Eight games into the season and more than three months since this year’s team began preseason practice, Ohio State still hasn’t figured out how to consistently and effectively execute a kickoff.
While Ohio State has made clear improvement on offense since the beginning of the season, and its defense has also made evident strides, its problems with kickoffs and covering them have only seemed to get worse.
Those problems nearly reached their nadir on Saturday, when the Buckeyes came dangerously close to losing their second game of the season to Penn State, in large part because of their inability to effectively kick the ball off.
While the Buckeyes ultimately survived for a 39-38 win, overcoming their special teams shortcomings thanks to a 19-point fourth-quarter, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer – whose teams have typically been among college football’s best on kickoffs – knows he must continue working to find a solution to his team’s kickoff woes to avoid being snakebitten by that problem later in the season.
"We're having our struggles kicking the ball, and we're taking the best kickoff team historically in this conference," said Meyer, whose team currently ranks 127th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in yards per kickoff (56.6) and seventh in the Big Ten in yards per opposing kickoff return (19.0). "We've always been top two or top three (in the conference), if I remember right, and it's a joke right now."
Meyer seemed confident that his kickoff unit had improved entering Saturday’s game, suggesting last week that the Buckeyes had made adjustments to where they were placing their kickoffs and that he had seen improvements during the team’s two weeks between games.
All of that confidence quickly dissipated, however, when Penn State’s Saquon Barkley returned Sean Nuernberger’s opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown.
Combined with a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown by Maryland’s Ty Johnson against Nuernberger and the Buckeyes earlier this month, Ohio State has now allowed two kickoff return touchdowns in a season for the first time since 2010.
It’s unclear what exactly Ohio State’s adjusted kickoff strategy was supposed to be – Nuernberger’s kick itself was between the 5-yard line and the goal line and on the numbers, which is where Meyer’s Buckeyes have traditionally aimed their kickoffs – but it almost certainly wasn’t what the Buckeyes did the rest of the game.
As the Buckeyes decided they simply couldn’t take the risk of kicking the ball directly to Barkley any more times, Ohio State spent the rest of the game kicking the ball off low and short. Penn State’s Koa Farmer even succeeded in exposing the Buckeyes’ kickoff coverage issues with one of those kicks, fielding it at the 18-yard line and returning it 59 yards to set the Nittany Lions up deep in Ohio State territory, leading to another Penn State touchdown.
Ohio State didn’t allow any other kickoffs to be returned more than 11 yards, but keeping the kickoffs short nonetheless led to consistently good field position for the Nittany Lions, who started seven of their eight drives after kickoffs ahead of the 25-yard line.
That’s where a team gets the ball after a touchback, so the solution seems like it should be simple: Why don’t the Buckeyes just kick the ball through the end zone, instead of trying and too often failing to pin opponents inside their own 20-yard line? Surely, a team of Ohio State’s caliber should have at least one kicker who can boot the ball the length of the field, correct?
Meyer insists he isn’t that stubborn. He says he’d be happy to employ the simple strategy if he felt one of his kickers – Nuernberger and Blake Haubeil being the only two on scholarship – could consistently execute it.
"I'd kick it out of the end zone every time. We're the only school in the America that can't kick it out of the end zone, even with the wind at our back," Meyer said. "It's not because of not telling them to kick the ball out of the end zone."
Some people who have seen Nuernberger and Haubeil kick outside of Ohio State games, however, aren’t buying that excuse from Meyer, suggesting that both of them are more than capable of kicking the ball through the end zone. Among them, someone who should know: former Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston.
I don't believe this at all, seen first hand both kickers being able to. https://t.co/DdGNh8D4WN— Cameron Johnston (@Cam_Johnston) October 30, 2017
Meyer, however, indicated that it’s not a matter of whether he has a capable kicker, but whether he has a consistently capable kicker. In response to one reporter pointing out during Monday's press conference that Haubeil has had some touchbacks this season – the only six Ohio State has had yet this season, to be exact – Meyer pointed out that Haubeil has also made mistakes.
"And then he drops one on the 28-yard line, middle of the field," Meyer said of how Haubeil might follow up on one of his touchbacks. “I'm not blaming. It's just, I feel the same pain, man, let's go.”
Regardless of who ends up handling kickoffs the rest of the season – Nuernberger handled all kickoffs against Penn State, but Haubeil handled every kickoff at Nebraska the game before – and how far that kicker can kick the ball, Ohio State also needs better coverage from the rest of its kickoff unit to stop allowing big plays in that phase of the game.
Meyer acknowledged that there are some players on that unit who might currently be playing out of position, and that the Buckeyes have limited personnel available for the kickoff unit because of players who have left for the NFL – specifically, at defensive back, a position where the Buckeyes regularly draw kickoff coverage players from – and recent recruits who have failed to pan out.
"We've had some kids leave here in the back end of our defense. We've had some (recruiting) mistakes. And at some point you've got to pay the piper," Meyer said. "We're paying it right now."
Meyer said he and the Buckeyes are still hard at work, though, trying to figure out how to make their kickoffs work.
"We had a meeting this morning," Meyer said Monday. “We're trying to figure ... you look at two things. You look at the scheme, we've adjusted the scheme somewhat. You look at our kickers.”
Ohio State’s kickoff team will next be put to the test on Saturday at 3:30 p.m., when the Buckeyes play Iowa – tied for 49th in the FBS with 22.0 yards per kickoff return – at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.