Going into Week 5's biggest showdown, we knew the Big Ten would come out of Saturday with just one undefeated team.
And in spectacular fashion, with the last-minute, heart-in-your-throat type of football this game has been known for in recent years, that team was Ohio State, 27–26. With a fourth-quarter defensive stand, the Buckeyes held off Penn State’s attempt at a game-winning drive, and with 1:16 to go in the game, the night’s story shifted. It had been Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley’s moment—but with the game on the line and one final chance to get into field goal range, his team looked elsewhere. On fourth down, the senior handed the ball off to Miles Sanders on Ohio State’s 43-yard line, and the Buckeyes defensive line stuffed him for a loss of two yards, and that was that.
Penn State’s playoff hopes took a potentially fatal blow. Meanwhile, Ohio State is 5–0 with two wins over ranked teams and barely a threat on its schedule until mid-November. Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes, in spite of their coach’s three-game suspension to open the season, haven’t missed a beat, and they look to be on a collision course with the College Football Playoff.
Still, it’s a tricky path. For the past two seasons, since Penn State reemerged as a contender in 2016, this matchup has decided the Big Ten West—although its winner has never earned a playoff bid that same season. Two years ago, the Nittany Lions scored 17 unanswered fourth-quarter points to win, 24–21, eventually winning the Big Ten championship game but getting left out of the Final Four. Last year, Ohio State outscored Penn State 19–3 in the game’s final quarter to pull ahead to a 39–38 victory, but it met the same fate as the previous year’s Nittany Lions, even after defeating Wisconsin handily in the conference championship game.
Ohio State has to hope this year is different; and with the talent on its roster, it should be. Sure, sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins is still settling in, and still sometimes looks the part of the fresh-faced newcomer. Going into Ohio State’s final drive of the night, Haskins had passed for 197 yards—solid work, but it paled in comparison to McSorley’s night. (The Penn State quarterback would finish the loss with 286 yards in the air, another 175 on the ground and two touchdowns.) But with 4:34 remaining in the fourth quarter and his team down, 26–21, Haskins got the ball back for one final stab at a comeback.
What came next was a deliberate dismantling of Penn State’s defense, which struggled all game against a barrage of Buckeyes screen passes. Over the course of two-and-a-half minutes, Haskins drove, racking up another 73 yards in the air and eventually dishing the ball on a short pass to K.J. Hill, who ran it in for a 24-yard touchdown to put the Buckeyes ahead, 27–26. Ohio State’s two-point conversion attempt would fail, but ultimately, it mattered not at all, and in the course of that one drive, Haskins stole the spotlight.
It was hardly the perfect game for the Buckeyes, who looked sloppy at times on both sides of the ball, but even without standout defensive lineman Nick Bosa, they had enough talent to overcome. A crucial second-quarter turnover also loomed large in retrospect; on the first play of a Penn State drive, Sanders fumbled, and Buckeyes defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones recovered the ball on Penn State’s 25-yard line. From there, it took two J.K. Dobbins runs to finally put Ohio State on the scoreboard, which shifted the night's momentum in a big way. Penn State had looked poised to enter halftime with a shutout, but instead, the Buckeyes were within a touchdown—which they tallied promptly in the third quarter, and from that point on, it was anyone’s game.
Anyone who thought a lead in this one might be secure had too short of a memory. For the third straight year, the team leading this matchup going into the fourth quarter has lost, and for the second consecutive season, that loss has come by the margin of a single point. Penn State will cling to that tiny difference as it plays its way through the season and hopes for a miracle in the standings—and credit in the eyes of the playoff committee. Still, in his postgame press conference, an unusually emotional (and typically intense) James Franklin was candid about his assessment of his program: It’s great, and it’s comfortable being great, but it’s not yet elite. His team, he said, would “scratch and claw and fight” its way to the next level.
And Franklin has a point: In the past two seasons and change, his team has proven it can play with college football’s best. But playing with elite teams, grabbing an upset against Ohio State in 2016 and falling short the next two seasons, isn’t the same as counting itself among them. So Franklin will go to work, and for now, at least, the Big Ten hierarchy appears unchanged. Until further notice, it’s Ohio State’s conference to dominate.