Coming into a top-10 showdown against No. 8 Penn State on Saturday, the second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes had checked nearly every box necessary en route to staking their claim as one of the elite teams in the country.
How Ohio State would handle true adversity — the one looming question mark for the Buckeyes — was answered as they overcame a mistake-marred performance to defeat the Nittany Lions, 28-17, to move to 11-0 on the season.
Quarterback Justin Fields and running back J.K. Dobbins combined for 279 yards rushing and two touchdowns to lead Ohio State, and a defense who received a major boost with the return of superstar defensive end Chase Young held Penn State to just 227 yards of total offense.
Young finished with nine tackles, four of which were for loss, and three sacks to give him Ohio State’s single-season sack record at 16.5.
Ohio State started fast after forcing a punt by Penn State on the opening possession of the game. Taking over at their own 9-yard line, Fields and Dobbins combined for 11 rushes and 87 yards to move the ball to the Penn State 4-yard line.
Dobbins’ eighth carry of the drive resulted in a four-yard touchdown run to cap off a 13-play, 91-yard drive and give Ohio State the early 7-0 lead.
Following a three-and-out by Penn State on the ensuing possession, Ohio State was back in business, beginning their second drive near midfield.
Six plays later, the Buckeyes were again knocking on the door. But on second down, Penn State’s Lamont Wade jarred the bar loose as Fields dived forward into the end zone, resulting in a fumble and thwarting the Ohio State scoring opportunity.
Penn State was unable to cash in on the turnover, however, and Ohio State was once again on the move following the punt.
A 16-yard throw and catch from Fields to Chris Olave had Ohio State at the Penn State 36-yard line. A holding penalty on tackle Thayer Munford led to a stalled drive, however, and the Buckeye lead remained at 7-0.
Ohio State was finally able to increase their lead with two minutes left in the first half when Dobbins scored his second touchdown to up the Buckeye lead to 14-0.
The score remained at 14-0 as the two teams went into the locker room after a half Ohio State dominated statistically, despite having just a two-score lead.
Penn State was held to just four first downs and 64 yards of total offense, while Ohio State racked up 255 yards and 16 first downs through the opening two quarters.
With the game still very much in the balance as the second half kicked off, territory in which Ohio State hadn’t been too familiar with this season, the Buckeyes delivered what appeared to be a knock out blow on the opening possession of the third quarter.
Fields connected with K.J. Hill on a 24-yard strike to increase Ohio State’s lead to 21-0 just under four minutes into the second half.
The Buckeyes were rolling once again and had full control of the game before momentum turned suddenly —and drastically —towards the Penn State sideline.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford fumbled a snap near midfield, picked it up, and found tight end Nick Bowers for a 12-yard completion to the Ohio State 43-yard line. Clifford was injured the play, however, and redshirt freshman Will Levis was unexpectedly thrust into the biggest moment of his football career.
Seven plays later, Penn State running back Journey Brown was rumbling into the end zone from 18 yards out to cut the Ohio State lead to 21-7.
Disaster struck on the ensuing drive as Penn State’s Micah Parsons forced a Dobbins fumble, recovered by Wade on the Ohio State 12-yard line, on the first play of the drive. Levis scored two plays later on a 1-yard touchdown run and, all of the sudden, Ohio State’s lead had dwindled to just seven points.
The Buckeyes weren’t done stubbing their toes as, on the very next possession, Fields fumbled for the second time on the day, giving Penn State the ball at the Ohio State 35-yard line with 7:04 to play in the third quarter.
Penn State would add a field goal on the turnover as Jake Pinegar connected on a 42-yard attempt to bring the Nittany Lions to within four points at 21-17 early in the fourth quarter.
Both teams traded punts on the next two drives before the Ohio State offense took over at the Penn State 44-yard line with 14:53 remaining in the game.
In desperate need of points, and with every ounce of momentum residing with Penn State, Fields and the Buckeye offense came up with the biggest plays of the season to date.
Following a string of four straight runs, Fields heaved a pass deep towards Olave in the corner end zone. Olave, as he has developed a knack of doing, went up to make a spectacular catch over a Penn State defender for a 28-yard touchdown as Ohio Stadium breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Now leading 28-17, the Ohio State defense was called upon to make a play of their own, and fifth-year senior linebacker Justin Hilliard delivered.
With Penn State driving deep into Ohio State territory and the clock nearing the 10-minute mark, Hilliard intercepted Levis at the 27-yard line to turn away potential points for the Nittany Lions and give the ball back to his offense.
Penn State would not threaten again as Ohio State salted away the remaining minutes of the fourth quarter to clinch their third consecutive Big Ten East division championship and trip to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Following the game, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said of his team’s resilience, which had rarely been tested previously, “That was the first time we really were taking shots there, 14 straight points, and I’m not proud of that because we literally gave it to them. We handed them the ball. And we’re going to get that fixed. But to see the response of everybody involved, see the guys make some big plays, the big catch by Olave on offense. And to see the defense impose their will, it was unbelievable to see their response.”
He went on to say, “To win a game like that that was not clean shows the toughness that we have, because you walk out of that game thinking, ‘oh, we probably could have won a lot bigger than that.’
“But Penn State’s a great team. They did a really good job. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to take care of the ball. And I said it to one of the coaches, maybe it’s been a little too easy at times. This was hard today. We learned some lessons and hopefully, we can go from there.”
Ohio State will look to finish off their perfect regular season when they travel to Ann Arbor, Michigan next Saturday to take on the Michigan Wolverines in the 119th rendition of “The Game.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.