All of a sudden, it happened to Penn State again today: a sack, a fumble into the end zone, Ohio State recovering the ball for a touchdown. The Buckeyes began jumping in celebration as the Nittany Lions looked on blankly, the flashbacks from last year's game blocking their view of Ohio State's merriment.
But this time, the sequence didn't trigger a 21-point rush for the Buckeyes, as happened last season, when they victimized Penn State's quarterback for a similar touchdown, then pulled away for an easy victory. This time, it didn't matter that linebacker Na'il Diggs's sack left starting quarterback Kevin Thompson with a separated right shoulder--or that safety Gary Berry's ensuing recovery cut the Nittany Lions' lead to three points with three minutes to go in the first half.
Today, after freezing for that moment amidst the noise of 97,007 fans at Beaver Stadium, the second-ranked Nittany Lions regrouped and followed tailback Eric McCoo and backup quarterback Rashard Casey to a 23-10 victory even though they wasted numerous opportunities near the goal line.
"I thought that was going to be the turning point of the game, but we needed to go out there and take advantage, and we didn't," Ohio State wide receiver Reggie Germany said. "They were blitzing us a lot, and it really hurt us. We couldn't do enough with the ball."
The win was not as overwhelming as it could have been for Penn State--the Nittany Lions failed to score a touchdown on trips inside Ohio State's 20-yard line four times--but it was enough to avenge last year's 28-9 loss to the Buckeyes and keep this year's record perfect at 7-0 (3-0 in the Big Ten Conference). McCoo rushed for a career-high 211 yards on 22 carries, and the defense matched his performance by holding Ohio State to 143 yards.
Still, Coach Joe Paterno--who recorded his 314th career win today, tying him with Amos Alonzo Stagg for third among major college coaches--will have plenty to discuss as his team gets ready to play at Purdue next week.
The No. 18 Buckeyes (4-3, 1-2) felt they still had a chance to win with about seven minutes to go in the game. With his team trailing, 23-10, Ohio State quarterback Steve Bellisari pushed his team to Penn State's 32-yard line. Bellisari, who led the Buckeyes with 38 yards rushing, started to scramble again on third down, but linebacker Ron Graham sacked him for a 13-yard loss.
The Buckeyes didn't get that close to Penn State's end zone again, ensuring their worst start since 1988, Coach John Cooper's first season.
"I was surprised to still be in the game with the way we were playing, but we still had a chance," Cooper said. "But there were a couple of first downs we couldn't convert, and the sacks hurt us. If you can't block and you can't tackle, you are not going to beat a good football team."
And Ohio State still has road games against Michigan State and Michigan.
Today, both teams had success behind their opponent's line of scrimmage, with the Buckeyes producing six sacks for 32 yards and the Nittany Lions eight for 59 yards. Lively Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington had 2 1/2 sacks, including a second-quarter thumping in which Arrington hurdled over Buckeye tailback Jonathan Wells to get to Bellisari.
The leapfrog demonstration was impressive, although it was not even the Nittany Lions' best trick play of the day. That was the fake field goal Paterno ordered a few minutes later, when Penn State sat at fourth and one on the Buckeyes 24-yard-line. Matt Senneca, the third-string quarterback, set up to take the snap on the ground, as usual, but instead of holding it for place kicker Travis Forney, he ran 10 yards through a giant hole created by the offensive line.
The move was a rousing success, but the offense was once again unable to do much with its field position, allowing Ohio State to push the ball back to the 22-yard line on the next three downs. The Nittany Lions ended up having to kick a field goal anyway, one of five attempts by Forney today. That one went through the uprights, giving Penn State a 13-3 lead; two others Forney tried were blocked.
The breakdowns "could have cost us the football game," said Paterno, whose team will need to avoid such problems against Purdue, as well as in its final two regular season games--at home against Michigan and at Michigan State.
Still, Paterno was pleased his team remained upbeat even after the blocked kicks, and especially after the sack and fumble just before halftime.
"For a minute out there it was deja vu all over again, but we knew we weren't going to let the same result happen," cornerback David Macklin said. "We knew that we just had to keep going and play our game, and that's what we did."