Save for an epic collapse, or the game of J.T. Barrett’s life, Penn State may well have been in the college football playoff in the 2017-18 season.
In this installment of our ongoing series, we look back at the Nittany Lions’ titanic clash with the Buckeyes and examine what exactly went wrong.
Penn State entered the contest at 7-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation, while the Buckeyes found themselves at No. 6 with a 6-1 record following an early season loss to the Baker Mayfield-led Oklahoma Sooners.
The game started as well as Penn State could’ve possibly hoped for, as Saquon Barkley received the open kickoff and returned it 97 yards for a touchdown, silencing a full house at the horseshoe.
After an early turnover forced by the Penn State defense, Trace McSorley found Daesean Hamilton in the corner of the end zone to double the lead less than four minutes into the game.
The Buckeyes steadied the ship a bit on the ensuing possession, marching down the field before being held to a field goal to make it 14-3. But the lethal Penn State offense wasn’t done yet.
Early in the second quarter, the Nittany Lions capped an 81-yard drive with an electric touchdown run by Barkley that covered 36 yards. That touchdown brought the score to 21-3 and a stunned silence hung throughout the Ohio Stadium crowd.
Then the Ohio State offense came to life a bit, driving down the field in under two minutes and finding the end zone on a strike from Barrett to Terry McLaurin from 14 yards out. Yet again, however, Penn State had an answer, and a quick one at that. The Nittany Lions rolled down the field following a long kick return from Koa Farmer and on first and goal from the 6-yard line, McSorley sprinted right and found the pylon to extend the lead back to 28-10 with 8:06 left in the half.
Mike Weber Jr. cut the lead to 28-17 at the break and Ohio State was right back in the thick of things after a field goal on the first possession after the break.
Then things began to get a little bit funky.
On Penn State’s first possession of the half, McSorley lofted a ball into the end zone from 37 yards out. The ball somehow found its way into the hands of both DeAndre Thompkins and Ohio State’s Denzel Ward and was initially ruled an interception for the Buckeyes and a touchback. Upon review, however, referees determined that possession of the ball was simultaneous and that the rules dictated that it be ruled a catch, and therefore a touchdown. This made the score 35-20 and swung momentum back into the favor of the Nittany Lions.
Penn State appeared as if it would seal in the game early in the fourth quarter. Following another Buckeyes turnover, the Nittany Lions had first and 10 at the Ohio State 43-yard line and all signs pointed to them going for the jugular. But instead, Penn State decided to play it conservatively and run the ball and without the services of starting tackle Ryan Bates following a mid-game injury, failed to move the ball, losing a yard in the process.
Ohio State took full advantage, blocking the Blake Gillikin punt attempt and taking the ball back at the PSU 41-yard line down 35-20 with 11:39 to play. Two plays later Barrett found Johnnie Dixon from 38 yards out to cut the lead to 35-27.
The Nittany Lions didn’t lie down, however, getting a field goal of their own in response. But once Barrett kept the train rolling. Ohio State cut the score to 38-33 with 4:20 to play as Dixon once again found the end zone, though a failed two-point conversion loomed large.
Penn State, however, was spent and showed as much on the next drive, going three-and-out. The Buckeyes gladly took advantage, marching down the field without much resistance and when Barrett found a wide-open Marcus Baugh with just under two minutes remaining, they had their first lead of the game at 39-38.
There was hope left yet for the Nittany Lions, needing just a field goal to with 1:48 and three timeouts remaining, but the offense fell flat, turning the ball over on downs without picking up a first down and effectively ending the ball game.
In the following game, Penn State came out flat and lost to a lowly Michigan State team, ending any dreams of a national title run.