Cotton Bowl Notebook: Ohio State’s Offensive Line Struggles Mightily After Personnel Change, Special Teams Miscues Continue and Jack Sawyer Ties OSU Bowl Sack Record

By Dan Hope and Andy Anders on December 30, 2023 at 6:00 am
Lincoln Kienholz getting pressured by Missouri

There’s no sugarcoating it. Ohio State’s offensive line had its worst performance of the season in the Cotton Bowl.

Lincoln Kienholz and Devin Brown were under constant duress, whether it was traditional four-man rushes or blitzes. It felt like Kienholz was backpedaling with a defender in his face from the snap of the ball on every other passing down.

“I thought (Kienholz) battled his tail off,” Ryan Day said. “But clearly we didn’t help him up front. Didn’t run the ball well enough.”

Ohio State ran the ball for just 2.9 yards per carry and gave up four sacks with eight quarterback hurries.

Brown suffered the high ankle sprain that knocked him out of the game in the first quarter after a lapse that saw two defenders bear down on him and twist him to the ground for a loss. When he tried to play the following series, he was sealed as being out of the contest for good when he took a giant blindside hit from Missouri defensive end Johnny Walker.

Entering the contest Ohio State decided to shuffle its interior offensive line by removing regular-season starting center Carson Hinzman from the lineup, sliding Matt Jones to center and starting Enokk Vimahi in Jones’ place at right guard.

The changes did not go over well. Behind that front five, Ohio State averaged 3.6 yards per play, its lowest total of the season by 1.2 yards.

“I don’t want to get too much into it, but Carson was having a tough time the last couple weeks in practice and we just felt like, all right, this was the right thing to do at the time,” Day said. “Was having a few issues there. It’s not that Carson will never play here again, but based on the last couple weeks of play, the decision was made that Matt gave us the best chance at center.”

Missouri managed to work in some unique pressures that flustered Ohio State, getting a sack from defensive back JC Carlies, but there were also plenty of breakdowns when the Tigers sent more traditional rushes.

“There was some zero pressure that came and they were aggressive on (Kienholz),” Day said. “In the run game, I felt like there were a couple of things that hit, but overall, when you have a young kid in there you have to be able to take some pressure off and we didn’t do that well enough.”

“Clearly we didn’t help him up front. Didn’t run the ball well enough.”– Ryan Day on the offensive line and Lincoln Kienholz

The offensive line was also responsible for two false start penalties, with one committed by each of Ohio State’s starting tackles, Josh Simmons and Josh Fryar.

For the second year in a row, the front five will be the top area outside of quarterback that Ohio State needs to address in the offseason.

Special teams struggles continue

If Ohio State special teams coordinator Parker Fleming’s job was already on the line entering the Cotton Bowl, he certainly didn’t do anything to save it in Ohio State’s season finale.

The repeated pattern of special teams errors that has plagued Ohio State in recent seasons was prevalent once again in the season-ending loss. Among them: The Buckeyes committed a delay of game penalty on their first punt, Jayden Ballard unnecessarily fair caught three punts inside the 10-yard line and they were flagged for two penalties on other fair-catch punt returns.

Ohio State’s struggles in the third phase of the game in its 14-3 loss to Missouri were in line with a season in which the Buckeyes made virtually no game-changing plays on special teams but routinely gave up yards with unforced errors.

Jesse Mirco was a bright spot on special teams, averaging 48.2 yards per punt on eight punts, but the miscues elsewhere on special teams should only give Day more reason to consider making a change in special teams coaching this offseason, though he said only that “everything is going to get looked at” when asked after the game about potential coaching changes.

Sawyer ties OSU bowl sack record

On a night where Ohio State’s defense was its best unit by far, the Buckeyes’ best player by far was junior defensive end Jack Sawyer.

Building off a strong finish to the regular season, Sawyer had the best game of his Ohio State career as he recorded three sacks in the Cotton Bowl, tying the school record for the most sacks in a bowl game. Sawyer is the fourth Ohio State defender to record three sacks in a bowl game, joining Mike Kudla (2005 season vs. Notre Dame), Andy Katzenmoyer (1996 vs. Arizona State) and Srecko Zizakovic (1989 vs. Auburn).

“Hell of a game. I mean, he's just a competitor,” Ohio State linebacker Steele Chambers said of Sawyer’s performance. “He's a guy that the entire team rallies around, a guy that everyone listens to, so I mean, I know he played his ass off, it just sucks that we couldn’t get it done for him.”

Should Sawyer choose to enter the 2024 NFL draft, he certainly helped his draft stock with his dominant performance in his final game of the year. But Sawyer said earlier in the week that he would “more than likely” stay at Ohio State for his senior season, and it didn’t sound as though that decision had changed after the loss.

“I think a lot of us all are on the same page about we don't want to end our Ohio State careers like this,” Sawyer said. “Two tough losses. We all love it here. We love Coach Day. We love the staff. And sometimes unfortunate things happen and you don't get the outcome you want, and I think it's going to play a big factor in our decisions.”

“I know he played his ass off, it just sucks that we couldn’t get it done for him.”– Steele Chambers on Jack Sawyer

An all-time low for Ohio State’s offense under Day

Day’s career at Ohio State started in 2017 as a result of the Buckeyes’ offensive performance against Clemson in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, in which Ohio State failed to score any points in a 31-0 College Football Playoff semifinal loss.

Ohio State’s offensive performance against Missouri was by far the worst the Buckeyes have had in any game since.

The Buckeyes’ three points in the Cotton Bowl were the fewest they have scored in any game since Day became Ohio State’s co-offensive coordinator in 2017. In Ohio State’s previous 88 games with Day as head coach or offensive coordinator, the Buckeyes had never scored fewer than 16 points in a contest.

Ohio State’s 203 yards of offense were 74 yards fewer than the Buckeyes had had in any game since Day joined the staff. The previous low point came in Ohio State’s previous appearance in the Cotton Bowl in 2017, when the Buckeyes gained only 277 yards in a 24-7 win over USC. Since Day became head coach, Ohio State’s previous low for yardage in a game was the 283 yards it gained while playing in heavy rain and wind in its 21-7 win over Northwestern in 2022.

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