Ohio State vs. Penn State Scores, Takeaways: No. 2 Buckeyes struggle late to stay undefeated in Big Ten

No. 2 Ohio State No. Unleashed an avalanche of 13 fourth-quarter points over Penn State and cruised to a 44-31 win in their Big Ten East showdown. The game was much closer than a two-score deficit would suggest, though it felt like it was going to blow out early.

Penn State opened the game with back-to-back turnovers, but the same red zone issues that haunted Ohio State last week against Iowa came back into play as the Buckeyes could only open up a 10-0 lead. Penn State would erase that lead with a 14-13 advantage entering the locker room in the second quarter; Quarterback Sean Clifford recovered from two of his early turnovers to cut Ohio State to two in the second quarter.

However, the Buckeyes defense made adjustments at halftime, and the open spaces for the Nittany Lions offense suddenly disappeared. Ohio State regained the lead in the third quarter when another drive ended in the red zone, but Penn State’s Kaitron Lee scored on fourth down from 1 yard out with 9:26 left in the fourth quarter. 21-16 lead.

Then, everything changed.

Ohio State quickly responded with a three-play touchdown drive by Treveon Henderson for a 41-yard rushing score. After a Clifford fumble, Ohio State scored on a 24-yard pass from CJ Stroud to Kate Stover. A 21-16 Penn State lead turned into a 30-21 Ohio State lead with 66 seconds left in the game.

Things will get worse. Henderson scored his second touchdown and Buckeyes defensive end JT Tuimoloau put the final stamp on things with a big six to make it 44-24 with 2:42 to play.

Stroud threw for 354 yards, but only one touchdown, while Marvin Harrison Jr. caught 10 passes for 185 yards. Clifford finished with 371 yards and three touchdowns, but his three interceptions and a lost fumble ultimately doomed the Nittany Lions.

Tuimoloau was the unquestioned player of the game, finishing with two interceptions, two sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pass deflection. He was a one-man wrecking crew for the Buckeyes defense.

Here are examples of Ohio State’s success.

Tuimoloau is a missing Ohio State safety

Time was extended when seemingly every NFL draft had an Ohio State pass rusher going early in the first round. Nick Bosa, Joey Bosa and Chase Young terrorized quarterbacks in the Big Ten before moving on to big NFL paydays. Not so in Columbus lately.

While the five-star talent kept coming, the production didn’t follow. Chase Young finished the 2019 season with 16.5 sacks. In 2020 and 2021, Ohio State’s Chiefs totaled nine sacks (3.5 for Jonathan Cooper and 5.5 for Haskell Garrett). Sure, the 2020 season was cut short by Covid, but it was the lack of production from a very talented team.

Enter defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and Tuimolo. The former five-star recruit thrived in the Noles’ defense and put it all on display today. He deflected a pass on Penn State’s opening possession, ending with an interception by Zach Harrison. He clears the middle man on the next possession, jumps a lane on a short block and picks off the pass himself. (Yes, that’s right, a defensive end overshot a route.) Another Clifford would end the game by plucking the pass out of the air and cruising into the end zone for a big six.

In between, he had two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. That was the most impressive performance I’ve seen from a defensive player this season.

Ohio State’s red zone offense remains a problem

The Buckeyes prided themselves on their red zone offense before last week’s game against Iowa. Through the first six games, the Buckeyes scored 27 touchdowns on 29 red-zone possessions, an elite conversion rate. But in none of those games did they face a truly outstanding defense. Then Iowa came to town, and Ohio State scored four touchdowns on seven red-zone possessions. Against Penn State, they hit two of five. It’s six of their last 12, plus six field goals and “left” 24 points on the board.

The good news for Ohio State is that it got away with it. Four Penn State turnovers gave the Buckeyes extra possessions. Iowa’s crime last week was a crime against humanity.

But what if the Buckeyes struggle to finish drives against a good team that doesn’t beat itself? You know, a team like Michigan, or any potential opponent in the College Football Playoff? If you want to be a national title contender — Ohio State certainly does, and — you have to work on your weaknesses, and it’s built on that.

This game will haunt Sean Clifford

My thinking going into the game is that Penn State needs to run the ball well if it wants to give itself a legitimate chance to pull off the upset. The Nittany Lions didn’t do a great job running the ball (111 yards on 3.4 carries for 33), but they still had a chance to win the game.

Penn State looked like an Air Raid team, using the same offense that Baylor ran when Robert Griffin III won the Heisman. It spread Ohio State’s defense from sideline to sideline with pre-snap alignments and found plenty of gaps in the secondary, a weak point of Ohio State’s defense. Clifford threw for 371 yards and Parker Washington had 11 receptions for 179 yards and a touchdown. The Lions also got chunk plays.

But turnovers killed them. As well as Clifford played, he was invaluable to his team with many mistakes. Of his three interceptions, the first one was unlucky, but the second two were solid on him. His fumble was caused by the ball being pulled away from his body as the pocket collapsed.

Clifford gave his team a chance to win the game. He also gave victory to his team.

Being at receiver at Ohio State isn’t fair

Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave left for the NFL in the spring. Jaxon Smith-Njigba has missed almost the entire season (including today) with a hamstring injury. None of that matters because Ohio State still has Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Ekbuka.

Seriously, the Buckeyes were missing the nation’s best receiver (Smith-Njikpa), and they replaced him with the nation’s best receiver (Harrison). Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, tight end Kate Stover caught six passes for 78 yards and a touchdown on his 41-yard touchdown run to Treveon Henderson while opening a huge hole.

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