It was the game of the week in the Big Ten and in the larger landscape of college football. It may have lost a bit of its luster nationally after the Nittany Lions lost their season opener, but the huge matchup between No. 3 Ohio State and No. 18 Penn State was still a contest with massive implications in the B1G East.
As is usually the case when these two teams take the field, even with the Buckeyes dominating for much of the night, the game was never truly put away until the final whistle. Penn State hung around, but could not get on top, as Ohio State walked out of Happy Valley with a huge 38-25 victory in perhaps what will be their toughest game of the year.
Justin Fields looked very much like the Heisman Trophy contender everyone expects him to be, finishing the night 28-of-34 passing with 318 yards passing and four touchdowns. The run game was much improved this time around, as Master League led the way with 110 yards rushing and a TD.
Setting the tone on the ground
Ohio State’s run game was nothing to write home about last weekend against Nebraska. Splitting time series by series, Trey Sermon finished the afternoon with 11 carries for 48 yards, while Master Teague carried the rock 12 times for 41 yards. Justin Fields was actually the Buckeyes’ best ball-carrier, leading the team with 54 yards on 15 carries. Those kinds of numbers are okay, but probably won’t get it done against elite competition.
Looking to get the ground game going early, Ryan Day went a little deeper into the play book to kick things off, as Garrett Wilson took an end around for 62 yards on the very first play of the game. Two runs by Teague later, and Ohio State was in the end zone. For the second straight year, the Buckeyes scored on their first drive of the game against Penn State without putting the ball in the air.
Teague was the leader on the night with his 110 yards toting the rock, while Trey Sermon finished with 13 carries for 56 yards. Fields, somewhat surprisingly, had just a single designed run the whole game, which came on the goal line for no yardage.
One of the storylines throughout this week was whether or not Ohio State would have star wide receiver Chris Olave available on Saturday night. In the opener against the Cornhuskers, Olave took a big shot after hauling in a pass, and would leave the game with an apparent concussion. His status was not clear for most of the week, as Day did not want to give Penn State any clear indication whether or not Olave would suit up against the Nits.
Well, suit up he did, and right out of the gate was making spectacular plays for the Buckeyes. After James Franklin elected to go for it on 4th-and-2 and was stopped short, OSU began their next drive with a short field. Following a pair of first down pickups, Fields threw an absolute seed to Olave in the corner of the end zone, and the sure-handed receiver hauled it in over the head of the defender and kept the feet in bounds for a 26-yard TD to put Ohio State up 14-0 quickly.
Olave was spectacular all night, catching seven passes for 120 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Wilson and Olave were once again Fields’ favorite targets, with the dynamic duo combining for 18 receptions. It was the first time in school history that two OSU receivers each had over 100 yards in two consecutive games, with Wilson hauling in 11 catches for 111 yards.
A near-perfect first half — well, sorta
After the way Nebraska started in the opener, Ohio State knew it was important to get out to a fast start against a much more talented team in Penn State. The Buckeyes trailed 7-0 early in that one, and were tied 14-14 early in the second quarter. They could not afford that kind of start against the Nittany Lions, as we have seen what happens when you let these guys hang around longer than they should.
Ryan Day made sure that did not happen in Happy Valley, After Ohio State’s three-play, 75-yard drive for a TD to open things up, the Bucks got the ball right back with a short field after stuffing PSU on fourth down. Five plays and 45 yards later, OSU was in the end zone yet again. The Nits picked up a field goal thanks to a terrible roughing the passer call, but a few drives later it was Fields to Jeremy Ruckert in the end zone, and just like that Ohio State took a 21-3 lead into halftime... or so we thought.
Apparently, Fields took a knee before the clock hit triple zeros (another very questionable call as it looked like the clock didn’t start when the ball was snapped), and Penn State wound up getting a free field goal out of it, with the score showing 21-6 at the break — for real this time.
Still, Ohio State out-gained Penn State 280-75 in the first 30 minutes. Justin Fields went 15-of-18 passing with 147 yards and a pair of TDs, while Garrett Wilson had four catches for 40 yards and the long 62-yard rush on the end around.
Second half adjustments
Penn State came out of the locker room with a vengeance. After Sean Clifford completed just two passes in the first half, the Nittany Lions decided it was time to break out the forward pass. Through some quick strikes over the middle, PSU was able to work the ball quickly down the field. In the end, he beat Sevyn Banks over the middle on a slant to Jahan Dotson for the TD, and the eight-play, 75-yard drive resulted in seven points.
Justin Fields, not one to be shown up, answered back quickly. Not allowing the Nits to seize momentum to any extended period of time, the Bucks picked up a pair of first downs on some short out routes to Wilson, and then came the big hitter. Picking on a backup corner that had just entered the game, Fields hit Chris Olave over the top for a huge 49-yard TD to put OSU back up two scores, 28-13.
Kerry Coombs and Greg Mattison were able to adjust the defense on Penn State’s second drive of the half, and the Nittany Linos had to punt it right back.
Red zone struggles (if we wanna be picky)
If we’re going to nitpick this performance by the Buckeyes — because let’s be honest, we are all perfectionists — Ohio State did struggle a bit in the red zone. Not to bring up bad memories here, but a big reason the Buckeyes could not seal the deal against Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl at the end of last season was because they couldn’t capitalize in the red zone. It wasn’t close to as bad tonight, but there were definitely points left off the board.
Ohio State got points on four out of their six red zone appearances, but one of those was a field goal and the two failures were missed short field goals. While without watching the game you’ll likely take 4-of-6 against a team like Penn State, it was more an issue of play-calling and making it harder than it had to be. The Buckeyes got away from the run game near the goal line, and it seemed like there was a reluctance to run Fields against the Nits. They still got the job done, but it’s just something to keep an eye on moving forward.
Significant improvements in the run defense
A lot of people — myself included — were a little weary of the run defense after the season opener. Ohio State let up a ton of yards on the ground to Nebraska, with the Cornhuskers picking up a whopping 210 yards rushing. A big chunk of this was in the read-option against Adrian Martinez, which was a bit of an issue considering that is a large part of Penn State’s offense. Could the Buckeyes make the necessary fixes to slow down that part of the game against the Nits?
The answer is a resounding yes. The Silver Bullets were phenomenal against the run on Saturday, never letting the backs get anything going and keeping Clifford contained the majority of the night. Credit where credit is due, Tuf Borland — who we are usually pretty hard on — was really good against Penn State, as were the rest of the linebackers and the entirety of the defensive line. In just two games, Ohio State looks like they've corrected a bunch of the issues that plagued them in the opener — at least in that area.
Clifford finished the game with a lowly 17 rushing yards on 11 carries, while Penn State’s leading running. back Devyn Ford mustered only 36 yards on eight touches.