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A Valiant Effort Comes Just Short

Hey, What Happened?

Penn State Nittany Lions running back John Lovett (10) is tackled by Ohio State Buckeyes defensive tackle Ty Hamilton (58) during Saturday’s NCAA Division I football game at Ohio Stadium in Columbus on October 30, 2021.  Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

In Penn State’s 9 seasons under James Franklin’s leadership, Penn State had lost more than two games in a row twice. The first two came in 2014 and 2015, as the Nittany Lions were in the middle of the sanctions levied because you know. The third would have to wait all the way until 2020, when the Lions started the season 0-5. In 2021, the fourth time Penn State has gone on a losing streak of three or more, one could argue is the most gut punching of them all.

In the span of a month, the Nittany Lions went from an undefeated, top five squad that controlled its own destiny, to a possibly unranked, injury-riddled squad that is looking to salvage what’s left of its season. As it’s always the case with football, and has been especially the case with Penn State, if you were to change a single play in this entire game, the conversation is entirely different:

Take two more steps before falling down at Iowa.

Catch one of the easiest interceptions of your career against Illinois.

Avoid going out of bounds against Ohio State.

Yet, that’s not what happened. These three singular things that kept Penn State from winning were what happened instead, and the Nittany Lions are, even if not mathematically, out of contention for a Big Ten championship.

What they did show on Saturday, however, is that they won’t go down without a fight. These Lions have shown time and time again that no matter what happens, they’re going to give it everything they got, and in a game where everyone expected a blowout of epic proportions, Penn State put itself in position to win, and damn near pulled it off too!

First Quarter

Penn State came ready to play right from the start. On Ohio State’s first drive, the Nittany Lions forced a fumble to give the ball to the offense right around midfield. Unfortunately, the offense returned the favor on the very next play, and the Buckeyes would take the ball back one yard closer than they gave it away.

The Penn State defense would hold on, and force a punt. The Lions would on one the first of three lengthy drives that would result in touchdowns, this one a 13-play, 89-yard drive that took about four minutes of game time. Starting from the PSU 11, the Lions attempted to establish some semblance of a running game in the first few plays. Eventually the lack of consistency in the running game reared its ugly head, and Clifford was forced to pass to keep the drive going.

Ohio State would respond with a field goal, and the game remained at this score for much of the first half, when things started to break in the other direction.

Second Quarter

The Nittany Lions had done a good job of keeping the big play away from Ohio State for most of the first half, but, with about four minutes left in the game, C.J. Stroud finally found Chris Olave for a 38-yard touchdown that would finally put the Buckeyes ahead. Not long after, an unfortunate fumble by Sean Clifford would lead to another touchdown for the Buckeyes, and what was a 7-3 advantage for the Lions quickly turned into a 17-7 deficit, and it would be what proved to be the first difference maker in the game.

The Lions would march down the field and score a field goal to close the deficit to seven at the half.

Third Quarter

Penn State received the ball in the third quarter, and immediately worked on their second long drive of the night, another touchdown drive that tied the game at 17. Unfortunately, Ohio State simply kept the Lions at arms length the rest of the way, extending the lead to 3, then 10, on two quick drives where big plays were plentiful. The Penn State defense had held on for dear life all night long, but they weren’t able to contain Ohio State’s litany of playmakers, nor should they have been expected to.

That said, Penn State had another touchdown in them. The Lions would on on their third long drive and would score with about 30 seconds left in the third quarter, to close the game back to three.

Fourth Quarter

As the game closed down, the wear and tear started to show on the defense, as they allowed Treveyon Henderson to get somewhat of a running game going. A 19-yard rushing in the first half turned into a 161 outburst at the end of the game, and most of the yards came in the fourth quarter, when the lions were tired. This proved to be the second difference maker, as the Lions, even though they held the Buckeyes to field goals (and once turned them over on downs), simply didn’t have enough possessions to make up the difference.

In one possession, a promising looking one, Clifford got hit as he sailed the ball away, only to land in the hand of an Ohio State defender. In another possession, a touchdown catch by John Lovett was called back due to Lovett stepping out of bounds, allegedly unforced, which resulted in a penalty and loss of down instead. The last promising possession turned into a field goal attempt to get the game back into one possession, and possibly onside kick territory, only to have Jordan Stout miss the kick and seal the game.

Stats and Storylines

2 - Illegal touching penalties called against Penn State in the game. One was pretty clear, the other, well, let’s see what the Ohio State defender had to say.

11-16 - Penn State’s third down efficiency in this game. This is by far the best of the season. Meanwhile, the Lion defense held Ohio State to 5 of 14 on third down.

161 - The only statistic that wasn’t at least even in Penn State’s direction was rushing. The Nittany Lions had 33 yards on 29 attempts, while the Buckeyes amassed 161 yards on 34 attempts. 68 of them came on one play, but that's still almost 70 more yards than the Lions gained, even if you take out that play.

3-1 - Turnover differential. Two of Penn State’s three turnovers led to Ohio State points.

0 - Sacks by the Penn State defense. The goal was clear from the start on the Ohio State side. Beat Clifford up as much as they could, so much so that a few late hit penalties were called. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions were unable to get to the quarterback, even if they put a ton of pressure on him.