Penn State played about as well as you could’ve asked for for most of Saturday’s night contest with Ohio State, but it didn’t finish the job, and thus we wind up here with position grades. So, here we go:
In a fair and just world, we’re waking up this morning talking about how Trace McSorley vaulted himself into the heart of the Heisman Trophy conversation. Alas, this is not a fair and just world.
McSorley was 16 for 32 for 286 and two scores in the air and rushed for a career-high 175 yards on 25 carries. It seemed like every time Penn State needed a play, McSorley was there. Which makes taking the ball out of his hands (twice!) to end the game to egregious. McSorley was tremendous against the Buckeyes and deserved better.
Running Backs: D
Well, running back, really. Only Miles Sanders played and, of course, the week after I tell everyone how fantastic he is, the junior laid a bit of an egg. Though the line didn’t help much, Sanders carried the ball 16 times for just 43 yards and his fumble just prior to halftime gave the Buckeyes momentum which they previously had none of.
Sanders had by far the worst of his games as the PSU starter, capped by a game-ending run on which he was swallowed up in the backfield by Chase Young for a loss of 2 yards.
Wide Receiver/Tight End: B
The drops, yet again, are what keep this grade from being higher. But as a whole, the receiving weapons for McSorley were pretty solid on Saturday night.
KJ Hamler posted four receptions for 138 yards and one, scintillating 93-yard touchdown where he torched the entire Buckeyes secondary. Juwan Johnson made five catches for 61 yards, including a ridiculous one-hand grab on the sideline for a big play, and freshman Pat Friermuth caught three balls for 44 yards and score.
Hamler was knocked out (literally) of the game in the fourth quarter after a blow to the head by Ohio State safety Isaiah Pryor (who was ejected from the contest) and his absence was certainly notable on Penn State’s last possession.
Offensive Line: C
It was clear from the start of the game that Ohio State’s game plan was to prevent Penn State from beating them on the ground. While the Buckeyes committed a lot of bodies to the box in order to do so, they were successful.
Sanders couldn’t get anything going and much of McSorley’s yards came on scrambles where he either broke contain to stepped up and took off downfield. The line did a solid job of pass protecting, but the inability to run the ball ultimately was a large reason why Penn State struggled to salt the game away.
Defensive Line: A-
Sean Spencer is the best position coach Penn State has, and he proved it yet again on Saturday night. The Wild Dogs caused Dwayne Haskins problems the entire night and prevented the Buckeyes from getting any real tracting in the run game. Ohio State averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and while Penn State had just one sack, Haskins was pressured so much in the first half that Ryan Day had to completely scrap the downfield passing game in favor of a short, quick-hit offense.
Cam Brown and Koa Farmer had arguably the best games of their respective careers. Farmer led the team in tackles with eight and Brown followed closely behind with six. Both were excellent in coverage for the majority of the game. Jan Johnson also made five tackles for the Nittany Lions. The thing that keeps this grade from being higher is that when Ohio State went to the screen game, both to the running backs and wide receivers, the Penn State linebackers struggled to tackle in space.
Defensive Backs: B-
This one was the toughest of the group. For so much of the game, Amani Oruwariye and John Reid were fantastic on the outside. Reid, for the first time all season, looked like the All-Big Ten corner we expected and Amani gave KJ Hill nothing.
But then the game plan changed, and the corners struggled. When OSU changed it up, the corners struggled to get off blocks and make tackles in space and it took an A- grade down all the way to a B-.
At the safety spot, Garrett Taylor had four tackles and huge interception and return. Nick Scott made five tackles and patrolled center field perfectly. But again, both struggled to tackle in the screen game.
Special Teams: B
The obvious criticism here is of Blake Gilikin, who shockingly struggled for much of the night and averaged just 39.0 yards per punt. Gilikin did, however, come up big when it mattered most with a big 53-yard punt to flip the field in the fourth and then a 40-yard punt to pin the Buckeyes at the 2-yard line with four minutes to play.
Additionally, the coverage of Penn State’s punts was very good.
Rafa Checa was absolutely fantastic and is officially a weapon for PSU. The true freshman kicked off six times and notched six touchbacks, completely nullifying any threat of a return touchdown.
Jake Pinegar was solid, even if his missed 46-yard field goal in the first quarter could have provided the difference in a win and a loss. The reality is most true freshmen kickers are shaky outside of 40 and he hit from both 39 and 34, as well as on all his extra point attempts.
Checa and the punt return coverage are what keep this grade up.
I know. I know. The reactive thought is that James Franklin, Ricky Rahne and co. deserve a failing grade for the they bungled the end of the game. And make no mistake, they did bungle the end of the game. But games are also 60 minutes long.
While the grade plummeted because of the ending, its supported by the fact that the Nittany Lions were in position to win throughout, in part because of really good coaching.
Brent Pry’s defensive pressure and scheme has Dwayne Haskins off balance for much of the night. Sean Spencer, Tim Banks and Terry Smith all had their position units ready to go. Ricky Rahne’s offense put up 488 yards of total offense. And James Franklin has his team as well-prepared and mentally ready as you could’ve hoped for.
The ending sucked. There aren’t really any eloquent ways to describe it. But taken in whole, it wasn’t a disastrous coaching performance.