COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State came out of its trip to Penn State with its image and its quarterback a bit beaten up, but Urban Meyer hopes the lasting effects are positive.
"I don’t think relieved is the right word, but pleased to get out of State College with a win," the Buckeyes’ coach said Monday after having a chance to review the tape of the 31-24 victory last Saturday night. "I said (before) that was a top five atmosphere, (but) I got it in the top three now after that one. That was incredible. That’s a credit to their student body and their fans. They did a great job."
The Nittany Lions were heavy underdogs and fell behind 17-0 in the first half but scored 17 unanswered points in regulation to force overtime. They put the Buckeyes behind the eight ball with a touchdown on the first possession of overtime to make it 24-17, but Ohio State rallied with back-to-back touchdowns of its own and a decisive defensive stop.
The rally kept the Buckeyes (6-1, 3-0) unbeaten in Big Ten play, and Meyer hopes it taught his team something about itself. Certainly there seemed to be more to learn from the last Saturday in October than the first two, blowouts of conference newcomers Maryland and Rutgers in which the Buckeyes averaged 54 points per game.
Coupled with decimations of Kent State and Cincinnati to close September, Ohio State had won its last four games by an average score of 56-17.3. In the week leading up to their trip to Happy Valley, the Buckeyes began to become the subject of stories regarding a renewed candidacy for the first College Football Playoff. While the quality of competition was universally questioned, the dominance of the wins was cited as an example of a young team’s growth.
A quick start at Beaver Stadium seemed to indicate another big win was on the way, but the Buckeyes began to sputter in the second quarter and saw things get progressively worse in the second half against Penn State, particularly on offense. After piling up 111 total yards in the first quarter, they managed 60 in the second, 59 in the third and 26 in the fourth. Meanwhile, Penn State got on the scoreboard with an interception of quarterback J.T. Barrett that was returned for a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half, and Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg led a pair of scoring drives in the fourth quarter to force overtime.
Hackenberg completed passes of 18 and 12 yards to Dae’Sean Hamilton in the first overtime period to overcome a first-and-20 created by a holding penalty, and the Nittany Lions had a chance to win the game with a defensive stop after Bill Belton ran it in from a yard out.
Barrett, who was battling both a sprained knee and what appeared to be shaken confidence as regulation came to a close, seemingly willed the Buckeyes into the end zone on successive possessions, however, setting the stage for a walk-off sack by Ohio State defensive lineman Joey Bosa on Penn State’s second possession of overtime.
"We were down by seven points after blowing the lead, and to see (Barrett) lead an offense as a redshirt freshman into the student section, down by seven in the first overtime — I’ll probably never forget that look when I saw our offense taking the field against the ‘whiteout’ of the student section, down by seven, against the defense that really kind of shut us down in the second half, No. 1 rush defense in the country, and take us in for a score," Meyer said. "Obviously we’re going to build upon that."
Their next chance to build against a team in a different-colored jersey comes this Saturday with a visit from Illinois.The Fighting Illini (4-4, 1-3) snapped a three-game losing streak last week with a 28-24 upset of Minnesota, a team previously undefeated in conference play. Then comes a trip to Michigan State, where the Buckeyes will find not only what is currently the nation’s fifth-ranked team but also quite likely another uninviting crowd with a full day to warm up for an 8 p.m. kickoff.
"Illinois just won a big game," Meyer said. "Illinois is much improved from a year ago. So there’s no there will be no overlooking anyone."
There might be another blowout, though, considering the Fighting Illini’s three conference losses had come by an average of 17.3 points, including a 38-27 home defeat at the hands of lowly Purdue. Therefore it’s not hard to conclude slipping by Penn State on the road at night might have prepared Ohio State, which fell one spot to 13th in the coaches’ poll, more for taking on the defending conference champion Spartans than another easy victory.
"You just were in a street fight, and you’re winning," Meyer said. "You started getting your tail kicked and you came back and won. That builds toughness."