COLUMBUS — The rest of Ryan Day’s Saturday night includes driving down state route 315 with his windows down blaring music as loud as he can. The song of choice will be “Ballin” by Mustard, ft. Roddy Rich, which is also Ohio State’s celebratory locker room jam.
Then, once he gets home, he’ll plop down on the couch with his family and soak in what just happened.
No. 2 Ohio State booked a trip to the Big Ten championship in Day’s first year as head coach with a 28–17 win over No. 8 Penn State. This was despite three costly fumbles, and nearly blowing it when the Nittany Lions narrowed a 21-0 deficit to 21-17 in the third quarter. It was an odd and unusual feeling for this Buckeyes team to find themselves in a contested matchup. They’ve beaten opponents by an average of 41.7 points a game this season, after all. Ultimately, Day’s team proved to be more balanced and talented, and they won the game.
“I think you have their attention now,” Day said of his players. “I know that sounds crazy 11 weeks into the season, but I think you do. When you say things to somebody for months at a time and you beat teams by 30 and 40 points, they kind of look at you like, ‘Yeah, I gotcha Coach, we’re good.
“Now, we’re into November, and I think they can look at you say, ‘O.K. Coach, gotcha.’ And it’s very unique that we be this far into the season before something like that would happen, but it’s true.”
The Buckeyes went right at Penn State’s physical run defense, ranked fourth in the country (limiting teams to 2.2 yards per rush), from the opening series with a 91-yard touchdown drive that included 13 plays of 12 runs and one pass. By halftime, Ohio State had a total yardage margin advantage of 255-64, then it was 330-64 after Ohio State went up 21-0, and then 417-227 by the end. Star quarterback Justin Fields and running back J.K. Dobbins combined for 57 carries for 225 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Fields’ 21 touches and Dobbins’ 36 were both career highs.
But points were left on the field. At the end of the first quarter, Penn State star Lamont Wade—who had 10 tackles, a sack and forced three fumbles—forced Fields to cough the ball up at the goal line. Dobbins and Fields both fumbled in the third quarter, at their own 12- and 35-yard lines respectively, which led to 14 points the Nittany Lions’ way. While this was supposed to be an exclamation point on the regular season before facing rival Michigan next week, and while it could have also been a style points opportunity to impress the selection committee ahead of next week’s College Football Playoff rankings, the Buckeyes instead made too many careless errors that placed them in their first close game of the year.
This slugfest was probably good for a team that’s had it fairly easy, however. And it might prove pivotal in their quest for a national championship.
“To win a game like that that was not clean shows the toughness that we have,” Day said. “Because you walk out of that game thinking, ‘Oh, we probably could have won a lot bigger than that.’”
While this would have sounded crazy as a pregame storyline, the game took a stunning turn when Penn State’s starting quarterback Sean Clifford was knocked out early in the third quarter by a helmet-to-helmet hit. His backup, Will Levis, quickly went from unknown redshirt freshman to near hero in a matter of a quarter. Levis immediately took Penn State on its first scoring drive of the game and brought his team within 21-17, due in part to those back-to-back Dobbins and Fields fumbles.
Things eventually got a little less stressful for Ohio State, except for the brief nerve-wracking moment with 2:17 left when Fields took a hit and stayed down on the ground for a few minutes. After a quick evaluation by team trainers, he jogged off the field and all of Ohio Stadium could breathe again.
“He’s a warrior,” Day said. “I’m telling you, he’s tough. He ran the ball today. He extended plays on third down. Heart of a lion. I love that kid. He’s tough.”
In addition to his eye-popping rushing numbers, Fields completed 16-of-22 passes for 188 yards with two touchdowns and converted a clutch fourth-and-5 when he ran for 22 yards to extend an eventual touchdown drive.
Now a word on the Buckeyes’ defense, which is ranked No. 1 nationally in nearly every statistical category, including scoring defense (9.8 points per game) and yards given up per play (3.5). It’s also ranked No. 3 in third-down conversion percentage defense and takeaways. First-year coordinator Jeff Hafley’s unit lived up to its billing by holding the Nittany Lions to a season-low in total yards (227, 64 in the first half) and yards per play (3.5). Penn State also amassed just 15 first downs and 99 rushing yards.
Chase Young, who is still making noise for the Heisman Trophy and is expected to be a top pick in the 2020 NFL draft, had three sacks and a career-high nine tackles in his first game back from a two-game suspension for an NCAA rules violation. He now has 16.5 sacks this year which breaks the program single-season record of 14, previously set by Vernon Gholston in 2007.
Young’s presence was felt all night. He made several game-changing plays, including one that flipped field position at a critical time. Late in the third quarter with the Buckeyes hanging on to a 21-17 lead, Young beat right tackle Will Fries and sacked Levis at his own 1-yard line. That set up Ohio State’s final scoring drive, which ended when Fields found Chris Olave for a 28-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
“Somebody had to make some plays during the game,” Olave said. “I had to make that [catch] for my team.”
Teams don’t wish for adversity and hope to control their own postseason destiny. But a little suspense was good for the Buckeyes, who still have to play two top-15 opponents in Michigan and the winner of Minnesota/Wisconsin. A challenging path to the playoff still awaits. “It did a little something to us,” Olave said when asked what it was like to take a few punches.
We’ll see what that means over the next two weeks as the Buckeyes continue on their quest for the playoff.