Penn State fell behind 21 points on the road to the No. 2 team in the country.

The Nittany Lions lost their starting quarterback to injury in the third quarter.

Still, that Penn State made Ohio State sweat Saturday before the Buckeyes hung on for a 28-17 victory was only small consolation to the Nittany Lions.

The loss ended Penn State’s chances to represent the Big Ten East in the conference championship game.

“We have a strong locker room,” coach James Franklin said. “We have a bunch of really good guys. Everybody in there is totally invested and had a lot of confidence that we could come in here and win. Down 21-0 to the No. 2 team in the country is not ideal, but we battled.”

Aided by Buckeyes fumbles, the Nittany Lions (9-2, 6-2) rallied to close within 21-17. The comeback began when backup quarterback Will Levis took over for the injured Sean Clifford in the third quarter. Levis gave the offense a jolt on that drive with his strong running, and Journey Brown broke multiple tackles on an 18-yard touchdown run.

The Nittany Lions defense then forced a fumble by J.K. Dobbins, which Penn State converted into a quick touchdown. Another fumble by quarterback Justin Fields gave Penn State a chance to tie the score, but Ohio State forced the Nittany Lions to settle for a field goal.

After the Buckeyes scored to make it 28-17, Penn State drove inside the OSU 30-yard line. But Levis forced a pass that linebacker Justin Hilliard intercepted, and that was the Nittany Lions’ last realistic hope for an upset.

“The first thing you have to do is give Ohio State credit,” Franklin said. “They’re very talented and played well.

“Early on, we couldn’t get things going offensively, especially with the running game, which made us one-dimensional. Sean has not been healthy the last couple weeks, and it takes an aspect out of our offense.

“When we were able to get Will involved, it opened another aspect of our offense.”

In the first half, Penn State gained only 64 yards and Franklin twice called for punts on fourth downs at the OSU 42 and 36. The Nittany Lions would have trailed by more than the 14-0 at halftime if not for Lamont Wade forcing a fumble on Fields just before the quarterback crossed the goal line in the first quarter.

That kept Penn State in the game, and then the Nittany Lions truly made it a game.

“We’re a great team,” Levis said. “We went out there and had a hard battle with the No. 2 team in the country. We have to build on this.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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