically perfect football to keep close to the favorite. Meanwhile, the favorite, feeling pressure playing before a home crowd, makes several mistakes at critical junctures to cede its standing advantage. The dog makes a big play on either defense or special teams (or both) and narrowly eeks out a victory.
- This was not that game.
- Let’s dispense with the notion that Ohio State stumbled and bumbled its way to a loss to Penn State on Saturday night. Actually, it was almost the opposite. Penn State tried multiple times to give the game away to the Buckeyes, but managed to pick itself up, dust itself off, and get into the end zone anyway.
- Let’s reflect - first, Penn State comes out of the gate firing, featuring solid gains in both the running and passing game by Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley, and Mike Gesicki. The drive stalls on the Ohio State 22, but we’re well within range of Tyler Davis, who hasn’t ever missed a kick. So, of course, the weather causes a tough hold and Davis kicks it directly into the Buckeye defense for his first miss. That’s 3 missing points against a highly ranked team in weather where you have to assume points would be at a premium.
- The defense looked spectacular on the first drive, forcing a punt quickly, minimizing yardage, and preventing their own offense from ending up with their backs against the goal line.
- Next, on Penn State’s second drive of the game, McSorley hits Gesicki in the hands, but it’s dropped. He appears to hurt himself. McSorley hits Godwin in the hands, but it’s dropped. McSorley has time, sees Tom Pancoast (in for the injured Gesicki), but overthrows him. That’s three missed opportunities against a highly ranked team, Penn State’s best offensive weapon (Barkley) didn’t get the chance to touch the ball, and another chance to put points on the board and press the Buckeyes on field position slipped through the team’s grasp.
- Another dominant defensive performance forces a 3-and-out on the Buckeyes next drive, meaning the Nittany Lions got the ball back less than 2 minutes later. On this drive, Barkley and McSorley combine for 36 yards rushing on the first three plays. Excellent. On the next first down, McSorley drops back and fires a deep ball to DeAndre Thompkins down the left sideline. Thompkins is well covered, gets his hands on the ball, but the pass ends up incomplete.
- The incomplete pass isn’t a problem, but the next play certainly was. Joe Moorhead, apparently channeling his inner Jay Paterno, calls for a reverse. It’s a lost cause, and the freshman running it, Miles Sanders, compounds the issues by running backwards. The play loses 10 yards, the drive stalls, and Penn State wastes a drive that featured an explosive Saquon Barkley run by punting the ball away.
- Of course, the defense continues its near flawless play, forcing yet another 3-and-out (I’m sensing a pattern), complete with a sack from returning senior linebacker Brandon Bell. Ohio State can do nothing except punt...
- Which leads to another missed opportunity for Penn State, as John Reid does his best Bad News Bears impression and lets a punt bounce off of him and through his legs. It’s recovered by Ohio State, who turns in a five play, 22-yard drive into 3 point.
- The teams continued this trend for several more drives, with no one doing much of anything, before Ohio State put together its only substantial drive of the game - 11 plays, 78 yards, and a touchdown to boot. Tyler Durbin did miss the point after, which was thoughtful of him.
- Penn State goes 3-and-out on the next drive, and the crowd is starting to get restless. Another Buckeye field goal later, and it’s 12-0.
- If you’re keeping track, Penn State had a kick blocked, muffed a punt, dropped multiple catchable passes, and survived a poorly timed end-around call. This was not exactly error free football, and this recitation doesn’t account for the 74-yard touchdown by Curtis Samuel or the error on the long snap that caused a safety, both of which happened in the 3rd quarter.
- In many ways, this was the oddest upset in college football. Had Penn State played within the standard upset narrative, this is a game that Penn State might have won by even more points. Figure that out.
- Ohio State got nearly every break and good bounce this game had to offer for most of the game. On one of Blake Gillikin’s punts, the ball bounced off the Ohio State return man deep in their own territory, but magically avoided Penn State’s punt coverage unit and stayed safely in the hands of Ohio State. The Buckeyes fumbled in the second half on a JT Barrett/Mike Weber exchange just before the blocked punt, but they managed to recover that as well.
- My first half recitation alone is cause for celebration about Penn State’s defense. That side of the ball has suffered injury after injury, never complained, and has worked as a unit to get the job done. Brandon Smith has been a great story and Cam Brown (more on him later) is a rising star, but Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda showed what kind of difference makers are at the top of the depth chart for this Nittany Lion team.
