As someone who expected a three point loss, I must first tip my hat to an OSU squad that showed some grit and avoided costly mistakes for the first time in forever during what was billed as a big game. I didn't think the o-line could hold up creating a Pryor mistake or two that would surely lead to a tough road defeat but that wasn't the case as the Buckeyes stepped up big time in Happy Valley. Good stuff.
Rushing Attack Wears Down PSU Front Seven
A banged up though rightfully maligned offensive line that had been, shall we say, inconsistent leading up to Saturday's contest handled an over hyped PSU front seven. This allowed Tressel to engineer an efficiently conservative game plan in which OSU ran the ball on 49 of 66 plays including 25 times on 27 first down snaps. Think about that for a second - everyone in the stadium knew the run was coming, especially on 1st down, but PSU couldn't do enough to stop it. On one hand, I'm ecstatic because there's nothing sweeter than bullying a team in the own backyard, especially one with a fanbase that eclipses ours from a kool aid sipping perspective. On the other, I have to wonder (1) where has this been all year or (2) is this the product of the Lions truly being paper tigers? I mean, it's great to hear Cordle act like Herbie and Co. fired them up but in a way that's like saying the o-line had it in them all season but needed to get criticized just enough before they would decide to play with the necessary fire to open holes, protect the QB and silence some critics. I'll choose to assume Cordle was letting off some steam after a big win. He and his mates deserve that much.
Out of the 49 runs, nine went for negative yardage but none for more than -4 as Boom and Zoom teamed up to carry the ball 36 times for 126 yards. The 3.5 combined yards per carry isn't overwhelming but it was effective and balanced as Boom shouldered the first half load going 13/51 while Saine picked up the slack in the second with a 16/61 effort including the game's final TD putting the game out of reach at 24-7 with under 10 minutes to play. The 36 carries between these two was huge as Pryor nursed various leg issues limiting him to a season low 5 carries. Hall chipped in with three carries and figures to play a larger role next week as Boom once again tweaked his ankle early in the 2nd half.
The final tally saw OSU rack up 228 yards on the ground, averaging 4.7 per, becoming the first team to go for 200+ against the Lions this season. Let's hope Cordle and company will remain 'fired up' over the final two regular season tilts. If so, a conference title and a trip to Pasadena awaits.
Pryor Does It All By Not Trying To Do Too Much
One of the first steps to being great is playing within yourself. Saturday night was the first time, in a big game at least, in which we've seen Pryor let the game come to him instead of forcing things that weren't there with drastic consequences.
The fact the line created holes for Boom and Zoom while giving up exactly zero sacks was obviously a huge benefit to Pryor's decision making prowess as he looked more poised than we've seen him during any big game in his young career. There's still plenty of work to do as evidenced by his sub 50% completion percentage (8/17) but he showed legit signs of maturity not yet seen in big games.
Avoiding the turnover bug was his biggest gain though I was also impressed with his 62 TD bomb to Posey for a few reasons. One, he briefly looked off the safety who was screwed either way since Dane had also gotten behind his man. Two, knowing Posey had 5 steps on his defender coupled with the knowledge the safety wasn't going to be able to help in time, Pryor was careful not to overthrow Posey and waste an opportunity for at least a big gainer. This was crucial to me because I think part of the reason Pryor floated this one a tad was because he learned from his overthrow on a bomb to Dane late in the first half. On that throw, Dane had the same 5 steps separation but Pryor was probably a little too excited and missed an easy score. On the pass to Posey he controlled his emotion, went through his mechanics and delivered a strike.
Though he was clearly banged limiting him to 5 carries, Pryor came up extra large on 3 of them in particular. His first tote of the day was a nifty 7 yard scramble for OSU's first TD, the second a 24 yard run on 3rd and 5 keeping a FG drive alive giving OSU a 10-7 lead and his 4th carry was a killer 12 yard run on 3rd and 11 setting up a six yard Pryor to Saine TD that put the game on ice. Big runs. Big nuts.
Defense Does It Again
Though the play of Pryor and the offensive line were major
surprises stories, the main reason the Buckeyes were able to strip Penn State of their collective manhood falls at the feet of the Silver Bullets. If not for their domination, Tressel is forced to call a riskier game offensively thus increasing the chances for shenanigans to occur. Armed with the knowledge his defensive line was overpowering the Lion front, Tressel was able to pick his spots knowing full well 14 points would be more than enough to leave HV with an inside track to the conference crown.
