Penn State shakes up playoff race with stunning upset of Ohio State
When Penn State muffed a punt and had a kick blocked in the first half, its hopes of upsetting Ohio State seemed dim. When the Nittany Lions’ Grant Haley returned a blocked field goal 60 yards for a touchdown with 4:27 remaining in the fourth quarter, they took a lead that they wouldn’t surrender. In one of the season’s most stunning results so far, Penn State knocked off Ohio State 24–21 during its annual “Whiteout” game in State College, Pa. The loss blights the Buckeyes’ playoff résumé, ended the program’s 20-game road winning streak and handed Urban Meyer his first road loss since he inherited the Buckeye program in 2012. It was the first time since 1964 that an unranked Penn State team beat an opponent ranked in the top two.
Here are three thoughts on the shocker in State College:
1. The Nittany Lions hounded J.T. Barrett all night
Ohio State had some trouble protecting J.T. Barrett during its 30–23 win over Wisconsin last weekend. Much of that was attributed to the Badger defense, which has earned its reputation as one of the nation’s finest units. But perhaps Ohio State’s offensive line was a part of the problem. Penn State sacked Barrett five times in the second half after the Buckeyes had surrendered just five sacks all season, inhibiting their chance at a comeback on the final drive and costing them the possibility of a perfect season.
Linebacker Jason Cabinda returned from injury to come up with 12 tackles and two sacks, the second of which came with 1:07 remaining and stuck the Buckeyes with a 4th-and-23. The Nittany Lions would sack Barrett again on the next play to secure the win.
Barrett is one of the most poised quarterbacks in the nation, but the Penn State defensive line routinely invaded the backfield all night, harassing Barrett and not allowing him to camp out in the pocket. Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Brent Pry blitzed infrequently, and Barrett felt pressure even while they rushed only four defenders. It’s an ominous sign for Ohio State, which prides itself on protecting the line of scrimmage to open up its run game. Outside of a 74-yard touchdown run from Curtis Samuel in the third quarter, it was hardly a banner night for the Buckeye offense.
2. This was a hallmark win for James Franklin
The Penn State community has rallied behind head coach James Franklin, a Pennsylvania native who enthusiastically accepted the job after a successful tenure at Vanderbilt. There was the lingering controversy surrounding the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the NCAA sanctions that came from that scandal, and the public scorn that surrounded the program. None of that appeared to faze Franklin, who was intent on re-establishing the prominence that the program enjoyed under former head coach Joe Paterno.
Franklin has struggled to recruit a dependable offensive line, but landed a star running back in Saquon Barkley and has inspired confidence in one of college football’s most devoted fan bases. Quarterback Trace McSorley has been a reliable, if unspectacular marshal of the offense, and the defense has morphed into one of the more impressive units in the conference. This is the kind of win (and stadium atmosphere) that can bring in high-profile recruits and reestablish the program as one of the most desirable in the Big Ten. Ohio State was favored by 20, and Penn State used the atmosphere and a disciplined performance to log its biggest win of the decade. That will resonate with recruits and sustain Franklin’s job security.
Franklin dedicated the win to his niece and nephew in the postgame press conference, who lost their father earlier in the week. It’s a win the fan base won’t forget for years.
3. Ohio State’s playoff chances are damaged, but not dead
This isn’t a loss that Ohio State wanted (or expected) to take, but it’s not one that will keep the Buckeyes out of the College Football Playoff race. A three-point road loss against a team that will likely earn bowl eligibility isn’t disqualifying, and the Buckeyes still have two of their most important games (at home against Nebraska and Michigan) remaining. If Meyer’s squad rebounds to win those two games to finish the season 11–1, then it still stands a good chance of being included in the final four come selection Sunday. Even so, the Buckeyes will be looking for a loss from Michigan, Clemson or Washington to help their chances of making the field as a one-loss team.