- Manny Bowen in place of the injured Nyeem Wartman-White wasn’t too shabby either.
- The final drive at the end of the first half that culminated in a touchdown breathed life into a stadium that was visibly uncomfortable a minute prior. That offered a big lift and a momentum swing going into the half, which kept everyone’s attention.
- Trace McSorley’s stat line didn’t do justice to the game he played. We’ve discussed the drops at length, but the stat line still doesn’t capture the good decisions he made all night. While he launched a few passes into man coverage, he never put himself in pick-6 territory and threw the ball away when he needed to. Given the pick-6 history of this rivalry, you can’t blame the crowd for being nervous, but he did what he had to do to protect the ball.
- McSorley carrying the ball on the option really looks good in this offense. It creates such a different dimension for teams to prepare for. Everyone wants a “pro-style QB,” but in college, give me a running quarterback anytime. Whether he’s effective in the NFL afterwards matters much less to me.
- Last year, Saquon Barkley carried 26 times for 194 yards. This year, he carried just 12 times for 99 yards. Which do you think he prefers?
- For a statistical defense of Barkley’s obvious choice, consider that he averaged 8.4 yards per carry on Saturday, and “only” 7.5 yards per carry last year at the Horseshoe.
- I’ve heard plenty of post-game analysis that says, “If you just look at the game stats, you’d think Penn State got killed.” I’m not totally convinced that’s the case, but even if I grant them that, there was never a time during this game where it felt completely out of reach, or that Ohio State was clearly the better team of the two. The closest I came to down and out was after the safety, with the Buckeyes up 21-7 with the ball. Had Ohio State scored there, this game was probably over.
- JT Barrett deserves credit for attempting to will his team to victory. He’s elusive, plays smart, and played well in a difficult environment. Hats off to him.
- I wasn’t particularly impressed with the Buckeye backfield otherwise, though. Ezekiel Elliott is nearly impossible to replace, but I’m not convinced that Mike Weber is the answer at running back there.
- Curtis Samuel had a nice game (139 all purpose yards), but I would have expected him to be a much larger part of the ground game. He looked like he was shot out of a cannon on that 74-yarder.
- I keep going back to this because it was so frustrating. Last week, Urban Meyer spoke about our receiving corps in glowing terms. Normally, I agree with him. Between the drops and the lack of separation, this was not their best effort.
- Perhaps the Nittany Lion offense missed DeAndre Thompkins’ ability to stretch the field?
- Speaking of, Thompkins has had such a fantastic year. I hope he’s ok, but he came down hard on his shoulder on the way down with that ball.
- Despite the drops, Godwin, Blacknall and Hamilton all reeled in big catches and important times. Consistency is a virtue, but 30+ yard passes don’t hurt.
- Mike Gesicki continues to be the player we hoped he would be when he committed to play in Happy Valley. One drop in the first half aside, he provided a rangy target for McSorley all night. He also showed off some nifty, Saquon-lite footwork late in the second half on the sideline.
- On the touchdown drive in the second half, McSorley hit Gesicki on first down for 16 yards. He had nothing but open field in front of him, but slippery conditions meant that he couldn’t get traction to do anything more than fall to the ground. That’s ok, since Barkley decided he was just going to take those 37 extra yards on the next play anyway.
- Good call on the horse collar tackle by the officials. There seemed to be some dickering in the booth about whether it was a “true horse collar,” or whether he grabbed him just below the collar and that it should be legal. Come on, guys. We all know that wasn’t proper when it happened, and too many legs have been broken and knees torn because of plays like that.
- We scored a few seconds later, so it didn’t matter, but McSorley missing a wide open Gesicki in the end zone is another example of this team missing opportunities but still coming out ahead in the long run. Nice to see that miss didn’t make a mental impact.
- McSorley showed his speed on the pylon run, turning the corner and diving for the goal line. The kid is an athlete.
- That looked a lot closer on replay than it did in the stands. I expected the play to be easily confirmed. On review, “The play stands,” was the most accurate call.
- I can’t figure out how Kirk Herbstreit manages to stay as neutral as he does at these games. If I were calling Penn State games, I’d probably be a total homer. Alternatively, you can see how a commentator would go above and beyond normal criticism in an attempt to establish his/her bonafides. Herbstreit played quarterback for Ohio State, for goodness sake, and still manages to play the straight man. That takes real skill.
