Everyone saw it. The Ohio State defense couldn’t hide from it.
Oregon State burned the Buckeyes in the season opener for seven plays of 25-plus yards, including rushes from Artavis Pierce of 78 and 80 yards. TCU took it to a new level with Darius Anderson sprinting for a 93-yard touchdown, the longest play in Horned Frogs history and the longest play from scrimmage against Ohio State in program history. Shawn Robinson, TCU’s quarterback, tossed four 25-yard-plus completions.
Though he watched the first three games of the season from his house while serving a suspension, Urban Meyer knew preventing big plays would be the most important challenge on the defensive side of the ball once he returned to the sideline.
“On defense, too many big plays, and that's just obvious,” Meyer said on Sept. 18 during his first Big Ten teleconference appearance back from suspension. “Get aligned and get the guy down. If he makes it to the second level, get him down. That's the biggest issue on defense is eliminate the big plays.”
Well, the Buckeyes are still giving up too many big plays, and yes, it’s still obvious.
If Oregon State could gash their defense on a few plays, Penn State certainly could do the same. And, of course, the Nittany Lions did just that a few times on Saturday – even though Ohio State got stops at key moments.
“The answer is you have to play better. I think that's the same conversation that we've had. You've got to continue to work. Understand we have some new players. But, it's Week 6. We just can't give up those darn big plays."– Urban Meyer
Trace McSorley threw five passes that gained Penn State 20 or more yards and ran for two other 20-plus-yard gains. The chunk plays that went farthest came on a pair of plays – one on the ground, one in the air, but both featuring McSorley.
On the first drive of Penn State’s third drive of the game, McSorley dropped back, the receivers pulled the defense to the left and he took off for a 51-yard scramble. Tuf Borland couldn’t change directions fast enough to cut off McSorley, who raced down the visiting sideline before Kendall Sheffield pushed him out of bounds deep at the Ohio State 28-yard line.
The Buckeyes buckled down, though, and forced a 46-yard field goal attempt that Jake Pinegar missed.
Then, midway through the second quarter, McSorley hit K.J. Hamler for a 93-yard touchdown, tying the longest ever against Ohio State that TCU set just two weeks prior. Hamler took three steps, planted his left foot in the grass and left cornerback Shaun Wade a couple steps behind as he caught a slant pass and raced up the field. Isaiah Pryor, the deep safety, took a poor angle and couldn’t cut off the speedy Hamler.
The McSorley-to-Hamler pass accounted for 1/3 of Penn State’s passing yards on Saturday.
“When one breaks, you've got to get him down,” Meyer said at a press conference on Monday. “We've had a history of getting guys down. It's not going to be perfect all the time. We're a very aggressive coverage team. And there's been a couple examples this week of not getting them down, those are all things we're working on.”
To Meyer, it doesn’t matter that Ohio State only got burned for 40-plus-yard gains on two plays against Penn State, which entered Saturday as the top scoring offense in the country.
“You just have to evaluate the plays," Meyer said. "It would be like saying, 'OK, on punt, punt was really good other than two plays.' That's not acceptable. We gave up a 90-plus-yard reception in man coverage. The safety's got to get him down or don't get beat in man coverage. We had a quarterback (McSorley) that was performing one of the best games of his career. Some of it was scramble. Some was a direct run.”
At some point, the large chunks of yardage given up on single plays will come back to haunt Ohio State in the form of a loss. Penn State came close on Saturday to taking advantage of a weakness that Oregon State and TCU exposed, but the Buckeyes once again overcame it, though it took a last-ditch effort from the offense.
Solutions for how the Buckeyes can cure this issue aren’t obvious, especially this far into the season, but Meyer hopes for basic improvement.
“The answer is you have to play better,” Meyer said. “I think that's the same conversation that we've had. You've got to continue to work. Understand we have some new players. But, it's Week 6. We just can't give up those darn big plays. That's what it's been.”
Meyer’s answer should be cause for at least some concern. It’s hard to know whether Ohio State’s defenders actually have the ability to make the necessary improvement in the middle of this season. Those kind of evolutions typically take place in the offseason.
Isaiah Prince struggled early in the 2016 season, got taken advantage of by Penn State’s defensive line and remained a liability for the rest of the season. The next year, he became a consistent blocker and as a senior, he has turned into one of the team’s leaders. That type of transition normally doesn’t happen during the season; it’s a much longer process.
Rapid improvement during the season doesn’t usually come. Schematic adjustments could help, and the next four games against unranked teams offer chances to test out younger players.
Meyer said Ohio State’s younger players who have not contributed much had a “call-to-arms” meeting on Sunday. If he determines the current starters aren’t getting their job done, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see some of the freshmen and sophomores get some opportunities to break into the rotation over the next month.
With Pryor out for the first half of Saturday's game against Indiana due to his targeting penalty in the second half of the Penn State game, Meyer said Jahsen Wint, Shaun Wade and Brendon White are all candidates to play in his stead. If one of them stands out, they could be in line for more snaps, even when Pryor returns from suspension.