As anticipation ramps up for Saturday’s collision in Ohio Stadium between No. 2 Penn State and No. 6 Ohio State, it’s worthwhile to point out the Buckeyes’ loss in Happy Valley last year wasn’t ordinary. It was special.
That Ohio State was able to rebound and gain a spot in the College Football Playoff semifinals while Penn State, the eventual Big Ten champion, had to settle for the consolation prize, a Rose Bowl bid, likely was attributable to the way their game swung on special-teams play.
The Buckeyes could have survived had it not been for a blocked punt the Nittany Lions turned into a field goal and the blocked Ohio State field-goal attempt Penn State returned for the winning touchdown. The former, with 9:33 left, cut the Ohio State lead to 21-17. The latter gave the home team a 24-21 lead with 4:27 left that held up.
In the aftermath, the focus was more on the ineptitude of the Buckeyes' passing game when it was needed most: OSU’s final desperate possession ended with two straight incompletions by J.T. Barrett followed by two straight sacks. It’s a scenario that became a theme for the 2016 Buckeyes, whose season ended with an offensively ineffectual 31-0 loss to Clemson in a CFP semifinal.
It carried over into this season with questions — indeed, doubts — about the passing game that, despite OSU sitting No. 1 in the Big Ten in that category, won’t be fully answered for most critics until Saturday afternoon. Suffice to say that Penn State, which just flipped Michigan 42-13, will offer the staunchest defensive test since the Buckeyes lost to Oklahoma in the second game.
But that special-teams disaster in the otherwise lopsided win over Maryland two games ago conjured thoughts of the loss at Penn State last year. That’s because against a peer-group opponent the mistakes made against the Terps — giving up a kickoff return for a TD, having a field-goal attempt blocked, a point-after attempt botched by a dropped snap, a long punt return negated by penalty, a kickoff out of bounds and a shanked punt — likely would have been a killer.
“There's a lot of people upset about that, and I'm one of them,” Meyer said after the Maryland game.
He vowed they would be corrected. Except for two errant kickoffs last week at Nebraska — the first from freshman Blake Haubeil hitting inside the 10-yard line as wanted but then bouncing out of bounds, the second when first-time holder Jeffrey Okudah took his finger off the ball too early on the windy night — the Buckeyes’ latest outing was OK.
In fact, place-kicker Sean Nuernberger established the Big Ten record for consecutive extra points made by upping his streak to 148. And on a night when the Buckeyes scored TDs on their first eight possessions, Drue Chrisman never punted.
They bounced back, Nuernberger said, because special-teams performers have to have short memories. Still, the memory endures of OSU’s then-punter and holder Cam Johnston chasing Penn State’s Grant Haley after Tyler Durbin's field-goal attempt was blocked by Marcus Allen.
“We really haven’t brought it up too much this year,” said Nuernberger, who wasn’t the kicker last year. “But it really shows how much something like that — it’s really such a freak play … for them to block it, pick it up and score the touchdown. It doesn’t happen that often.”