Ohio State stumbles but passes first true test with eyes now on Michigan and a No. 1 ranking
A sloppy third quarter put pressure on the Buckeyes, but they emerged with another double-digit win
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Pity is not the initial emotion you feel for Ohio State after Saturday. The No. 2 team in the nation has spent most of the last three months roasting opponents so crisp that having to extend itself into the fourth quarter was almost considered an upset on Saturday afternoon.
Aww, poor Buckeyes. They hadn't been tested. There are scores of teams across the country that have actually lost games, never mind having to play close.
If there is any pity to go around, it is to OSU's prior 10 opponents, none of which came within 24 points of it until Saturday. The Buckeyes actually tried to spin the "difficulty" of only beating No. 9 Penn State 28-17 as some sort of fact-finding mission.
That they now know more about themselves than at any other point this season.
"It was kind of our first true test," wide receiver Chris Olave said. "We found out our true colors."
Those true colors were stained with blood, bruises and blunders.
Sure, Ohio State created a little bit of its own drama, but drama it was nonetheless. On its way to running another opponent out of The Shoe, here came an upset of a different kind: The real kind with an "L" attached to it.
Defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley said the notion had been nagging at the back of his mind most of the season. Yeah, the Buckeyes are great -- perhaps the most complete team in the country -- but what does it really mean until they match up with someone who punches back?
Penn State brought the boxing gloves, falling behind 21-0 and creeping back to within four before losing a top-10 showdown for the Big Ten East.
"That ought to tell you all you need to know," Hafley said. "You're getting hit in the face. You're getting hit in the ribs. You're about to go down. And you stand up and you fight back. It hasn't had to happen all year."
In clinching a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game for the third consecutive season, it's safe to say Ohio State played its "worst" game of the year.
There were four Ohio State fumbles (three lost), marking the first time in 138 games going back to 2009 the Buckeyes had lost that many fumbles in a game.
Heisman Trophy candidate Justin Fields had two of the turnovers. A third, late in the game, the quarterback recovered before laying briefly shaken up. That was the only thing that silenced the 105,000+ fans ready for another human (football) sacrifice.
The home schedule has concluded with Ohio State winning each of its seven games by an average of 37 points. Two top-10 opponents (Penn State, Wisconsin) was outscored here by a combined 59-24.
Coach Ryan Day tried to add some definition to the inevitable -- and sometimes monotonous wins -- by calling Saturday the beginning of the College Football Playoff. From here on out, the opposition really does get tougher. Next week, an improved Michigan. In two weeks after that, the Big Ten Championship Game. If everything goes right, the CFP.
"This was the first time we were really taking shots," said Day, now 11-0 as a first-time head coach at any level. "[Penn State scored] 14 straight points, and I'm not proud of that because we literally gave it to them. We handed them the ball."
A three-touchdown lead early in the second half almost seemed like six touchdowns. Ohio State's other Heisman candidate, defensive end Chase Young, played for the first time in three weeks. Young was mostly close-mouthed about the NCAA suspension that cost him two games. He picked up where he left off, though, with nine tackles, four tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.
"If you can't get hype for this, you're not that kind of dude," said the man who now holds the single-season school record with 16.5 sacks.
Penn State QB Sean Clifford was not only bothered by Young's harassment, he may not have been the Nittany Lions best signal caller. After Clifford was knocked out of the game in the third quarter, true freshman Will Levis entered to lead Penn State to 17 third-quarter points. Where had this kid been hiding? In the short time he played, Levis obviously had a better arm and better legs than Clifford, the Big Ten's No. 2 passer.
That will be a question this week for coach James Franklin. He'll also have to answer for punting twice in the first half in Ohio State territory (37, 42). Turns out those decisions might have made a difference with potential points left out on the field. When Penn State drew within 21-17 with 4:22 left in the third quarter, Ohio State had contributed mightily to the comeback.
J.K. Dobbins fumbled at his own 12. Three plays later, Levis plunged over the goal line to make it 21-14. On Ohio State's next drive, Fields fumbled at his own 35.
The resulting field goal drew the Nittany Lions to within four points. That was the end of Penn State's scoring on the day. The defense that had limited opponents to fewer than 10 points per game stiffened. Fields threw a magnificent 28-yard touchdown pass to Olave.
Our gambling friends in the desert won't be pleased that Ohio State (-19.5) did not cover, but like we said, pity was not the initial emotion.
"At the end of the day, it will be beneficial to us that we were in this game," said Ohio State center Josh Myers, "rather than if we were to blow them out. I think we got more out of today than we would had we blown them out."
That was the mentality. You knew which way Ohio State was headed offensively early on. The game-opening drive covered 91 yards in 13 plays, 12 of them runs. Dobbins ran for 157 yards. Both Dobbins (36) and Fields (21) had highs in rushing attempts.
"I want to reach my expectations," said Dobbins, the nation's No. 4 rusher. "I just haven't yet."
At least Dobbins got the workout he wanted. He went into the game averaging 4.2 carries in the second half. On Saturday, he had 25 in the final two quarters.
Now to bundle it all up as Ohio State hopes to make a push to No. 1 in the CFP Rankings this week. That means something here because whichever team is No. 1 most likely won't have to play Clemson, projected to finish No. 3, in one national semifinal.
Maybe LSU deserves to be No. 1 to this point with its four (at the time of kickoff) top-10 wins.
You can worry about such things when you're Ohio State.
For now, the Buckeyes like what they see staring back at them in the mirror.
"You don't see them with everything on the line," Day said. "Everything is on the line at that moment and everything's real and the momentum's going their way. You can feel it. And at that point, how do you have the strength to then turn the tide and get the momentum back toward you? That's not easy to do."
Please, don't feel sorry for these Buckeyes. The win was their 13th consecutive over a top 25 team, seventh straight over a top 10 team.
Bigger games are to come.
"I wished it could have been a little bit different, but I'm glad it happened," Hafley said of the close result. "Now you can learn from it. Now you know what you have. You have a team that's not going to quit."
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