STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Tyler Durbin and Ohio State's kicking unit sprinted to the Penn State 30-yard line, knowing they had to rush to get off an attempt quickly to in the hope of pushing the Buckeyes out front by a touchdown as the play clock wound down to 10.
Durbin wound his leg and struck the ball off a good hold, only to have it blocked easily by a group of Penn State defenders. As the ball careened away from him and holder Cameron Johnston, Grant Haley scooped it up and beat the specialists on a 60-yard sprint to the end zone to provide one of the few jolts of energy on a blustery night in Beaver Stadium.
Turns out, it was the play that changed the outcome from narrow Ohio State victory to Urban Meyer's first-ever road loss as head coach of the Buckeyes. J.T. Barrett and the offense had another shot to move the ball after getting buried deep in their own territory but it didn't matter. Behind a rowdy crowd and feasting defensive line on a struggling group in front of him, Barrett couldn't lead a miracle like he did a week earlier in Wisconsin. Penn State secured the 24-21 upset with back-to-back sacks on Ohio State's final possession.
“We had two blocked kicks. Two blocked kicks. Offensively, we didn't control the line of scrimmage,” Meyer said after. “He was under pressure all night when we threw it and then we didn't move them off the ball in the run game.”
The Nittany Lions got Barrett to the turf six times, primarily exploiting right tackle Isaiah Prince. There were times when Ohio State's star quarterback eluded trouble and made plays with his feet but he failed to connect on enough passes consistently to win the game.
Couple that with a blocked punt that set up Tyler Davis' field goal to make it 21-17 with 9:33 left then the field goal mishap that led to the game-winning score and Ohio State's light hold on a game against a team yearning for a signature win eventually slipped through its fingers.
“I think we were well prepared. Just didn’t execute the gameplan like we should have,” said Barrett, who finished with 245 yards passing and one touchdown but just 17 carries for 26 yards. “I think the coaches did a great job scouting this team and I think the gameplan was where we wanted to we just didn’t make the plays we needed to down the stretch.”
A bulk of those plays happened on Ohio State's final drive, when Barrett heaved a prayer to James Clark that banged off the fourth-year receiver's helmet and fell to the ground. Barrett threw it away the play before, flushed out of the pocket as he was all night.
A sack by Jason Cabinda on third down made it 4th-and-23, and when Barrett dropped back and held Ohio State's final chance at a perfect season in his hands he barely had time to breathe.
Kevin Givens and Evan Schwan planted him in the turf as the celebration started for those white-clad fans at Beaver Stadium. The Buckeyes were left hanging their heads as they jogged off the field, searching for answers from a game they lost to Trace McSorley, who completed just 8-of-23 passes.
“We didn't get our job done. We just didn't do our job,” center Pat Elflein said. “We didn't get it done tonight.
Star H-back Curtis Samuel's first carry of the game came with more than 10 minutes to play in the third quarter. He ripped through a massive hole on the right side of the line and raced 74 yards to the end zone to push the Buckeyes out front 19-7. A snap over Penn State's punter's head that he recovered in the end zone made it 21-7 Ohio State. That set the table for chaos in the form of two major special teams blunders to give James Franklin the biggest win in what is his third season at Penn State—a place still looking to get out of the muck after one of the worst scandals in college football history.
“This is for everybody that has been through so much,” Franklin said. “This is a big step in the right direction for healing and where we need to be.”
“Every goal is still alive. We gotta regroup and get guys healthy. Come back and keep swinging. I talked to the team then Raekwon McMillan and some others talked to the team and let's go. Time to get to work.”– Urban Meyer
It came at the expense of Ohio State, a young, inexperienced team that didn't look like the one that won night games at Oklahoma and Wisconsin.
“We didn't play very good. We like to say nine units strong where every unit is operating at maximum capacity and we weren't doing that tonight,” Elflein said. “When you don't do that at a place like Penn State where guys play really hard, the result is what it is.”
Meyer said he thought about going for it on 4th-and-7 before sending Durbin and the kicking unit out on the field but elected to kick because "he hits that easily in practice.” But even before that, the Buckeyes could not move the ball with any sort of consistency.
Mike Weber finished with 21 carries for 71 yards. He had eight catches for only 36 yards, mostly on checkdowns as Ohio State's wideouts couldn't create separation down the field. Marcus Baugh's 26-yard touchdown represented the only blip of life from the passing game, and he broke four tackles to get in the end zone.
Samuel—the man Meyer dubbed Ohio State's No. 1 playmaker during training camp—only touched it 10 times.
“Probably gotta get him more than that,” Meyer said.
Meyer, Barrett and Elflein all said it isn't in Ohio State's plans to force players the football. Even if it did that to Samuel, however, it might not have made a difference. Not with the way the line played.
“Heart and soul of this team is the O-line and right now we're letting the team down,” Elflein said. “We're going to get back to work tomorrow.”
“We just run our offense. We’re not doing that. I can tell you that from here on our, there’s not going to be any ‘let’s get Curtis the ball, let’s run that play,’” Barrett added. “Let’s run our plays, and if Curtis happens to get the ball, the Curtis gets the ball. That’s how our offense runs very well when that happens.”
Meyer claimed the Buckeyes are just "not a great team right now" and blowing a late lead to a team their defense held to just 276 total yards (72 in the second half) supports that. The loss brings Ohio State to 6-1, and an assured drop in the polls waits on Sunday. But if Ohio State wins out, it will hold the tiebreaker over Penn State in the Big Ten East Division with a better overall record. Back-to-back road night games took a toll but Meyer doesn't want to see that as an excuse.
Not for two ugly special teams gaffes that cost what is presumed to be a College Football Playoff contender a game against a team not expected to compete for the Big Ten Championship.
“Every goal is still alive,” Meyer said. “We gotta regroup and get guys healthy. Come back and keep swinging. I talked to the team then Raekwon McMillan and some others talked to the team and let's go. Time to get to work.”
Ohio State can still win the Big Ten East. It can still win the Big Ten. If it does that, it's chances are pretty good at returning to the College Football Playoff.
It starts in one week against Northwestern at home. But the issues up front, mishaps in the kicking game and a continued struggle to connect on passes down the field are only three of the glaring issues that face Meyer's group.
They finally came to a head Saturday on a windy night in the middle of Pennsylvania.
That's how quickly a team can lose a game on the road in a hostile environment.
“When stuff is not going your way, how are you going to respond to it? We have great leaders, our coaches are really good leaders,” Elflein said. “We have some good leaders on this team. We'll get back to work tomorrow. We got a big one ahead of us.”
“We gotta go to work,” Barrett said. “Simple as that.”