Despite entering the game as 18.5-point favorites, Ohio State met fierce resistance from a game Penn State squad and repeatedly shot itself in the foot before ultimately prevailing 33-24 in a physical affair on Saturday night in the Horseshoe.
The win improved Ohio State to 7-1 overall but also resurfaced concerns about a retooled defense that couldn't get off the field on third down, though it once again logged a touchdown of its own, shut down the run game and forced three turnovers.
Things weren't exactly perfect on offense either as the Buckeyes scored touchdowns on just two of 12 possessions and racked up seven pre-snap penalties, constantly forcing drives off schedule.
Still, it's okay to acknowledge Penn State had something to do with Ohio State's struggles. Quarterback Sean Clifford threw for 361 yards with Jahan Dotson (11 for 127) and Parker Washington (9 for 108) repeatedly finding holes in the OSU secondary. Defensively, James Franklin's team shut down Ohio State's run game in the first half and confused Ohio State's offensive line.
The win made it five straight over the Nittany Lions and keeps Ohio State's goals firmly intact. The next step on their quest for a Big Ten title and College Football Playoff bid comes next Saturday at noon in Lincoln, Nebraska but before Ryan Day and company start prep for the Cornhuskers, here are Five Things from a hard fought win over Penn State.
RIDE THE LIGHTNING
Some fans have lamented the lack of carries for TreVeyon Henderson at times this year but you saw last night why Day hasn't overloaded the true freshman.
He knew a supremely physical test like last night would come, and that more such games are coming soon, and his plan to keep Henderson fresh for when it matters most paid off.
After averaging just 10.3 rushing attempts over the last four contests, Day called Henderson's number a career-high 28 times last night and Ohio State needed every yard from a kid that not only was in high school last year, but didn't even get to play football as his team's season was wiped out by the pandemic.
Henderson took a beating early as his nine first half carries went for six yards. He had a long of four yards and four carries resulted in negative yards (-7). Coming into the game, he had only -5 rushing yards across 78 rushing attempts.
The second half was a different story however as Henderson logged 19 attempts for 146 yards and a touchdown putting Ohio State in front, 27-17, late in the third quarter.
Those 19 second half totes were actually the second-most he'd had in a a full game this year, trailing only his 24 carries (for 277 yards) against Tulsa back in week three when he also bailed out the offense in a winning effort.
His most important carry was a 68-yard jaunt to set up the late third quarter touchdown run as Ohio State nursed a 20-17 lead.
Henderson only had two other runs of 10+ yards but they came at a crucial juncture. With Ohio State leading 30-24 and trying to put the game away, he raced 22 yards on 1st-and-10 and three play later, on 2nd-and-13, his 12-yards burst set up an eventual 26-yard field goal giving the Buckeyes a two-score lead, 33-24, with 2:41 left in regulation.
Henderson's ability to shoulder the load took some pressure off C.J. Stroud as Day called just 10 pass plays over the final two quarters (7-of-10, 135 yards) after the Buckeyes aired it out 24 times in the first half.
I know we all cringed when Henderson committed a costly false start on 4th-and-goal midway through the third quarter but on balance, the kid came up huge last night when Ohio State needed him most and he showed impressive toughness against a talented and determined Penn State front seven.
GET OFF THE FIELD
Ohio State came into last night's game already stinking it up in holding opponents on third down, ranking in the country's bottom third giving up a 40.7% conversion rate.
Turns out, that problem's far from solved as Penn State converted 11-of-18 third down last night, good for a 61.1% clip. The Nittany Lions converted 5-of-9 in the first half and after Ohio State made some adjustments in the locker room, the Nittany Lions converted <checks notes> 6-of-9 in the second half. Not great.
Penn State was lethal on 3rd-and-short (1-4 yards), converting 5-of-6, and they were elite on 3rd-and-medium (5-8 yards), moving the chains on 6-of-8 tries. The only times Ohio State had success came on 3rd-and-long (9+ yards) as they held Clifford and company conversion-less on four attempts.
Said more simply, Penn State converted a ridiculous 11-of-14 third downs of eight yards or less.
The Nittany Lions gashed OSU for 10.3 yards per third down play, mostly behind Clifford's 7-of-9 passing for 79 yards, moving the chains six times. The Buckeyes gave away one conversion via penalty.
In a game with its fair share of frustrating facets, the Ohio State defense's continued inability to get off the field on third down might be at the top of the list.
On a night Ohio State scarleted out the Shoe, Day was certainly seeing red as the Buckeye offense struggled mightily in the red zone.