Looking to set the tone early, Heyward recorded a sack on the defense's first play and Chekwa ran stride for stride on a deep 2nd down incompletion before Thaddeus Maximus blew up a screen on 3rd down forcing a Lion punt which Small promptly returned to the PSU 9 yard line allowing the Buckeyes to take a quick 7-0 lead. It was all downhill from there as the Bullets picked up two more 3 and outs before PSU's lone ref-aided TD drive gave way to another punt followed by a 3 and out to cap the first half. One stat of note: PSU ran 11 offensive plays before picking up their first 1st down of the game.
The 2nd half was even more painful for We Are Not Great as their 7 possessions yielded three 3 and outs, 5 punts, an INT and a turnover on downs. In fact, excluding the last drive in which the Buckeyes were watching the clock run out, PSU's 6 possessions produced 52 yards on 21 plays, good for 2.47 yards per play. Do work.
Once again, the domination was the product of the defensive line. Heyward had his best game as a Buckeye with 11 tackles (3 TFL) and 2 sacks while fellow all-conference pimp T-Maximus had 6 stops along with countless pressures. Lawrence Wilson also stepped up with 5 tackles as he appeared to see more snaps than usual in place of Nathan Williams. Besides holding Penn State to a paltry 2.5 yards per rush, the line also harassed Daryll Clark into a 12/28, 1 INT performance limiting him to a season low 125 yards through the air.
Behind the line, Rolle and Homan added 10 stops apiece while Spitler showed his pursuit angle struggles on a 31 yard screen pass to Zug. The secondary was led by Chekwa's continued tight coverage. Sometimes his ball skills are questionable but when in man coverage he's usually step for step with his guy. Back liners Coleman (3), Hines (2) and Russell (2) combined for just 7 stops but that's what happens when the line and linebackers are keeping ball carriers from breaking the second line.
Small Is Large
Ray Small again showed why Tressel has stuck with him after years of nonsense off the field. His 41 yard return of Penn State's punt following their first possession set the OSU offense up at the 9 yard line but it did even more than that. Knowing how fragile the psyche of this offense can be, it was huge for them to take their second possession deep in the red zone and stick it in the end zone. The return enabled Pryor and the offense to quickly remove the taste of a first possession 3 and out from their mouths quieting the
drunk white out.
Small also came up big at the end of the 3rd quarter returning a punt 45 yards to the PSU 47 after the Buckeye D stifled the Lions with a 3 and out following the 62 yard strike to Posey. Leading 17-7, Small again gave the Buckeyes great field position and Pryor capitalized capping a 10 play, 47 yard drive spanning 5:23 with a yard TD pass to Saine putting OSU in front 24-7 with just under 10 minutes to play. Game. Set. Match.
For the game, Small returned 7 punts for 130 yards, good for an 18.6 average.
What's It All Mean?
I was hoping this game would answer lots of questions no matter the outcome but isn't there's still plenty to ponder? I'm perplexed when it comes to just how good this team is or isn't mainly because I'm having a hard time not thinking Penn State was anything other than a fraud as evidenced by two losses at the hands of the only legit teams they've played.
It was nice to see the offense play fairly mistake free against what was supposed to be a tough defense but was it really? And what about Pryor - he avoided the killer turnover but what's it say when the game plan is to do everything in your power to avoid putting him in position to make a mistake with his mind or arm? I'm not arguing with Tressel's approach because he did what he needed to do to win, I'm just trying to patiently wait as Pryor matures. You can't contest he took some positive steps Saturday night now the challenge is to take more positive steps this week and avoid the regression we've seen in the past. With a lock down defense, maybe he's figured out he doesn't have to do it all on his own and every play can't be a touchdown so playing within himself is the winning formula. Let's see if he takes the next step versus an Iowa defense that currently ranks 4th nationally in pass efficiency, 13th in scoring and 14th in total defense.
If Pryor and his o-line can get it done the next two weeks the Buckeyes will lock up an outright conference title in addition to their first Rose Bowl trip under Tressel. Funny how things come full circle. This team has walked the tight rope all year long but they're just two games away from doing what most of us thought they'd do in a season that most logically viewed as a steppingstone for a title run in 2010. Looking back, it's hard to believe they are right on course but maybe that's because they took such a bumpy road to get here.