Thoughts on Saquon Barkley, the Penn State defense, and more after their loss to Ohio State

Penn St Ohio St Football
Penn State head coach James Franklin instructs his team against Ohio State on Saturday.

Five observations from Penn State’s 39-38 loss to Ohio State

What to do about Barkley’s negative-yardage plays: This is really getting to be a problem for Penn State. Barkley is a special, unique talent, but even he can’t make up for the slow development of rushing plays that finds the defense in his lap by the time he receives the handoff.

His 36-yard touchdown run came on his third attempt of the game. On his final 18 carries, his longest run was eight yards. On his 14 second-half rushes, eight were for negative yards. He finished with a season-low 44 yards. Last week against Michigan, he managed six yards in nine carries after the first quarter.

Overall, the lack of a running game proved fatal late when the Nittany Lions were unable to keep the ball away from the high-octane Buckeyes offense.

You always think that offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead will find ways where Barkley wouldn’t be under such pressure from defenses, but with everyone going with the same scheme to smother him from week to week, Moorhead needs to find an antidote.

What happened to the pass rush? The Nittany Lions entered the game leading the Big Ten in sacks with 24. But after two sacks of J.T. Barrett in the first quarter, they never brought him down again, and their hurries against the multi-talented senior were few and far-between. That was especially telling in the decisive fourth quarter, when Barrett completed all 13 of his passes for 170 yards and three touchdowns.

The Lions were hurt by an early injury to defensive end Ryan Buchholz, leading to more playing time for Shaka Toney, but Toney was unable to use his speed and quickness to beat his man.

Of course, this was the most talented team that Penn State has played to date and, as Franklin said after the game, “We’ve just got to keep chipping away to close the gap on these types of opponents, in really every single area.”

And for once, the depth on the defensive line was not a factor, especially in the fourth quarter, when the Buckeyes scored three touchdowns to complete their comeback from a 15-point deficit earlier in the period.

Amid all the Twitter criticism of the Lions’ performance, the Buckeyes in fact outplayed them: The major question entering the game concerned which team had more to prove. Ohio State’s five-game winning streak had come against teams that were ranked lower than 65th in the ESPN Football Power Index. The Buckeyes lost their only game to a ranked team (Oklahoma) while Penn State was 1-0 after beating Michigan the week before.

This time, however, the home team played better than the visitors. Yes, having the bye week to prepare and then returning before more than 109,000 at the Shoe didn’t hurt. But when your quarterback plays an entire second half without being touched, and the defense is able to pressure the opponent’s quarterback with a four-man rush, those are signs that your team is pretty, pretty, pretty good.

The Nittany Lions are still a good team and will stay alive for the College Football Playoff if they win out, but they and their fans can’t say they deserved to win.

Special teams giveth and taketh away: With the pre-game hype and anticipation busting through the overcast ceiling at Ohio Stadium, the 97-yard touchdown return of the opening kickoff by Barkley had to be one of the most astonishing plays out of the gate ever in a regular-season game.

But Ohio State came up with the momentum-changer early in the fourth quarter when it devoted 10 men to rushing Lions punter Blake Gillikin and Denzel Ward blocked the kick, setting up the first of three Buckeyes touchdowns in the final 15 minutes.

Turnabout was fair play for Ohio State, which saw a blocked field goal that was returned 60 yards for a touchdown by Grant Haley prove to be the difference in last year’s 24-21 upset by the Nittany Lions. In addition, Ohio State punter Drue Chrisman extended his 2017 streak to 23 punts without allowing a single punt return by the opponent. Penn State entered the game averaging 15.1 yards on punt returns.

This game could take longer to get over than any other: Think of it. Even though the Buckeyes were grabbing huge chunks of yardage all day, the Nittany Lions led the game for 57 minutes, 57 seconds – from the time of Barkley’s kickoff return TD 15 seconds into the game until Barrett’s 16-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Baugh with 1:48 left to play.

Now it’s safe to say no one wearing Penn State blue and white was comfortable even when the score was 28-10 in the first half and 35-20 early in the fourth quarter, but with the Lions hanging in there, hope was alive.

It all came crashing down in the final 108 seconds and now Penn State has to regroup and prepare for a trip to Michigan State, which is also coming off a loss. Apparently Franklin hammered that point home in the locker room after the game. “We’ve got to move on from this. We’ve got a whole season left,” free safety Marcus Allen said.