STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Ohio State’s path to the College Football Playoff twisted through a Beaver Stadium wrapped in white. That was the only vanilla to it.
This was a test of the highest mettle, a trip into the toughest environment in the Big Ten. Nasty chants. Constant noise. And that annoying Nittany Lion growling over the loudspeakers. Grrr.
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You know how you walk through the door at home and immediately feel comfortable? This was walking through the boss’s door. And he’s not smiling.
As a player you tell yourself it’s just another game, but when a crowd measuring three-quarters the population of Dayton wants you to fail — and that is putting it nicely — it becomes something else. The last time OSU visited this hill country it did not end well. A series of freakish plays helped the Nittany Lions pull off a whopper of a comeback in 2016.
Would this be different? Yep. Ohio State 27, Penn State 26. The Buckeyes pulled off a comeback for the ages. All ages. Your 85-year-old grandmother loved it as much as your 5-year-old son.
In the win, Dwayne Haskins Jr. showed why playing quarterback is the most difficult task in sports. Not only does a QB need receivers to catch the ball — and the Buckeyes did Haskins no favors early — but he also needs his offensive line to protect his, er, assets. Then he needs to stand stoically when crazed blitzers try to inflict physical harm.
And, finally, he needs to get the tough yards on his own. Just ask Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, who finished with 175 yards rushing.
Haskins did what he had to when he had to by getting the ball to his wide receivers and let them make plays that shocked the system. At least Penn State’s system. The Buckeyes rallied from a 26-14 deficit in the fourth quarter on big plays by Binjimen Victor, who zig-zagged for a catch-and-run TD that brought OSU to within 26-21, and on K.J. Hill’s 24-yard TD catch with 2:03 left.
“It wasn’t pretty the whole game but we kept the faith,” Haskins said. “Every opportunity we get on the field is an opportunity to win the game.”
Haskins, who has played as poised as a redshirt sophomore can be, finally looked human. Not that he played horribly — 22 of 39 for 270 yards and three TDs — but he has mesmerized us with the cool demeanor of an NFL-ready QB who could do no wrong.
As for Ohio State’s defense … more work is needed. But at least it came to the rescue by stopping the Nittany Lions on their final drive.
In hindsight, shame on anyone who failed to see this rough-and-tumble classic coming. Ohio State and Penn State are too alike for the ending to play out any differently.
If OSU vs. Michigan has become a rivalry of the heart, romanticized beyond reality — The Game has become a one-sided foregone conclusion — then Ohio State vs. Penn State is more fact over feeling. Objectively, Buckeyes vs. Nittany Lions has become more of a true on-field rivalry/street fight.
Ohio State and Penn State fans are brothers from another mother, sharing undeniable traits that make them more similar than different. Not that the differences aren’t striking. Penn Staters possess more of a red-meat edge to them, courtesy not only of Happy Valley’s more rural setting but also the take-no-prisoners approach associated with eastern Pennsylvania in general and Philadelphia in particular. The City of Brotherly Love (Shove?) is a Penn State pipeline.
But football is more deeply rooted in the sports culture of Ohio and Pennsylvania than it is Michigan. (don’t @ me, UM and MSU fans). And night games at Beaver Stadium are special.
But the Buckeyes ruined that special night, and now they have a clearer path to the playoff.