The Ohio State offense looked unstoppable in the past four games entering Saturday.
Against Penn State, the Buckeyes were stopped short of the end zone on each of their first five drives. On 12 total offensive series, Ohio State scored just two touchdowns, with 21 of the Buckeyes’ 33 points in the nine-point win over the Nittany Lions coming from either the defense or the leg of senior kicker Noah Ruggles.
Yes, Penn State’s defense was the best on paper that Ohio State had seen to this point, and the Nittany Lions proved to be exactly that on Saturday. But the Buckeye offense inarguably left points on the table with a litany of self-inflicted wounds, whether they be unforced penalties or lapses in execution.
A win is a win in the Big Ten East, to be sure, but unlike any game since mid-September, the Ohio State offense will have plenty of flaws to examine following an uneven showing against Penn State.
“Proud of our guys for working through a gritty game like this. It’s not untypical of a Penn State game, it’s not what we didn’t expect,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said after the game. “I thought it would be very much like it happened. Certainly frustrating, and we’re gonna go back on this film and look at it and learn a lot from it and grow from it and pull our hair out from it, but we kept swinging away.”
Although Ohio State finished with a reasonable 161 yards on the ground, it struggled mightily to run the ball for most of the night. Entering the game as the nation’s leader in yards per carry, TreVeyon Henderson had just 20 yards on his first 14 carries of the game before a breakout 68-yard carry in the third quarter.
In fact, Ohio State’s leading rusher at halftime was wide receiver Garrett Wilson, who had seven yards on an end-around rush on a 3rd-and-1 conversion in the second quarter.
“It was tough. That defense, that’s a great defense, one of the best defenses we’ve played all year,” Henderson said. “But I needed that though, to prove to myself that I’m tough and I’m capable of doing what I did tonight.”
More egregious than the lack of ground production for the Buckeyes, though, was a false start penalty on Henderson on a third quarter 4th-and-an-inch play at the Nittany Lion goal line. Ohio State could have gone up 24-17 with a touchdown, but instead settled for a 23-yard Ruggles field goal to make it 20-17 after the flag.
That was not the only fourth-down blunder of the night for the Buckeye offense, and it was far from its only penalty.
The Ohio State offense tallied seven penalties in total, with five false starts and two illegal snap calls on redshirt freshman center Luke Wypler. Six different players were flagged on the evening, with Henderson, Wypler, Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, Dawand Jones and Thayer Munford all committing infractions before the night was over.
“We kind of expected some of this. What we didn't expect was some of those penalties and just lack of execution,” Day said. “But when you’re playing against better competition, you got to be on point, the little things show up. So, awesome to learn from and still get the win.”
If Henderson’s fourth-down gaffe seemed like it could be costly in the third quarter, redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud had one of his own that had the potential to be even more disastrous on the first possession of the fourth quarter.
With Ohio State holding onto a 27-24 lead, the Buckeyes looked to go ahead 10 points with the ball on the Penn State 13-yard line. On 4th-and-3, Day elected to go for it, and Stroud saw Chris Olave wide open over the middle for what should have been an easy touchdown for the Buckeyes. Instead, Stroud short-armed it, leaving the ball woefully short of its target for a turnover on downs.
“It was just my fault, just underthrew it,” Stroud said. “At the end of the day, those type of plays happen. There’s other plays in the drive that we could’ve scored on, we just didn’t. It’s all about just keep going, the game of football is never perfect. Of course, do I want that back? Hell yeah. But I’m never gonna get it back.”
As it did on more than one occasion Saturday, the Buckeye defense bailed Ohio State out shortly thereafter.
On the ensuing Penn State possession, Tyreke Smith blasted quarterback Sean Clifford at the point of release to help force a Cameron Brown interception. The fourth-year defensive back returned the pick – Ohio State’s second takeaway of the game – to the Penn State 28, which should have set the Buckeyes up for a redemptive score.
But once again, no touchdown came for the Buckeyes, who settled for a field goal to take a slim 30-24 lead.
Luckily for Ohio State, its defense pitched a fourth-quarter shutout against Penn State, allowing the Buckeyes to come through with a single-digit win. The Buckeyes finished with their second-lowest point total of the season; their 466 yards of offense were their fewest all year.
Still, Ohio State remains a one-loss team and has now notched its first ranked win of the season. Tougher challenges lie ahead down the stretch of the season, especially if Ohio State’s offense repeats some of the mistakes it made Saturday, but Day and company are satisfied with a win nonetheless.
“We didn’t panic, we kept swinging, and that’s what these games are gonna take,” Day said. “Now in the second half of the season, we’re 2-0, that was the goal. The goal was just to win the game. We weren’t trying to get style points in a game against Penn State, that’s not how it works. I mean you gotta just win the game, and we did that.”