- Lots of consternation for Chris Fowler talking about the “shame” in State College. For what it’s worth, I also wish people would just let everyone enjoy football again. On the other hand, this win isn’t this big if Penn State is as good as it was pre-2011. It’s a tough call.
- Remember when Sean Lee walked into the Orange Bowl to take Paul Posluszny’s place after the knee injury? Remember how much he needed to hit the weight room so he didn’t look like a big safety anymore, but he could make plays because he just had a certain something? Now take a look at Cam Brown and tell me you don’t get the same vibes.
- We had big plays made tonight by freshman and sophomores. Brown’s punt block is a perfect example of raw talent that’s in the process of being refined. This team has found a place for him to make plays and contribute. That bodes well for the future.
- Don’t look now, but Miles Sanders has quietly made his way into the number 2 spot on the depth charter. He was the guy spelling Barkley tonight. It didn’t happen very often (twice, if I counted correctly). The fact that he contributes in the kicking game is a nice way to get him acclimated to the speed of FBS football. At some point, he’s going to break one, it’s just a matter of time.
- It’s hard for me to speak about the offensive line individually, but I thought they did an exceptional job on Saturday, protecting McSorley and opening up running lanes for Barkley. It’s exciting to see this unit be effective after some troubling years.
- Thumbs up to Jason Cabinda for his creative celebrations.
- The surest way to Penn State immortality is to make big plays on the biggest stages. That’s why I know who Gregg Garrity is, despite being born in 1984. That’s why we all remember Ethan Kilmer and Mark Rubin. It’s why, no matter how the rest of their careers (college and pro) go, we’ll always remember Marcus Allen and Grant Haley.
- Can’t lie, I thought Haley was caught on that return at the 5 yard line. Cameron Johnston has legit wheels.
- Ohio State’s plan at the end of the game had me befuddled. They got the ball back with 4:21 on the clock. By the time the clock had ticked down to 2:21, they had moved 16 yards. It was a very deliberate drive at a time that called for a sense of urgency. The game plan seemed to be for Ohio State to bleed clock and score. Of course, to do that, you have to, you know, score. Penn State’s defense had a lot to do with that, of course, but the pace was certainly unexpected.
- I don’t ever want to hear an Ohio State fan talk about Jordan Smith and uncalled pass interference. Considering the number of times I’ve seen OSU benefit from ridiculous calls in this series (off the top of my head - the 2003 Hartsock bounce pass, the 2014 late field goal, the 2014 non-interception), this was nothing.
- Of course, why wouldn’t LeBron James cry about pass interference? He certainly cries about everything else.
- I guess, though, Ohio State knows something about pass interference, right?
51. But I digress.
52. Let’s commend Penn State for finally making good decisions with respect to students rushing the field. No one needed to be pepper sprayed, no mounted police were required. Instead, they surrounded the goalposts as students rightfully streamed down on to the field to celebrate with the team, which is exactly the way it should be. Good on you, Sandy Barbour.
53. This is the second time in three years that James Franklin has outcoached Urban Meyer. Two years ago, it took a gigantic roster disparity, two overtimes, and a few tough calls to beat the Nittany Lions. This week, Penn State got the win it so desperately needed.
54. I’m proud of the coaches who are building this program from the ground up. I’m proud of the players who suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and still kept coming at one of the best teams in the country. I’m proud of the fans for fans for continuing to stand behind this young team. And I’m proud of the university for doing things the right way.
55. Garrett Sickels played a fantastic game, but it’s far more important that we focus on the reasons for that. Sickels was suspended for the first half because he missed some classes during the bye week. You want to know what Penn State is all about?
56. “[A] lot of programs put winning ahead of everything else, we’re not going to do this. I started coaching to make a difference in people’s lives and to educate young people so they go on and have a chance to be successful for the next 50 years. If it was just about winning I’d go coach in the NFL. The fact tonight that can not only send the message to Garrett but also to our whole team that there is nothing more important than getting an education, there is nothing more important than doing the right thing day in and day out. I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, Garrett Sickels is one of the best kids I’ve ever been around and comes from an unbelievable family but there is nothing better than when you can teach a lesson and do it the right way and win and it reinforces it for everybody and everybody knows that we’re going to make the right choices for these kids and for this program long term. We’re never going to put winning ahead of it. We’re never going to make it winning at all costs. We’re going to do it the right way here at Penn State, always have, always will.”
57. Yes, sir. We are . . .