It was fitting Ohio State scored 44 points against Penn State on Saturday, because the Buckeyes may not have beaten the Nittany Lions if not for No. 44.
J.T. Tuimoloau forced four turnovers in Happy Valley, and those four takeaways for the Ohio State defense led to 21 points that made all the difference in the Buckeyes’ 44-31 win.
Tuimoloau made his presence felt right away on Penn State’s first possession of the game when he tipped a pass by Sean Clifford to set up an interception for fellow Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison.
The Buckeyes didn’t score any points off of that interception, but they did score a touchdown after Tuimoloau made an interception of his own on Penn State’s second possession.
With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, Tuimoloau delivered again – and again.
First, with Ohio State clinging to a two-point lead and just under nine minutes left to play, Tuimoloau knocked the ball out of Clifford’s hand and recovered the fumble himself, setting up a 24-yard touchdown pass from C.J. Stroud to Cade Stover on the game’s next play.
Two Penn State possessions later, Tuimoloau brought Ohio State’s score to a total that matched his jersey number and iced the win for the Buckeyes by making his second interception of the day and returning it to the end zone himself for a 14-yard touchdown.
Those four plays came on a day Tuimoloau recorded six total tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks, all career-highs. Cumulatively, Tuimoloau’s game can without hyperbole be considered one of the best individual defensive performances not only in Ohio State history but in college football history.
FBS players this century with 2 INT, 2 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the same game:— Jason Starrett (@starrettjason) October 29, 2022
J.T. Tuimoloau today vs. Penn State
Ryan Day couldn’t have been prouder of how Tuimoloau performed.
“To intercept balls like that, as a defensive end to go get a defensive score, I don't know if I've ever seen that,” Day said after the game. “That's big time. JTT has put so much hard work into this. He's an unbelievable player, but he's a better person. And you can see his talent. This is kind of his coming-out party today. And he's been working at it. Nobody wants it more than he does. So in this stage, for him to play the way he did, it means a lot to him and I think his teammates are very proud of him.”
Harrison, who had a dominant performance of his own one week earlier against Iowa, was just as happy for Tuimoloau’s success this week.
“I'm so happy for J.T., man, having them two picks and then having the strip sack to, I mean, really seal the game,” Harrison said. “I'm so happy for J.T. and all the work he’s put in and it’s finally showing in the results today.”
While Tuimoloau had played well all season, specifically drawing praise from Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles before the Iowa game as “one of those guys that kind of makes things happen initially at the play, doesn't always get the credit,” he hadn’t put up big numbers on the stat sheet before Saturday. Tuimoloau just had his first sack of the season in the Iowa game and had recorded only nine total tackles with no forced turnovers in Ohio State’s first seven games of the year.
That was why Day and Harrison were so happy to see Tuimoloau finally break through against Penn State and make a bunch of the game-changing plays he had come close to making in previous games.
“He's been right there. Kind of been almost like the unsung hero a little bit this year,” Day said. “I think he had the one last week that he got the quarterback from Iowa off the spot and then Tommy (Eichenberg) gets the interception. So he's been right there. He's been getting better every week. He's wanted it. He'll probably tell you he pressed a little bit at times. He's wanting to get there. And he's believed in Coach Johnson, he's believed in the scheme and believes in his teammates.”
Harrison wasn’t surprised by Tuimoloau’s big day because of what he saw from Tuimoloau in practice this week.
“You should have seen it, he had like three picks in practice, so what you expect?” Harrison said after the game. “When he got the first one, we were like, ‘I mean it happened in practice, it happens in games.’ Then he caught the second one and scored and I was like ‘Oh yeah, he’s got it, bro.’”
Harrison said he had told Tuimoloau a day like Saturday would come as long as he kept working hard.
“When the stats don't go your way, something that I've kind of experienced in my career as well, I just talked to my brother, ‘Just keep playing, bro,’” Harrison said. “Because you're too good to let that get in your head. Just keep playing, bro. Just keep playing.”
“I'm so happy for J.T. and all the work he’s put in and it’s finally showing in the results today.”– Zach Harrison on J.T. Tuimoloau
When Day was asked after Saturday’s game what his favorite Tuimoloau play was, the head coach responded without hesitation: “Pick-six.”
“When you get a defensive score like that, all of a sudden the whole game changes,” Day said. “It was a two-score game at the time … It was a pick-six and all of a sudden, you throw it up in the air and say, ‘That's about it. We're good boys.’ And the sidelines just went nuts.”
Tuimoloau said he “blacked out” with emotion after that play.
“Just give glory to God,” Tuimoloau said. “He was watching on me. And shoutout to my auntie Lores, RIP, they was both watching out for me.”
Tuimoloau’s favorite play, though, wasn’t his own interception but the one Harrison intercepted. He also made sure to shout out another one of his defensive linemates who had a big game: Tyleik Williams, who had a season-high five tackles including a sack and a key fourth-down stop on Penn State’s opening drive of the second half.
“I don’t know if people saw it, Tyleik had three big stops,” Tuimoloau said. “Big credit to him, he held it down inside.”
As he met with reporters minutes after the game, Tuimoloau said it still hadn’t hit him how well he played against Penn State, as his focus was on the team winning the game rather than on his individual play. And as well as he played on Saturday, he’ll still be critiquing his own film and looking for ways he can do better.
“I think there's a lot more things I can clean up out there,” Tuimoloau said. “A lot of little stuff I gotta clean up. We gotta go to the drawing board and get better.”
It’s that kind of work ethic that enabled Tuimoloau to play as well as he did in State College.
“It all started during practice. It all started with preparation,” Tuimoloau said. “Perfect practice makes a perfect play. The other guys hold me accountable every practice and that's where it started.”
While Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson said before the season he thought his unit would have an “alpha dog” this year – and Tuimoloau certainly was one on Saturday – Tuimoloau’s performance coming on the heels of Harrison’s performance, which came on the heels of multiple dominant games in the first half of the season by Mike Hall, showed the Buckeyes have plenty of defensive linemen who are capable of dominant performances on any given day.
Harrison thinks that sums up what makes Ohio State’s defensive line special.
“That's what I've been telling all the guys on the team. I said it only takes one, one of us just to go crazy and to play how we can play and just dominate the game and see what happens, the game is wrecked,” Harrison said. “Any of us, all of us have that capability to do that.”
- #2 Ohio State 44, # 13 Penn State 31
- • Buckeyes Survive Scare in Happy Valley
- • Offense Answers Bell in Crunch Time
- • An All-Time Great Performance
- • Tuimoloau is a Turnover Machine
- • Ohio State Postgame • Photos • Notebook • Quotebook • Debriefing
- • Penn State Postgame • Social Reax • 3 Key Stats • Five Things