On third down, Justin Fields proved too much for Penn Sate's defense
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Whenever they jog out onto the practice field, Penn State’s defense lines up across from a quarterback who is more than willing to run the ball, to escape the pocket, to extend the play.
The Nittany Lion roster is filled with quarterbacks who fit that mold, from Sean Clifford all the way down to Michael Johnson Jr. Yet Saturday, all that experience and all those reps didn’t seem to matter, because Justin Fields turned a game that decided the Big Ten East into his own personal track meet, giving Penn State fits.
Fields, once upon a time a Penn State verbal pledge, carried the ball 21 times for 68 yards — or, more accurately, 18 times for 96 yards when you adjust for the Nittany Lions’ three sacks, tormenting the team whose jersey he once planned to wear.
“The quarterback running game, I think, was the big factor,” James Franklin said after Ohio State’s 28-17 win.
It proved especially problematic for the Nittany Lions on third and fourth down. Ohio State converted on third down on seven of its 13 tries, and the Buckeyes were also 2-for-3 with their backs against the wall on fourth down.
The inclination for a few members of the Penn State defense was to critique their own inability to execute on third down, especially when it came to stopping Fields.
Four of Ohio State’s conversions on third and fourth down came via runs from Fields, designed or otherwise.
The Nittany Lions knew he’d be difficult to handle, and Yetur Gross-Matos, who collected two sacks, acknowledged that Penn State might have solved some of their defensive woes just by tackling with better fundamentals.
“He’s hard to bring down,” Gross-Matos said. “...We’ve got to be better tacklers.”
On Ohio State’s first drive of the game, Fields used his legs to convert on third-and-5 and third-and-12, as the Buckeyes marched 91 yards for a tone-setting score.
“Playing a good offense, you’ve got to expect that,” linebacker Cam Brown said. “You’ve got to make plays. The quarterback’s not going to be a statue.”
Fields continued to flummox the Nittany Lions throughout the first half, including a 22-yard scamper on fourth down during the second quarter that set Ohio State up inside the Penn State 5-yard line. J.K. Dobbins — who Franklin felt Penn State managed to keep in check for much of the game — scored shortly thereafter to give the Buckeyes a 14-0 halftime lead.
Garrett Taylor said he thought Ohio State did well to spread Penn State’s defense out, taking players out of the box and opening up running lanes for Fields on third down.
“We had a couple third downs where they had a better run call than the defense we were in,” Taylor said.
Penn State adjusted at halftime, and it showed in the third quarter, when the Nittany Lion defense forced two Buckeye turnovers that allowed a struggling Penn State offense to sneak back into the game.
Fields didn’t convert a third down situation with his legs after the half, and Ohio State was just 3-for-7 on third and fourth down in the final 30 minutes. PJ Mustipher said that came at least in part as the result of a change in tactics along the defensive front.
“D-Line schemes, switching it up, because he had that lane down the middle, so we’re switching up where we’re stunting, where we’re slanting,” Mustipher said. “Those are the things we kind of fine-tuned in the second half.”
The adjustments, ultimately, weren’t enough to turn the outcome. A Penn State offense that struggled all day ran 18 fewer plays than the Buckeyes, never really getting going.
The defense started slow, partially because it couldn’t get off the field, and put the Nittany Lions in a hole they couldn’t climb out of.
“We lost, so we could have been better in every area,” Mustipher said. “You can be better i every area if you don’t win.”
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