COLUMBUS, Ohio – Considering how big an underdog Penn State was Saturday, few people thought the Nittany Lions were capable of making No. 2 Ohio State play an entire game, something the Buckeyes hadn’t been required to do in their first 10 games of the season.
Fewer people thought that possible after the ninth-ranked Lions fell behind 21-0 early in the third quarter, and fewer yet when quarterback Sean Clifford went to the bench with an apparent leg injury.
However, led by backup quarterback Will Levis and an opportunistic defense that forced two third-quarter turnovers, Penn State scored 17 points the remainder of the period and threatened until a fourth-quarter interception ended the comeback, enabling the Buckeyes to gain a 28-17 victory before an Ohio Stadium crowd of 104,355.
The loss hurt for a number of reasons. The Nittany Lions (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten), a 20-point underdog at kickoff, lost whatever chance they had of making the College Football Playoff. They saw the Buckeyes (11-0, 8-0) clinch the Big Ten East and a spot in the conference championship game.
But through the disappointment, the players felt they had accomplished something, holding Ohio State to its fewest points, fewest total yards (417), and lowest margin of victory this season.
“I think we proved that we’ve got fight in us,” said junior safety Lamont Wade, who had 10 tackles, three forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. “Of course this hurts, it’s a tough pill to swallow, but we fought our butts off.”
Head coach James Franklin said, “We have a strong locker room. Everybody in there is totally invested and had a lot of confidence that we could come in here and win. Down 21-0 to the No. 2 team in the country is not ideal, but we battled. You look at them statistically, and they were 1, 2, or 3 in every offensive category in the country. You have to give them credit.”
The Buckeyes came out as though they were going to steamroll another opponent, outgaining the Lions 255-64 in the first half and taking a 14-0 lead. The score could have been 21-0, but quarterback Justin Fields fumbled just short of the goal line on a hit by Wade, and linebacker Cam Brown recovered in the end zone.
Fields, a former Penn State recruit, passed for 188 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 68. Teammate J.K. Dobbins gained 157 yards in 36 carries.
The Lions defense came around in the second half, holding the Buckeyes to 162 yards and giving the offense a chance. After Journey Brown scored the team’s first touchdown on an 18-yard run, the two fumble recoveries, at the Ohio State 12 and 35, resulted in 10 points – Levis’ 1-yard run and Jake Pinegar’s 42-yard field goal.
The field goal, with 4 minutes, 22 seconds left in the third, closed the gap to 21-17. But a fumbled snap by Levis on the Lions’ next drive backed the ball up to the 1, and the Buckeyes got the ball back at the PSU 44, scoring in five plays on a 28-yard pass from Fields to Chris Olave early in the fourth quarter.
Penn State later drove to the Ohio State 27, but Levis’ pass intended for tight end Pat Freiermuth was picked off by linebacker Justin Hilliard with 10:16 left. The Lions gained just 7 yards on their last two possessions, and the crowd noise affected Levis in communicating the cadence, leading to three of his five sacks.
“It was a lot of learning experiences,” said Levis, a 6-foot-3, 229-pound redshirt freshman. “I’ll go right to the tape, watch it, and learn from it. It’s going to make me a much better player and a person. Going through the tape is going to make me understand why I made certain reads, and it’s going to help me for my future.”
Clifford completed 10 of 17 passes for 71 yards in his limited action and netted zero yards in six carries. Franklin said his starter could have gone back into the game, but he kept him on the bench, saying he has not been 100 percent physically
Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day said he felt his team learned some lessons.