What could have turned into a blowout got dicey in the second half.
Ohio State had an advantage in just about every statistical category but turnovers, allowing Penn State within four points in the fourth quarter. With a touchdown pass to Chris Olave and an interception by Justin Hilliard, the Buckeyes escaped danger for a 28-17 win on Saturday.
Ryan Day, in his post-game press conference made sure to give some credit to the crowd of more than 104,000 people.
“I don't know how many false starts we got today with the noise, but that was great,” Day said. “We asked Buckeye Nation to be loud in this game and they were exactly that; they were a factor in this game. I can't give them enough credit. I know how the team appreciates everybody coming out early and being loud. That means everything to us. So, thank you.”
Offensively, the Buckeyes relied heavily on the run, with 61 carries compared to 22 passes. However, touchdown strikes to Olave and K.J. Hill were among two of the most important plays of the game.
Justin Fields found Hill for a 24-yard touchdown on Ohio State's first drive of the second half, then Olave snagged a 28-yard touchdown pass from Fields at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
“I thought (Olave) and K.J., those two big throws and catches were huge in this game,” Day said. “We're looking for explosives in that area. And a huge play. I thought that K.J. did a great job creating separation on that route; and then Chris just going up, and just the heart of somebody to go up and get a ball like that – I thought Justin threw two really good balls there. But in big moments, those are clutch throws, the things you think about five years from now, you go back, those are the plays. But to see Chris go up and get that ball and battle for that ball, what an unbelievable play.”
The touchdown strike to Olave turned a four-point lead into an 11-point advantage.
“I think we got a first down before that play, and we wanted to take a shot to the end zone,” Olave said. “So we called a double move and we got the right coverage and Justin threw a perfect ball.”
“It was in the lights, so I couldn't really see until the last minute,” Olave said.
WHEN WE NEEDED YOU THE MOST pic.twitter.com/i5SKrwgXpi— Eleven Warriors (@11W) November 23, 2019
Ever since last year's game against Michigan, Olave has developed a reputation of coming through in key moments.
“Coach Day says big-time players step up in big-time games, and I believe I'm that, so I had to make that play for my team,” Olave said.
Hill's touchdown reception, one of his four catches on Saturday, came when Fields delivered a perfectly placed ball, hitting him in stride.
“We've been working on that play all week in practice,” Hill said. “I remember we had the same play drawed up. Me one on one in the slot. It was a fade against Wisconsin, and I didn't get enough width, and I kind of missed the ball. So I feel like that was a learning lesson for me and Justin. So we've been working on that in practice, and then we finally hit it in the game.”
What a perfect throw. pic.twitter.com/OwVuNx60OT— Eleven Warriors (@11W) November 23, 2019
Hill nearly scored earlier in the game when he caught a 10-yard pass, bringing the ball down to the 7-yard line. After the game, he confirmed that Day had called the same play he scored in the fourth quarter of last year's win against Penn State.
“It was the same play,” Hill said. “Definitely the same play. They had the same scheme, so we schemed them right back with the same play that we ran last year.”
On the ground, the Buckeyes picked up 229 yards on 61 carries. Many of them came on the first drive of the game, when Ohio State capped off a 13-play, 91-yard drive with a touchdown. Twelve of the 13 plays were runs.
“It definitely gave us a lot of confidence,” Myers said. “We haven't started a whole lot of games like that this season. I guess some of the bigger games we haven't started like that, like Michigan State and some of those. So it gave us a lot of confidence and, man, it felt good. It felt good.”
“We had to get the run game going,” Olave said. “J.K., probably the best running back in the nation. I believe he got 35 carries, and we needed that from him. We needed that rushing game to get the passing game going. They were kind of playing a soft zone, so we just kept running the ball.”
Dobbins, who had 36 carries for 157 yards, two touchdowns and a fumble, didn't find himself wishing he had fewer rushes.
“I'll take more,” Dobbins said.
That attitude helped Ohio State battle back after self-inflicted wounds set the team back in the second half.
“All week we talked about just responding to adversity,” Baron Browning said. “In a fight, you're going to get hit in the mouth sometimes. So I'm just proud of the team that we responded to adversity. This is the first challenge I felt like we had all season as an offense and as a defense. I'm just proud of the team to where we fought back and stayed locked in, and then we didn't flinch.”
Having spent the past seven years in the NFL, Jeff Hafley found himself amped up for a top-10 matchup with a Big Ten title game berth on the line.
“This was a special game for me,” Hafley said. “I haven't been involved in a game like this in a long time. Everything on the line, a chance to go to Indy, rivalry that I've from afar – I've watched this game many times on TV, whether it be there or here. So to be a part of that and just kind of thinking through, it was a little bit emotional. It was really cool, actually. So I was fired up. I was fired up on my way in this morning, and I'm still fired up right now.”
Hafley and the defensive coaches stuck Pete Werner on tight end Pat Freiermuth for much of Saturday's game.
Though Freiermuth led the Nittany Lions with six catches for 40 yards, Hafley saw no issues with the coverage of the big-bodied target. Freiermuth didn't have a catch for more than 11 yards.
“(Werner) was matched up with (Freiermuth) at times, and I thought they had a really good plan,” Hafley said. “He caught the slant on him, caught an out route on him, but he didn't have any explosives on him. You know, the pop pass in the end zone, he's right there. Kid made a nice play. Tough situation for Pete. That didn't bother him. That's one of those, 'Hey, no problem, man.' Fuller was right there. Pete's right there. He's a good player. But 10 tackles for Pete. Guarded that guy most of the day. Played physical. Pete Werner's a great football player that in my mind is still underrated.”
On a few plays, the Buckeyes turned to Shaun Wade, who covered Freiermuth one-on-one. Hafley's defense turned to that on multiple third-down opportunities, bringing on a fourth cornerback to offset Wade covering a tight end.
“I've been thinking about that all week, so we kept going back and forth,” Hafley said. “Down, distance, field position, personnel, how's he doing. Because Pet was doing a good job. I mean, we're going to worry about a quick out route. They threw the one go ball on him. I have total confidence in Pete. A couple times we switched it up just to give him a different look and put Shaun on him, but just things based on downs and distance and tendencies.”
Jordan Fuller had a relatively quiet day with three tackles and a pass break-up. He did, however, prevent a long run late in the game with one of his takedowns.
“Jordan's the eraser,” Hafley said. “He has to erase mistakes. That's what he's done all year. I probably should total up the yards that he has saved us by doing that. But I'd love for one of you to be in that position with all green grass and a ball carrier coming at you at full speed with no help. So think about that tackle for a second and the position that kid's in and how many of those he's made. That's impressive.”
With the victory, the Buckeyes locked up the Big Ten East Division title. Therefore, regardless of whatever happens next weekend against Michigan, they'll head to Indianapolis in two weeks to compete for a conference championship.
Does that mean Ohio State should celebrate?
“I mean, a little bit,” Dobbins said. “But me, personally, I want the big one. But we'll enjoy it.”