Ohio State special teams coach: Stopping ‘one-off plays’ paramount for Buckeyes

COLUMBUS — Ohio State’s efforts to return to the top of the Big Ten and get back to the College Football Playoff have not gotten much help from special teams this season.

The latest example came Saturday night when Michigan State ran a successful fake punt to keep a drive alive even though the Buckeyes had a punt safe call on.

Ultimately, that did not matter much in a game the Buckeyes won 38-3, but it gave fans another reason to grumble about the unit coached by Parker Fleming.

Other times this year include a botched punt snap that gave Maryland a short field, a punted ball hitting an Ohio State coverage man and being recovered by Penn State near midfield and an ill-fated fake punt that did not work and gave Rutgers a short field that led to a field goal.

Last season also included some issues, including a potentially game-changing fake punt against Michigan that wasn’t executed because of an issue with the snapper and another getting sniffed out by Georgia before the Buckeyes could snap the ball.

Fleming called those “one-off plays,” and he acknowledged the need for his units to cut out those mistakes.

“Our job is to change field position and create explosives when we have the opportunity, and we’ve done some of that. We have,” he said. “You look at the net field position in a bunch of games, we’ve won it. People don’t care about that because the big things can’t happen, and they’re right. You can’t put your team in the situations that we have, and I totally understand that.”

Ohio State ranks 35th in the nation in average offensive starting position despite not being very active in the return game.

The Buckeyes rank 67th in the nation and 10th in the Big Ten in kickoff return average, but they are 47th and seventh in kickoff coverage.

Ohio State is 111th in the country in punt returns, but they have not shown much interest in trying to do more than make sure a punt is fielded, a philosophy that goes back several years.

More concerning would be a punt coverage unit that ranks last in the Big Ten and 114th in the country with an average of 13.5 yards per return allowed.

Indiana, Maryland and Wisconsin all had big returns against the Buckeyes.

“There are certain situations that come up that have put the team in a bad place,” Fleming said. “There are other situations that our guys are playing really hard. Really young guys, some old guys. We have a group that really believes in the mission and they’re playing really hard right now.

“The bulk of it I’m really proud of the guys and how they’re performing on a week-to-week basis.”

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