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October 30, 2013

Column: The less-obvious onus

Since Saturday night's 63-14 crushing of the Nittany Lions in Columbus, the brunt of the criticism for the loss has fallen at the feet of Penn State's defense.

Historic numbers were allowed, starting with the 63 points surrendered, working its way down through the Buckeyes' whopping 408 rushing yards, 278 yards through the air, incredible 686 yards of total offense, and staggering 32 first downs.

With seemingly no answer for Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and, frankly, Urban Meyer, Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler became an easy target in the game's immediate aftermath.

The problem being, of course, that Penn State's defensive problems were merely half of the issue and, in retrospect, not nearly worthy of the criticism's extent.

Asked Wednesday whether or not head coach Bill O'Brien's has spent the week emphasizing "complementary football" - O'Brien's catch phrase for offense, defense and special teams feeding off each other - multiple Nittany Lions were definitive in their responses.

"We didn't put them in good situations," right offensive tackle Garry Gilliam said of the offense's responsibility in the loss. "We had turnovers in the red zone and fumbles and interceptions there. It all kind of bounces back with us not scoring. You can't blame a loss like that on the defense."

Though the saying might be trite, the reality against a team of No. 4-ranked Ohio State's caliber - specifically on the offensive side of the ball, where the Buckeyes now own the fifth-best scoring offense in the country - is that in many ways, offense can be, and often is, the best defense.

Under the direction of head coach Bill O'Brien, true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg and the rest of the Nittany Lions' offense simply came up short on Saturday night.

"It falls upon me," O'Brien said Tuesday afternoon, acknowledging the offense's shortcomings against an Ohio State defense that has surrendered 24-or-more points four times this season. "I call the plays. And certainly, you go into a game like that and you're playing an offense that's very good that scores a lot of points, you've got to score points. So I look in the mirror."

The mirror shows a first half that, though the time of possession fell within 10 seconds of each team, painted drastically different pictures of success as the Buckeyes built a 42-7 lead going into the locker room.

An interception thrown in the end zone, followed by a three-and-out, followed by another interception, and another three-and-out, allowed Ohio State to heap 28 points on the scoreboard seemingly before there was time for Butler and the Nittany Lions' defense to blink.

Though Penn State finally punched in an 11-play, 79-yard touchdown drive on its fifth possession - a methodical, 4 minute, 7 second drive allowing Butler's defense to regroup slightly - the damage had already largely been done. By the time the Buckeyes produced a 2-play, 45-yard touchdown and another 6-play, 84-yard touchdown, the majority of the gaudy numbers were in the books.

Which, of course, leads to the biggest unanswered question among the critics.

When eating at a diner or late-night pizza shop on the cheap, compared to a gourmet restaurant at a substantially higher price, how are the two compared in quality and experience? Similarly, when going to a summer blockbuster loaded with special effects and crappy dialogue, compared to an Oscar-worthy December release, how are the two compared?

Obviously, for either of the above scenarios, expectations are going to be much, much different based on prior experiences and, essentially, common sense.

Though Penn State's offense has been far from elite this season, clearly, through seven games this season, when stacked against Penn State's injury-plagued defense, the reality reveals two completely different standards that have been established by the two units. Especially against a team as offensively gifted as the Buckeyes, that places a significant responsibility on the Nittany Lions' offense that came nowhere close to being fulfilled on Saturday night.

Admitting as much on Tuesday, O'Brien's offensive strategy Saturday night - including a series of four passes in five plays leading to Hackenberg's first interception - left him wanting more than a couple plays back. Citing his team's proficiency running the ball and, simultaneously, its struggles along the offensive line to keep Hackenberg from facing pressure in the passing game, the result is a second-year head coach that can spend this week focusing on how to better help the Nittany Lions earn a win against the Illini on Saturday while helping his defense along the way.

"Certainly, some of the players obviously could have played better in a game like that," O'Brien said. "But that starts with me, and the whole game starts with me as the head football coach. Nobody understands that better than me.

"I'm going to try to improve this week and do the best I can to get better. I've already tried to do that. And we moved on to Illinois."

Though the Illini produced just three points - and gave up 42 - against Michigan State over the weekend, every indication is that Penn State will face another team that can score at Beaver Stadium on Saturday. Against Penn State's still-scrambling defense, this much is expected.

The critical question, as has been the case all season, is whether O'Brien, Hackenberg, and the Lions' offense will be able to do the same.




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