Leading up to Saturday night's game in Columbus, I expected the type of game where the score made it feel much closer than it really was. What we got, at least to me, was a blowout that felt much closer. Sure, the final score of 38-10 will impress the pollsters, and probably the playoff committee, but Penn State was not 28 points worse than their hosts.
The game started off well enough for the Nittany Lions, forcing a three and out, and going right down the field for a Joey Julius 33 yard field goal. The drive was fueled by a 45 yard catch and run on a Christian Hackenberg to Chris Godwin slant. The defense remained strong, forcing two more Ohio State punts, and consistently getting pressure on Buckeye QB Cardale Jones. However, in what became a running theme, OSU was able to pin the Lions back inside their own 10.
Three Saquon Barkley runs, a pass interference, and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty later, the Lions found themselves at midfield, and driving. Following what seemed to be a drive killing drop by tight end Mike Gesicki, Barkley took a 3rd down hand off around the right edge, and down the sideline, apparently putting the Lions up by two scores, only to have the air sucked out of the balloon by a Brian Gaia holding call. Hackenberg was sacked by Joey Bosa on the following play, the Chris Gula punt sailed only 28 yards before going out of bounds at the Ohio State 30, and any momentum Penn State had generated was firmly on the opposite sideline.
A combination of Jones, Braxton Miller, and J.T. Barrett marched the Buckeyes 70 yards in just 3:56 to for the first six of what would be 21 straight points to close the half. After taking a 14-3 lead, the Lions did put together a drive down to the OSU 31, but rather than attempt the 48 yard field goal, Franklin elected to go for it on 4th and 8, resulting in another sack. Six plays and 66 yards yards later, it was 21-3.
At halftime, you could not help but feel the game was on the brink of getting completely out of hand. Instead, the Lions came out of the locker room, and three plays later, made it a two score game. On the third quarter's first play, Hackenberg hit Godwin again, this time for 56 yards. Barkley took the ensuing playing for 14 yards down to the Ohio State 8, before Hackenberg found DaeSean Hamilton for an 8 yard catch and run score.
After two punts by each team, and Penn State again beginning drives inside their own 10, the Buckeyes put together their first scoring drive of the second half, but Bob Shoop's defense was able to force a field goal, and keep the game at just two scores.
PSU responded by driving down to the Ohio State 13, again keyed by Barkley. After stalling at the OSU 13, the Lions again would go for it on fourth down, needing a touchdown to stay in the game with time winding down. Hackenberg was almost immediately pressured, and despite having a wide open Barkley (which Franklin said was the 4th option on the play), was unable to get the ball out before being brought down by former PSU commit Tommy Schutt.
Ohio State took over, and put the nail in the coffin with an emphatic eight play, 85 yard drive to make it 31-10. The final margin came after a Hackenberg fumble deep in PSU territory.
Three Completely Unrelated, Probably Useless Thoughts
1. I wrote earlier this week that every single pass play has become a referendum on Chrisitan Hackenberg. That was no more apparent on a night where he only attempted 12 passes, and only dropped back 19 times. No, the junior signal caller was not perfect, but the amount of arm chair quarterbacking on PSU's quarterback continues. Without going back through the tape, Hackenberg felt pressure almost immediately on every throw. It is easy to say sitting in front of the TV that you need to get rid of the ball, or find the outlet receiver. Can he do things better? Of course, but the amount of blame being laid at his feet is downright ridiculous.
2. Early in the week, I was discussing the game with a good friend. He told me something that has stuck with me since the end of the game. Penn State needed an A+ performance to beat Ohio State, while the Buckeyes only would need about a C. OSU got their C, maybe a B-, but Penn State was not much above a C+, at best. At this point, the Lions need to play a damn near perfect game to play with the nation's best. The margin for error (holding calls, dropped passes, missed receivers) is so small, that they simply cannot afford to miss chances for points. Meanwhile, Ohio State was able to spend over a quarter plodding along, with an ineffective quarterback, and then run off 21 unanswered to take control. Yes, PSU deserves some credit for OSU's early struggles, but Penn State just is not good enough, yet, to let the best team in the country hang around.
3. It is coach speak to say the next game is the most important of the year, but next Saturday in Baltimore feels like it will determine where Penn State goes over the final month and a half of the season. Maryland is reeling, with a new coach, and playing for their season. Seeing a healthy Akeel Lynch and Saquon Barkley has set me a little more at ease, but at the risk of repeating myself for the umpteenth time, this is a young team, and young teams are terribly unpredictable.
BONUS THOUGHT: If Saturday night did not show the importance of punting and field position, I am not sure what will. Ohio State was able to consistently flip the field, and pin the Lions deep, while Penn State averaged just over 35 yards per punt. There are plenty of ways you should not help out the defending champs, but short fields are at the top of that long list.