If you watch this first-half catch it doesn’t look all that impressive at first. Take a look at the defensive backs playing opposite Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave (2). There are three Penn State players accounting for him, yet he was able to get good yardage underneath of them and break the tackle of a fourth defender.
With Tariq Castro-Fields (5) dropping back into a deep safety position directly across from Olave, Justin Fields could see that it would be hard to get the ball to Olave on a deep route. Lamont Wade (38) was clearly favoring the outside in his zone coverage. Brandon Smith (12) needed to stay close to the line of scrimmage to protect the inside, shallow part of the field. Instead Smith bailed out way too deep, exposing the middle of the field for an easy catch.
Brandon Smith is a very good sophomore linebacker that is still learning the nuances in spacing while covering the pass. Understanding the coverage behind and beside a player can take years to master. Also we should remember that Olave and Fields are good enough to be playing in the NFL right now and Smith is 19 years old.
Later in the game, on a play that blew it open for the Buckeyes, Olave again beat the coverage of three Penn State players. Jahan Dotson had just scored for the Lions to cut the lead to 21-13 early in the third quarter. After an onslaught in the opening minutes of the game that had it looking like the Lions were going to get run out of their empty stadium, the team had cut it to a one-possession game. Ohio State answered with this play from 49 yards out.
It was a two-score deficit the rest of the way. At first glance it appears that Chris Olave just ran right past the defenders and it was a simple pitch and catch. In reality, Olave was in full sprint and barely got just one finger from his right hand on the ball initially, but was able to haul it in for the game-changing catch.
Before the snap of the ball Jaquan Brisker (1) was lined up with Lamont Wade (38) in a two-safety look. Just before the snap they shift into single-safety with Brisker in the middle of the field. The key once they shift is that Wade got too shallow, anticipating the inside cut and possibly reacting to Fields’ pump fake. It’s doubtful that Brisker was meant to cover all the way from the center of the field to the sideline at a depth of 10-20 yards from the line of scrimmage. That would be a nearly impossible assignment. It is more likely that Wade was supposed to give Marquis Wilson (8) help in that region of the secondary, just in case Olave got past him quickly.
Olave did get outside of Wilson, almost immediately, and with Wade caught inside and too shallow to help, possibly reacting to the pump-fake, Brisker didn’t have time to get to the deep outside. Brisker turned his back and sprinted away from a tight end that was running a seam route right in front of him at the snap of the ball, so it appears that it was Brisker’s responsibility to give Wade and Wilson help over the top. Brisker didn’t get there but had Wilson or Wade slowed Olave down at all, he may have been able to.
You could say that Olave and Fields beat three players on the score or that both safeties were out of position. Either way it was a defining play in the game. It’s also worth noting that Fields had plenty of time, in a clean pocket, to make the throw.
Defensive coordinator Brent Pry used a lot of resources to try to stop Chris Olave and still it was not enough, as he finished with 120 yards and 2 touchdowns. Considering how dangerous it is to leave Justin Fields unaccounted for, adding a receiver that requires a constant double-team or more opens up a lot for the other Buckeyes.
It may be a small consolation, but the Lions may end up being the only team to hold Ohio State under 40 points during the regular-season schedule.
There has been some talk about the talent gap between Penn State and Ohio State. We all know that Micah Parsons would have made a difference had he opted to play this year. The loss of Journey Brown surely didn’t help the talent gap on Saturday either.
The talent gap at just one position may have made the difference in the game. Had Justin Fields played for the Lions and Sean Clifford for the Buckeyes, the game might have gone the Lions’ way. That’s not a knock on Clifford, who is clearly not playing his best football yet this year. Fields is that good. It is possible that there are 3-4 teams on OSU’s schedule that if Fields were to swap sides with the other quarterback, it would make the difference.
The Buckeyes have other players that are gifted, such as Chris Olave, and it’s clear that overall the team has more talent than any other Big Ten team. The offensive line is great and so is the defensive line. The coaching is as good as it gets. Even with that said, the Lions were maybe a couple of missing players or made plays from winning the game.
Wholesale changes are not necessary for the Penn State program, in fact, a few years’ worth of stability in the coaching staff might be what the doctor orders. The Indiana Hoosiers have a pretty solid team this year, they may have the best shot at beating Ohio State. While the Lions have two losses, the margin of error, against two teams ranked in the top-15, was just 14 total points.
Things could have gone better at Indiana for James Franklin and his team and had the Lions held on for the win, a 13-point loss to Ohio State would not feel so bad. Wins matter and losses hurt worse than they should. We could take a few moments to appreciate that the Lions hold and have held a talent gap over most of the Big Ten for the past few seasons. We remember how bleak the outlook was for the program less than a decade ago.
To say it could be worse is an understatement. With Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Nebraska remaining on the schedule, there is plenty to play for. While it may cause angst in some fans when they think about the talent gap between the Lions and the Buckeyes, it is important that the team remains ahead of the Wolverines, Spartans, Hawkeyes and Cornhuskers.
The only way to stay ahead of the middle of the pack in the Big Ten is to win games. Perceived wins on the recruiting trail are the most hollow of victories. Hype and rankings didn’t help much at Indiana nor will they moving forward this season. If the Lions can run the table or finish with just one more loss during the regular-season it will be enough to hold the program where it has been for the past four seasons, in the top tier of the Big Ten.