Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer couldn’t believe what he was looking at on the podium during his postgame press conference.
It was the stat sheet from No. 6 Ohio State’s dramatic, come-from-behind 39-38 victory against No. 2 Penn State in front of 109,302 people at Ohio Stadium Saturday. The paper said the nation’s top running back and Heisman Trophy front-runner Saquon Barkley was limited to 44 rushing yards on 21 carries.
“Is this right?” Meyer asked.
Yes, it was. And it was the performance Ohio State’s defense had to have against the country’s premier playmaker.
In a night where so many calls didn’t go the Buckeyes’ way, the defense bent, but never broke and ended up being the force that broke the hearts of the Penn State sideline.
“We were shooting ourselves in the foot a lot of the times, so we definitely knew that it wasn’t those guys beating us,” junior linebacker Jerome Baker said. “It was really just beating ourselves.”
Two second-quarter pass interference penalties turned into touchdowns on the next play for Penn State. Junior cornerback Denzel Ward’s third-quarter interception in the end zone was overturned for a Penn State touchdown on the most pivotal play at that point in the game. Through all that, the Ohio State defense lit its own light out of darkness.
Ohio State trailed 35-20 entering the fourth quarter and couldn’t afford any mistakes. On the first drive, quarterback J.T. Barrett fumbled the ball in Ohio State territory, dimming the outlook of any possibility of a comeback.
The next play, redshirt junior linebacker Dante Booker tackled Barkley for a 7-yard loss on first down and the Buckeyes eventually forced the Nittany Lions into a three-and-out. That’s when the defense created its own break. Ward rushed the punter unblocked, stuffing the kick and Booker recovered the kick in Penn State territory, dramatically shifting the momentum.
Penn State nearly put the game away on its next drive, marching down to the Ohio State 7-yard line. At a make-or-break point in the game, Ohio State’s defense came through with a goal-line stand, forcing a field goal when a touchdown likely would have dashed the Buckeyes’ College Football Playoff aspirations.
Still down 38-27 with 5:37 on the clock, Ohio State’s offense was only going to have a shot at winning the game if the defense forced two straight three-and-outs.
That’s exactly what happened.
Redshirt junior defensive end Sam Hubbard met Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley at the mesh point for a 7-yard loss on first down, recording one of nine tackles for loss on Barkley to pin the Nittany Lions back to their own 8-yard line and force a punt. Once Ohio State regained the lead with 1:45 remaining, the defense had to make another stop with Penn State starting its drive on its own 41.
Defensive end Jalyn Holmes sacked McSorley on second down and the once-undefeated Nittany Lions didn’t gain a single yard.
“That last four plays really sums up what we got, four of the best D-linemen in the country,” Hubbard said. “We knew if we got them in that situation, we were going to close the game.”
The Buckeyes held Penn State to 4-of-9 passing for 50 yards and 14 rushing yards on 10 carries in the fourth quarter. Ohio State recorded 13 tackles for loss in the game, including five in the fourth quarter.
To win, the Buckeyes could not allow Barkley to beat them. He had his impact on special teams, but his impact on the ground was annihilated outside of his 36-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Barkley’s 2.1 yard per carry average was his lowest of the season. He entered the game averaging 6.2 yards per carry.
Meyer said he was worried about Barkley’s catching ability. The Buckeyes held him to 23 yards on four receptions.
“We basically wanted to hit Saquon basically every play,” redshirt senior linebacker Chris Worley said. “We knew that give him any type of daylight, if you don’t build that wall, as you seen on the long run he had, don’t build that wall and he’s going to get in the open field and nine times out of 10, score. He capitalized off that and after that, we didn’t give him much. The big thing was stop that.”
The defensive line stalwarts of Hubbard, Holmes, Tyquan Lewis, Nick Bosa and Dre’Mont Jones exposed a Nittany Lion offensive line that couldn’t protect its versatile quarterback or invaluable running back. Ohio State made the late-game defensive stops with immense pressure on McSorley, showing that the defensive line’s dominance can subdue any deficiencies the Buckeyes have in pass coverage.
The game was far from perfect, but the defensive performance when it counted most was nearly flawless.