It’s not just about the system. It’s about the guys who actually have to play in the system.
And when the player and system don’t match?
Well, then you’ve got problems.
More than anything else, that was the big takeaway from Ohio State’s 38-10 win over Penn State in Columbus on Saturday night. There was nothing particularly surprising about the final score in this one, or the result in general: Anyone who has seen these two teams play at all this season knows that, while Penn State is steadily improving under James Franklin, the Nittany Lions simply don’t have the depth, or the talent, that Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes do. The gap between thee two programs, at least for now, is as wide as last night’s final score.
The completely predictable result aside, though, this game was quite instructive, and taught us much about the relative struggles each team has been, and probably will continue (in Penn State’s case, at least), to deal with throughout the rest of the season.
Ohio State has not been particularly overwhelming, or particularly impressive, this season. And for the most part, their offensive confusion has been the biggest reason why.
The Buckeyes came into this season without a clear starter at quarterback, and Meyer has been working all year to somehow make things work with Cardale Jones getting the majority of the snaps. Last night, however, it’s entirely possible that Jones experiment ended. The simple reason is that while Jones may be a better pro prospect, J.T. Barrett is the better college quarterback—and a much better fit, too, for Meyer’s spread offense. And in the end, that’s really all the matters.
The Buckeyes struggled early on with Jones under center, giving the Nittany Lions some false hope that might be able to keep this one close. But as soon as Barrett came into the game, everything changed—for the Buckeye offense, and for the Nittany Lion defense, too.
After successfully bottling up Jones for most of the first half, Penn State had no answers for the more mobile and agile Barrett, and by the time the final whistle had blown, No. 16 had accounted for four touchdowns—two passing, and two rushing. He was the difference-maker, and it was clear to anyone watching that the Buckeye offense simply operates better with Barrett running the show. It’s undeniable.
Meyer had to see that. He had to see how much better his team is with Barrett under center. And he has to realize, after half a season of struggles, that as talented as Jones is, Barrett is just a better fit what the Buckeye offense is trying to do.
He’s the guy that makes the offense work. He’s he guy that has to play. He’s the clear answer going forward.
As for Penn State? Well, there simply aren’t any answers to be had. It’s not entirely clear exactly what kind of system Penn State offensive coordinator John Donovan is trying to run, but it is overwhelmingly clear that Christian Hackenberg is not the right guy to run it.
Like Jones, Hackenberg has all the abilities to go on and enjoy a productive career as a traditional drop-back passer in the NFL. He probably will go ahead and do that. But right now, he’s flat-out ineffective with the Nittany Lions.
Playing behind a sieve-like offensive line that can’t give him enough time to set his feet and put his big arm to use, Hackenberg finds himself rushing his reads and forcing his throws, and when the pocket collapses and he needs to make a play with his legs, well, he simply can’t. It’s just not his game. And the entire offense suffers as a result.
Hackenberg will very well move on to the pros after this season, and for Penn State, that’s probably for the best. What this team needs—what most college teams need these days, actually—is a true run-pass threat at quarterback. Somebody who can frustrate a defense. Somebody who can turn negative plays into positive plays. Somebody who can complement a great tailback. Somebody who can change a game.
Penn State doesn’t have that guy right now.
But Ohio State does.
And if Meyer is half as good a coach as I think he is, that guy—Barrett—will be the Buckeyes’’ quarterback from here on out.