J.T. Barrett and Saquon Barkley will get most of the attention before the No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes host No. 2 Penn State on Oct. 28.
The two Heisman Trophy candidates may not determine the outcome, however. A year ago, the game in State College, Pa., turned on a special-teams disaster for the Buckeyes.
Tyler Durbin’s 45-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Marcus Allen. Grant Haley picked it up and returned it for the go-ahead score with 4:27 to play. Ohio State’s 24-21 loss cost it a spot in the Big Ten championship game.
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That one play will be revisited often in the days ahead as the rematch looms, though it hasn’t been a hot topic for Ohio State until this part of the season.
“We really haven’t brought it up that much this year,” Ohio State kicker Sean Nuernberger said. “It’s one of those things that’s in the past. You miss that field goal, it’s still fine. You’re up four points with a couple minutes left. It really took a freak accident. They block it, get the ball and score a touchdown. It doesn’t happen that often.”
One forgotten part of that play was Ohio State’s Cameron Johnston’s attempt to tackle Haley inside the 10-yard line. Johnston, a punter who was holding for Durbin on the field-goal attempt, showed his speed in the pursuit but got only one hand on Haley’s foot. It wasn’t enough.
“He was moving; he was there,” Nuernberger said. “They said (Haley) was their fastest guy on the team.”
Special teams, particularly kickoffs, remains a concern for Ohio State this season. Nuernberger has made 42 of 42 extra points and 7 of 9 field goals, but he missed his last two field goal attempts against Maryland. A 47-yard attempt was blocked in that game, bringing back memories of the Penn State loss.
“That’s been a big thing we’ve been working on, making sure everyone’s form is correct,” Nuernberger said. “If everyone does the correct form, there’s no chance of anyone getting through. It really takes a mental error for someone to get through.”
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Penn State got enough of a push on Ohio State’s offensive line on the block in 2016 to allow Allen to get his hands on the ball after a running leap. It’s not the players rushing the kickers from the outside who worry Nuernberger. It’s the players, like Allen, in the middle.
“A lot of those guys are huge guys,” Nuernberger said. “They get off pretty high. That one the other day, it came off my foot, and I thought, ‘Man, that’s a bomb,’ and a half second later, I heard another smack, which was unfortunate.”