The Buckeyes finally experienced that helpless perspective for themselves Saturday. Penn State, aided by Buckeye turnovers and sparked by the hard-nosed play of its backup quarterback, turned a three-touchdown deficit into a four-point threat in a four-minute span of the third quarter.
For the first time, Ohio State entered the fourth quarter with its undefeated season and perhaps its claim to the Big Ten East Division championship in peril. A team with championship aspirations needed a championship response.
It came, from names one would certainly expect and a few you would not. The Buckeyes held on for a 28-17 victory to secure its third straight trip to the Big Ten championship game.
Ohio State, despite never facing precarious moments beyond the opening minutes of the third quarter, remained confident in its ability to handle that challenge if and when it came. The Buckeyes proved themselves correct Saturday — though only after contributing directly to Penn State’s ability to knock them off for the second time in four years.
Ohio State led 21-0 after Justin Fields’ 24-yard touchdown pass to Chris Olave capped a 10-play, 75-yard drive to open the second half. To that point, the score did not reflect how completely the Buckeyes had dominated the game. Ohio State led 330-64 on yards and 21-4 on first downs.
A Fields fumble right before the quarterback crossed the goal line late in the first quarter cost the Buckeyes a touchdown and skewed the halftime score. It also hinted at more adversity to come.
Penn State finally broke through for a 75-yard touchdown drive to make it 21-7. Starting quarterback Sean Clifford left with an injury four plays into the drive. His replacement, Will Levis, grinded out a 10-yard run on third-and-4 to extend the drive.
On the first play of OSU’s responding series, J.K. Dobbins lost a fumble, and Penn State recovered at the 12. Two plays later, Levis plunged in from 1 yard out to make it 21-14.
On the third play of the next Buckeye possession, Fields fumbled, and Penn State recovered at the OSU 35. Ohio State’s defense stiffened, but Jake Pinegar’s 42-yard field goal cut the lead to 21-17 with 4:22 left in the third quarter.
When Ohio Sate’s next drive fizzled at midfield, it became clear the Buckeyes needed another statement from their defense. It came on the first snap, with Chase Young — in his first game back from a two-game suspension — nearly took Levis down in the end zone for a safety. Young’s heir apparent as OSU’s next star defensive end, Zach Harrison, forced a punt with his third-down tackle.
Earlier in the game, Young broke OSU’s single-season sack record. His energetic, physical presence affected Saturday’s game as much as many predicted. The junior defensive end collected nine tackles, three sacks, four tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.
A championship moment requires offensive playmakers, too. On second and 8, Fields lofted a pass for the corner of the end zone for Chris Olave, who elevated and made a twisting catch for a 28-yard touchdown and a 28-17 lead.
Penn State appeared it might be up for the challenge, with Levis driving the Nittany Lions near the red zone. But Justin Hilliard — an oft-injured Buckeye who did not go through senior day festivities because he hopes to pursue a waiver for a sixth year of eligibility — intercepted Levis inside the 20.
Perhaps championship moments also require unexpected heroes to emerge, especially when the biggest stars falter.
Ohio State now knows how fragile a lead can be, even one built on such a dominant performance over the game’s first 35 minutes. Saturday’s sloppiness nearly capsized what has at times looked like an unstoppable drive to an undefeated regular season.
It also knows it can trust both stars and role players with its back against the wall.
What it means
Ohio State does not need to win at Michigan to reach the Big Ten championship game. Saturday’s victory over the No. 9 team in the College Football Playoff rankings also bolsters the Buckeyes’ playoff resume. The argument between OSU and LSU for the No. 1 spot will intensify.
Ohio State travels to Michigan on Saturday with a chance to complete an undefeated regular season and extend its winning streak over its bitter rivals to eight.