BlueWhiteIllustrated - Ohio State Recap: Lions fight back but fall short, 28-17
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Ohio State Recap: Lions fight back but fall short, 28-17

In what had been billed as a heavyweight battle between a pair of highly ranked Big Ten title contenders, Penn State got up off the canvas after falling behind Ohio State by three touchdowns early in the third quarter. But the second-ranked Buckeyes kept throwing punches, and they landed enough of them to pull away for a 28-17 victory Saturday in Columbus.

With backup quarterback Will Levis leading the offense following an injury to Sean Clifford early in the third quarter, Penn State showed plenty of resilience, shaving 17 points off of what had been a 21-0 Ohio State lead. But the Buckeyes responded with a 28-yard touchdown pass from Justin Fields to Chris Olave, and the Lions couldn’t capitalize on their remaining chances, with one drive ending on a Levis interception and other petering out when back-to-back penalties turned a fourth-and-2 into a fourth-and-12 that PSU wasn’t able to convert.

“Obviously, going down 21-0 to the No. 2 team in the country is not ideal,” coach James Franklin said. “But we battled. You look at them, and they were No. 1 or 2 or 3 in the country in nearly every offensive and defensive category. You’ve got to give them credit. They’ve done a really good job. They’re well-coached, they’re talented. But we’ve got a pretty good team as well. We just didn’t play well enough to win.”

The loss dropped Penn State out of contention for the Big Ten championship at 6-2 in league play and 9-2 overall. Ohio State (11-0, 8-0) clinched the East Division championship and will play either Minnesota or Wisconsin on Dec. 7 in Indianapolis.

Here’s a look at the good and the bad:

THE GOOD

QB Will Levis celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the third quarter.
QB Will Levis celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the third quarter.

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• Facing the stingiest defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision, Levis showed tremendous composure after entering the game in the third quarter following an injury to Clifford. The 6-foot-3, 229-pound redshirt freshman took over with Penn State sitting at Ohio State’s 43-yard line and led the Lions to their first touchdown of the game.

On Penn State's next possession, after a Buckeyes fumble, Levis threw to Pat Freiermuth for 11 yards and a first down, then crashed into the end zone on a 1-yard run that cut the Lions’ deficit to seven points. Following another Ohio State fumble, Levis got PSU in field goal range, and Jake Pinegar finished the drive with a 42-yard make.

Levis also threw an interception that scuttled a drive that had reached the Ohio State 27-yard line, and there appeared to be some communication issues at the line of scrimmage late in the fourth quarter. But he finished with 57 passing yards and 34 rushing yards, even with five sacks factored into his total. Given the far-from-ideal circumstances, Levis’s performance would have to be considered a bright spot for the Nittany Lions.

“I thought early on, Will came in and did some good things, gave us a spark, made some plays with his legs,” Franklin said. “He’s a big, physical runner. He was able to push the pile and break some tackles and finish some runs. He made some early throws. So I thought overall, Will did some good things, but not having Sean at 100 percent I think was a factor.”

Franklin said that Clifford could have come back into the game but “would not have [been] 100 percent.”

“He would have been lacking mobility. He’s not 100 percent from a mobility standpoint anyway right now,” Franklin said, “and that would have been decreased even more.”

• After giving up 91 rushing yards on Ohio State’s first drive of the game, Penn State gave up only 138 the rest of the afternoon. The Buckeyes got 157 yards and two touchdowns from J.K. Dobbins and 68 yards from Fields, but as a team they averaged only 3.8 yards per carry.

“Dobbins has been running the ball on everybody, and we were able to limit his impact,” Franklin said. “He still did some good things, obviously, but their quarterback running game was the big factor. We were able to get into some situations where we could get off the field, and the quarterback factored in. … I know Dobbins has got good numbers, but I felt like we managed it for most of the game.”

• As usual, Freiermuth and K.J. Hamler were the busiest of Penn State’s receiving targets, combining to make nine catches for 85 yards. But the Lions did get three catches from Justin Shorter for 28 yards.

Lamont Wade came up with two fumble recoveries to jumpstart Penn State’s comeback in the third quarter.

“His leadership in the locker room has been really good,” Franklin said. “He’s a competitor. He cares so much about Penn State and his teammates. … He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now, doing some really good things. We sure are glad we’ve got him.”

THE BAD

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• With Chase Young back on the field for Ohio State after a two-game suspension, Penn State just couldn’t get much going on offense. The Lions were ineffective through the air, totaling only 128 passing yards while surrendering six sacks, and they were even less successful on the ground, even with Noah Cain back in action for the first time since the Michigan State game. PSU totaled only 99 rushing yards, with Journey Brown supplying 64 yards and a touchdown.

Penn State was facing the best defense in the country, as Ohio State had been allowing only 216.4 yards per game. Struggling to protect their quarterbacks, the Lions weren’t able to throw the ball downfield; their longest completion of the afternoon was a 22-yarder to Hamler. Said Franklin, “We did not have enough explosive plays.”

• Trailing by 11 points and facing fourth-and-2 with 2 minutes, 36 seconds to play, Penn State picked up two pre-snap penalties that torpedoed its chances of cutting into the Buckeyes’ lead. Levis threw incomplete to Hamler on fourth-and-12 and the Buckeyes held.

“The crowd noise at the end of the game, we work on that as much as anybody,” Franklin said. “But with Will playing his first significant time, in this stadium in front of 102,000, we were just in a position where the O-line could not hear him. They were guessing the cadence, and obviously that was an issue in the game.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Next up: Rutgers. For a Penn State team that will be looking to wrap up its regular season with a bounce-back victory, the Scarlet Knights’ visit to Beaver Stadium couldn’t arrive at a more opportune time.

While Penn State was trying desperately to rally in Columbus, Rutgers was having even bigger problems against Michigan State in Piscataway. The Spartans got 239 passing yards and three touchdowns from Brian Lewerke and rolled to a 27-0 victory, dropping the Knights to 2-9 overall and 0-8 in Big Ten play.

Rutgers went into the game ranked last in the Big Ten in total offense, total defense and scoring defense. The Scarlet Knights were 13th in scoring offense, and the game against the Spartans isn’t going to improve any of those numbers, as the hosts were outgained by a margin of 395 yards to 140.

As for the Nittany Lions, they are no longer in the mix for the Big Ten title, but they do have some opportunities ahead of them as the regular season winds down. Said Franklin, “We still have a chance to go 1-0 this week and put ourselves in position to have double-digit wins and go to a bowl game and find a way to get that one and go from there.”

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