Coming into last night's matchup, Ohio State boasted a 79.3% touchdown rate in the red zone with 23 scores in 29 trips including 10-of-12 over the previous two games.
Against Penn State however, the Buckeyes managed just one touchdown in six red zone trips, settling for four field goals. Another trip ended in a turnover on downs. The dismal performance dropped their season red zone touchdown rate to 68.6%.
The Nittany Lions deserve some credit for slowing down Stroud and company but the Buckeyes specialized in self-inflicted wounds, aiding Penn State's effort.
A false start on Ohio State's first red zone trip turned a 2nd-and-8 to 2nd-and-13 and OSU couldn't get back on schedule resulting in a field goal. The second trip also featured a false start, Henderson's killer on 4th-and-goal from the 1, resulting in another field goal and a 20-17 lead.
The third trip culminated in the lone touchdown, on a 2nd-and-goal from the 1, as Henderson barely cracked the plane to make it 27-17 good guys. The fourth trip ended in a turnover on downs when Stroud woefully under-threw a wide open Chris Olave on 4th down.
The fifth trip came after a Cameron Brown interception gave OSU the ball at the Penn State 28. Ohio State advanced to the 7-yard line but stalled again, settling for yet another field goal and a 30-24 margin.
Finally, on the sixth and final trip, a Thayer Munford false start on 1st-and-10 from the PSU 18 was a key obstacle on the way to a 3rd-and-1 stand by Penn State, forcing a field goal for the game's final margin, 33-24.
As Day noted, if Ohio State turns a few more of those possessions into touchdowns, the narrative is a bit different this morning. I guess the good news is such a large part of the production gap came via those self-inflicted mental mistakes and poor execution such as Stroud's duck toward an uncovered Olave.
Jerron Cage, y'all!
The 305-pound, fifth-year defensive tackle had his most impactful play as a Buckeye last night via a 57-yard fumble recovery for a rumbling Thicc Six giving Ohio State a 17-7 lead late in the first half.
Cage also chipped in a pair of tackles, including one for loss, in a game where the Buckeyes needed everyone in the rotation to step up.
After playing the fifth-most snaps of all OSU defensive tackles a season ago, Cage has seen only the sixth-most snaps this year but the veteran has made the most of his opportunities. The dude deserves a shout out for hanging in there and doing his job when called on despite the fact you know he wishes he was higher up the depth chart over the course of his career.
Larry Johnson's defensive line was fairly stout overall last night beyond Cage's big play.
Another veteran tackle, Antwuan Jackson, deserves mention as well for his 1.5 tackles for loss and fellow tackle Haskell Garrett was MIA at times but still registered a fumble recovery on Penn State's first possession and recorded a pass breakup on its last possession leading to a missed field goal.
On the edge, Ohio State got Tyreke Smith back and he responded with an impressive performance including five stops and two huge plays. The first came as he and Zach Harrison's Clifford sandwich caused the fumble Cage scooped up and the second came as his pressure on Clifford resulted in the back-foot heave Brown intercepted.
J.T. Tuimoloau also got into the act with a big sack on 4th-and-5 to give Ohio State's offense excellent field position early in the second quarter (although they'd waste it).
For the game, Ohio State's defensive line posted 5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, a PBU, three hurries and a forced fumble.
SURVIVE AND ADVANCE
While a lot of fans get angsty even if Ohio State wins 70-0, the fact is Penn State has a talented roster and despite the Buckeyes winning five straight against the Nittany Lions, blowouts have been hard to come by.
Penn State obviously laid and egg versus Illinois leading up to last night's contest but they're no pushover when dialed in and healthy.
Day of course is going to toot that horn no matter what but I don't think it was only deflection about his team's performance when he said postgame, “I think when you look at college football right now, it’s about surviving and moving on, especially with the teams that we’re playing. And that’s all we can worry about.”
Day is trying to plant the seed that it's hard to win by 30+ every week and with a backloaded Ohio State schedule, they aren't going to crush teams if they aren't at the top of their game.
And maybe some of us, myself included, have been reluctant to believe the Big Ten is as deep as the current rankings suggest. I know I incorrectly expected Ohio State to cruise last night and I went into watching the Michigan-Michigan State game thinking both of those teams weren't as advertised but left it with far more respect for both.
I'm still of the belief Ohio State will beat Michigan State and Michigan, along with everyone else they'll face in the league, but it likely won't be the cakewalk some fans demand.
For now, I'd take Day and company correcting the 10 penalties and other mental mistakes but the reality is its far more appetizing to work on fixing things following a 9-point win than after a loss.