In his first season as Ohio State’s starting right tackle in 2016, Isaiah Prince was one of the team’s most oft-criticized players.
Last season, Prince changed that narrative. He was one of the Buckeyes’ most improved players in 2017, evolving from a weakness of the offensive line into a strength.
Recently, however, Prince has emerged as a frequent target of criticism from Ohio State fans once again. Search “Isaiah Prince” on Twitter, and you won’t have to look far to find unsavory reviews of his play, some of which aren’t fit for print here.
Ask Prince how he feels he has performed this season, however, and he will defend his play. He doesn’t believe his play regressed this season; to the contrary, the senior captain believes he is playing better than last season.
“I don’t want to talk about myself, but I think I’ve played pretty good this season,” Prince said. “I’ve (given up) a few pressures, a few sacks. I’m never going to play perfect, but I play as hard as I can on Saturdays.
“I think I’ve definitely played a lot better than I did last year, when you cut the film on.”
Urban Meyer doesn’t agree with the criticism, either.
“He’s performed pretty good,” Ohio State’s head coach said of Prince. “There’s been some times where he hasn’t played great, but for the most part, he’s played pretty well. We expect him to be our leader, and he does a good job in practice leading the group. Overall, the body of work has been very good.”
“I think I’ve definitely played a lot better than I did last year, when you cut the film on.”– Isaiah Prince
The negativity surrounding Prince’s play began to bubble back up to the surface during Ohio State’s seventh game of the season against Minnesota. While Ohio State finished that game with a 30-14 victory, Minnesota had three sacks from Prince’s side of the line while he was also flagged for three penalties. Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said after the game that he thought Prince struggled in that game because he was unable to put the plays that didn’t go his way behind him.
“I think he was kind of playing in the past,” Wilson said following that Oct. 13 game. “He couldn’t press pause and move forward. And as a veteran player, he’s done that. He’ll be better at it. We’re all human. He didn’t let it go quick enough, and that’s going to haunt him. But that’ll also be a teachable moment that hopefully we can get him past.”
Prince, however, didn’t feel that all those penalties and sacks were his fault. Some of them, he said, resulted from the Buckeyes’ frequent use of run-pass options, out of which the Buckeyes have passed the ball far more often this season, with Dwayne Haskins at quarterback, than they did in previous seasons with J.T. Barrett.
When the Buckeyes call an RPO play, the primary assignment of Ohio State’s offensive linemen is to run block, and that can lead to lapses in pass protection. It can also lead to penalties for being ineligible downfield, which happened to Prince once in the second quarter of the Minnesota game, after which Prince actually drew praise from offensive line coach Greg Studrawa.
“Kid, you drove the guy four yards down the field. You're trying to finish a block. Great job,” Studrawa said on Oct. 17 while recalling his conversation with Prince. “It's called an RPO. That's how it is.”
The play for which Prince drew the most criticism against Minnesota came in the third quarter, when Jerry Gibson went around him for a sack that not only took Haskins down for a loss, but also resulted in Haskins being knocked into left tackle Thayer Munford and taking him down, causing an injury that would knock Munford out for the rest of the game.
A closer look at that play, though, shows that that play was a RPO, too, and because Prince was trying to execute his assignment as a run blocker, he was unaware of the backfield action, leading to Gibson’s free shot at Haskins.
“That situation, there’s nothing I can do,” Prince said. “That’s just part of the offense. The quarterback got to get rid of the ball fast. If he don’t, there’s a reason why he didn’t. You can’t fault him for that. That’s just part of the offense.”
Studrawa acknowledged while meeting with the media two weeks ago that the RPOs make his offensive line’s job more difficult, particularly now that the Buckeyes are often throwing out of those options, and admitted that his unit had struggled to adjust.
“It's hard,” Studrawa said. “Before, it wasn't hard because they knew with J.T., roll off the ball. We want them to roll off the ball. But in this RPO world, it's a different deal.”
But even though they make his job tougher, and he expressed some frustration on Tuesday, Prince said he doesn’t hate the run-pass options.
“No, I don’t hate RPOs. Because usually in the past, people know we’re so dominant in the run game, they just stack the box,” Prince said. “That makes it even harder to run the ball. So I think the RPOs definitely helped us open the box up a little bit.”
One reason why Prince expressed frustration on Tuesday: Ohio State suffered a 49-20 loss to Purdue in their most recent game. Describing himself as the “biggest sore loser on the team,” Prince addressed his teammates in the locker room following the loss in West Lafayette, and while he's accepted the loss now, he's made it clear that he doesn't want it to happen again.
“I don’t like losing,” Prince said. “If I lose, it’s a bad day for me. Whether it’s a video game, a rep, I don’t like losing. So yeah, I’m mad.
"Ohio State, we’re not used to losing," Prince also said. "But I mean, that’s a part of life. Life is adversity. You’re going to get hit, you got to get back up. There’s no point in pouting about it, crying about it. You got hit, we lost. You can’t go back in time and change it, so the only thing we can do is fix the mistakes and focus on what we do in practice."
Ohio State’s offensive line, as a whole, has been among the position groups that have drawn the most blame for the Buckeyes’ loss and their unspectacular play leading into that loss. Ohio State has rushed for less than 3.3 yards per carry in each of its last four games.
But after Wilson said last week that “running ball is a mindset and an attitude,” Prince believes the sting of defeat has helped foster that attitude within his offensive line, as the Buckeyes come off of their bye week and look to get their ground game into gear against Nebraska on Saturday.
“We got to get that attitude back and that demeanor back when it comes to running the ball,” Prince said. “We got away from it a little bit throwing the ball so much, but I think during the bye week and this week of practice, we came out with an attitude and wanted to run the ball more.”