COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Penn State defense and quarterback Sean Clifford each managed their share of heroics Saturday night making a determined effort to pull off the upset of fifth-ranked Ohio State, but the Buckeyes were just too explosive offensively.
Redshirt freshman C.J. Stroud passed for 305 yards and a touchdown and freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson rushed for 146 yards and scored a TD in the second half to lift the Buckeyes to a 33-24 victory over the No. 20 Nittany Lions.
The Lions (5-3, 2-3 Big Ten) looked little like the team that suffered an embarrassing 20-18 loss to Illinois in nine overtimes last week, and Clifford appeared to be 100% healthy from an apparent upper-body injury that he suffered three weeks ago at Iowa.
The redshirt senior completed 35 of 52 passes for 361 yards and a touchdown. He connected with Jahan Dotson 11 times for 127 yards.
The Nittany Lions rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit to tie the game at 17 on Dotson’s 2-yard run out of the wildcat in the third quarter, but could not overcome a 27-17 second-half deficit.
The Buckeyes (7-1, 5-0), who led the nation in total offense at nearly 560 yards per game, rolled up 466 on Saturday night compared to 394 for Penn State. The Lions’ rushing woes continued as they managed just 33 yards on the ground.
Defense redeems itself
After allowing 357 rush yards in Penn State’s nine-overtime loss to Illinois, the defense showed that it came to play against the nation’s top offense. The unit allowed only two scores on Ohio State’s six first-half possessions and forced a turnover. The most impressive part of the Lions’ play in the opening 30 minutes was that they held the Buckeyes to 17 yards rushing. Henderson, who entered the game averaging 8.8 yards per carry, best in FBS, was limited to 6 yards on nine carries.
The Lions came up big again on Ohio State’s initial possession of the second half, holding off the Buckeyes from the 1-yard line and forcing a field goal after Henderson was called for a false start on fourth-and-goal from the 1. But Ohio State converted a pair of explosive plays -- a 58-yard pass from C.J. Stroud to Jaxon Smith-Njigba, a 68-yard run by Henderson -- into 10 points to break a 17-17 tie in the third quarter.
The defense saved its best work, however, for the fourth quarter. First the Lions stopped the Buckeyes on downs at the 13 early in the period. Then, following a Clifford interception that was returned to the Penn State 28 by Cameron Brown, Penn State did not allow its hosts to get past the 7, and Noah Ruggles kicked a 25-yard field goal – his third field goal of the game – to keep the Lions within range at 30-24 with 7:12 left in the quarter.
The Clifford comeback
Clifford, who was hampered by an upper-body injury suffered against Iowa and was only about 60 to 70% last week against Illinois, looked like his old self again. He hung in the pocket time and again against a fierce Buckeyes pass rush. Clifford did turn the ball over twice, once on a fumble that was returned 57 yards for a touchdown by 305-pound lineman Jerron Cage, the other time on the above-mentioned interception.
Clifford, who was sacked four times, moved around well in the pocket. He completed 17 of 24 passes for 190 yards and a TD in the first half, leading the Lions back from a 17-7 deficit and to Jordan Stout’s 47-yard field goal on the final play of the first half, then to a 2-yard run by Dotson that tied the game early in the third quarter, taking two shots on the 75-yard drive that led to 15-yard penalties against the Buckeyes.
With Penn State down, 27-17, in the third quarter, Clifford went 5-of-8 for 68 yards, including back-to-back completions of 18 and 14 yards to Dotson, setting up a 1-yard run by Keyvone Lee that drew the Lions to within three with 10 seconds left in the quarter. But the visitors were shut out in the fourth quarter.
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day wanted to make sure that Dotson didn’t hurt his team, and the Buckeyes did a good job of it on Penn State’s first five possessions during which the fleet wide receiver didn’t get a single target from Clifford. But things improved later in the first half when Dotson picked up his first target and reception on a 10-yard slant one play before a Clifford fumble was returned for a touchdown by Cage. Dotson caught two passes on the next drive, both for first downs, leading to Stout’s 47-yard field goal. He came back strong in the second half and his last catch, a 23-yarder over the middle, was the last gain for the Lions as they attempted to come back from a two-score deficit in the final two minutes.