It was over early.
It was over on the game's opening kick return, when Zach Zwinak hurt his leg and had to be carted off, and--potentially--saw his Penn State career end in the worst of ways. It was over when the referees called a blatant incomplete pass an interception, and handed a dominant Ohio State offense the ball with great field position. It was over when the referees decided that the play clock was 44 seconds long, and let Ohio State make a field goal they never should've been allowed to attempt. It was over when, with the defense surging and the offense moving, Christian Hackenberg threw an interception--one that actually was. It was over when Donovan Smith, the only offensive lineman on this team with any experience, came out with a possible concussion.
It was over early, and it was over often.
At least, that's what we might have thought. This is a Penn State team that all season hasn't shown the sort of toughness and determination and fight that they displayed tonight, before a whited-out Beaver Stadium packed with nearly 108,000 fans who truly, genuinely made a very real difference, causing miscommunications and false starts and forcing Buckeye timeouts. No, this game wasn't over until fourth down in the second overtime, and that's a testament to the players, to the coaching staff, and yes, to the largest crowd at a college football game this season.
It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't even that much fun, for most of the night, but it was a football game that Penn State had a chance to win, despite the sanctions, despite the officiating, despite the injuries, despite the offensive line, despite John Donovan--despite everything, and that's almost magical in and of itself. And even in a loss, it reaffirmed our pride in this team more than any other game this season has. We all expected a blowout. We got a heartbreaker. And somehow, it was worse and better all at the same time.
The story of the first half was a screwjob, yet another from the same crew that stole a win from Penn State in Lincoln, Nebraska, two years ago. The story of the second was redemption--and yes, sometimes, that goes unfulfilled. But Penn State's defense proved that they belong on the biggest stage college football has to offer, and 63-14 became a distant memory and all of our worst fears were assuaged. This still isn't a very good football team--it's one that will struggle to become bowl eligible, needing hardly-assured wins over the likes of Temple and Illinois to secure a birth in whatever the hell the city of Detroit is calling their consolation prize these days. But it's a football team that means something and knows it, a football team with two of the best defensive players in the country, a football team that proved, tonight, that they can dig down deep and make believers of us all. It's a team that walked off tonight to a standing ovation, despite the loss, a well-deserved one.
Ohio State's offense has hung half a hundred on the last four opponents they've played. Against a Penn State defense with walk-ons and true freshman all over the two-deep, they could barely muster a first down in the second half. Take away the referee-aided scores, and the Buckeyes gave up as many points as they managed, in regulation. What Bob Shoop has done with that group is nothing short of miraculous--though it helps when you've got Mike Hull and Anthony Zettel, and a resurgent Deion Barnes, and maybe even Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell, and Jordan Lucas and Marcus Allen, filling in for a banged-up Ryan Keiser and making a bid to keep the job when the senior's all healed.
And Penn State's offense, so maligned--and not unjustifiably so--put together big plays and lengthy drives when they needed them most, even when an offensive line held together with popsicle sticks and duct tape lost its only impact player. We worried that Christian Hackenberg might not make it out alive--he was beat up and knocked around, but walked away unscathed and, despite the burgeoning PTSD, showed glimpses of the quarterback we all thought he might be. And oh, the freshmen: Saeed Blacknall's touchdown catch was a thing of beauty, and DaeSean Hamilton set a new Penn State record for receptions. And Akeel Lynch might be a junior, but the criminally underused running back made his case to usurp Belton as this team's lead rusher. No Penn State wasn't good offensively--hell, they were downright bad--but at least in spurts, they weren't the so throroughly unmitigated disaster that we feared, even against the dominant Buckeye defensive front.
There will be time, still, to gripe: about the hideous officiating that may have cost Penn State this game, about some playcalls, about the punting, about Penn State's clock management--a spike coming out of a clock stoppage, for instance, cost Penn State one more shot at a touchdown at the end of regulation. But for Penn State to take Ohio State to the brink like they did tonight is as much of a surprise as it is a relief and a promise that yes, these are dark days, but they will be brighter, and soon. And even in a loss, sometimes, we can find a silver lining.
Penn State gave Ohio State everything they had, and all the Buckeyes could handle, and that's with 45 scholarship players. Just imagine the future.
I, for one, can't wait.