Going into Saturday night’s game at Ohio Stadium, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who wasn’t a Penn State fan that thought the Nittany Lions were going to upset Ohio State.
Many people didn’t even think it would be close. Ohio State closed as at least an 18.5-point betting favorite at most sportsbooks, and everyone on our Eleven Warriors staff predicted that the Buckeyes would win by at least 18 points. Some people were already just about ready to give Ohio State the Big Ten crown, believing the Buckeyes had separated themselves from the rest of the conference, even though they still have an undefeated team (Michigan State) and a one-loss team remaining on their regular season schedule (Michigan).
Saturday’s game against Penn State, as a game against Penn State usually does, showed why it’s too early to crown Ohio State champions of anything just yet.
The Buckeyes defeated Penn State on Saturday night, and in a game between Ohio State and Penn State – the last six of which have all now been decided by 13 points or fewer – that’s really all that matters. Ohio State survived a game that’s always one of its biggest tests of the regular season, keeping itself in position to achieve all of its goals entering November.
That said, Penn State made Ohio State look beatable again. After the Buckeyes cruised to wins by 39, 49 and 47 points over Rutgers, Maryland and Indiana in their first three games of October, they had to grind out a 9-point victory over the Nittany Lions. The Buckeyes got 33 points and 466 yards against a team that hadn’t allowed more than 23 points or 395 yards of offense all year, but they scored a season-low two offensive touchdowns despite six trips to the red zone. Ohio State’s defense had to battle, too, as Penn State converted 11 of 18 third downs and put up more points (24) and yards (394) than it had in each of its previous two losses to Iowa and Illinois.
Ultimately, though, Ohio State made enough plays on both sides of the ball to get a win over the team that’s more consistently played the Buckeyes tough than any other team in the Big Ten over the past six years, and that gave Ryan Day reason to be proud of his team on Saturday night.
“I’m proud of our guys for working through a gritty game like this. It’s not untypical of a Penn State game. It’s nothing that we didn’t expect. I thought it would be very much like it happened,” Day said after the game. “We’re gonna go back on this film and look at it and learn a lot from it and grow from it and pull our hair from it, but we kept swinging away … Just across the board, I thought we were gritty. We didn’t panic. We kept swinging.
“Now in the second half of the season, we’re 2-0, that was the goal. The goal was just to win the game. We weren’t trying to get style points in a game against Penn State. That’s not how it works. You gotta just win the game.”
While it’s possible that Ohio State could get back to rolling over opponents with ease for the rest of the season, it’s probably more likely that the Buckeyes will have to win at least one or two more four-quarter battles over the next month if they’re going to accomplish their goals of winning a fifth straight Big Ten title and making a third straight College Football Playoff.
Getting through one with a win, especially after they failed to do so in their only previous game against a ranked opponent in their second game of the season against Oregon, shows that Ohio State can win a tough game even when everything isn’t going its way. That could prove to be valuable experience for the Buckeyes if they end up in similar situations as the season continues.
“These types of games are definitely needed, because when you go into Big Ten play, especially this year, a lot of Big Ten teams are great,” Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud said. “So just to have this type of win, have this great win and just know that we can do it, we can do everything that we put our minds to. And if we just keep practicing the way we are, we’ll be just fine.”
“We weren’t trying to get style points in a game against Penn State. That’s not how it works. You gotta just win the game.”– Ryan Day
Day replied “maybe” when asked if he thought he would look back on the Penn State game in hindsight as a game that was ultimately a good thing for his team. At the same time, Day believes the Buckeyes allowed Penn State to make it a closer game than it should have been.
“A couple of guys already mentioned that to me that maybe this is a good thing,” Day said. “But that being said, when you look at the stat sheet, almost 500 yards of total offense against a very good defense; to me, if you finish off these drives in the red zone, it looks a lot different.”
Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison acknowledged that other teams would be watching the film to see what Penn State did successfully against the Buckeyes to try to replicate it themselves, which means the Buckeyes need to work hard to continue to improve going into next week’s game against Nebraska.
“One thing that we take pride in is going back out on the field and making the corrections,” Harrison said. “Our next opponent is looking at this film and seeing all the plays that we messed up on, so we gotta go correct those plays, because we’re gonna be attacked next week.”
Nonetheless, Day believes it says “a lot about where we are and how well we’ve played over the last month” that Ohio State was able to beat a top-20 team without playing its best football on Saturday night. And he believes all they need to do to make the College Football Playoff is just keep finding ways to win, as he believes Ohio State’s “body of work’s gonna speak for itself” if it can win the rest of its games.
“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 said. “We’re playing some really good teams here moving forward. Going on the road next week, it’s gonna be a big challenge for us, because you gotta bring it every week, and I think that’s what you’re seeing across the board. The guys who do bring it every week are being rewarded, and we gotta do that. We gotta keep doing it.
“These one-game seasons, it’s March Madness, and you win, you survive, you move on. That’s where we’re at right now. We have to bring it every week, because a lot of these teams are capable of beating us.”