Fumble once, shame on you. Fumble twice, shame on me.
By the time the third fumble came for Ohio State, shame gave way to panic, as Penn State rattled off 17 unanswered points in less than four minutes of game time.
Ohio State hung on for a 28-17 win, but not without a scare that it wholly avoided in 10 previous matchups.
“We literally handed them the ball in two straight drives and gave them points,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said. “And then we still win the game the way we did, which was unbelievable. This is something that we have to learn from and that could have cost us the whole season.”
The first indication that not all things would fall in Ohio State’s direction came in the first quarter.
Already up 7-0 after a 91-yard touchdown drive earned all on the ground, it looked just as effortless the next trip down for the Buckeyes, who got to the Penn State 5 poised to take a commanding two-score lead in the early going.
For a moment it looked as though they did, as sophomore quarterback Justin Fields seemed to run it into the end zone, but an official review showed he lost possession before reaching the goal line. Penn State recovered for a touchback.
Looking to go up 21-0 before the end of the half, it was another self-inflicted wound that held the Buckeyes back. A holding call on junior offensive tackle Thayer Munford brought back a 9-yard run by junior running back J.K. Dobbins and Fields was sacked by Penn State junior defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos on the following play to effectively end the drive.
Ohio State left points on the field in the first half, but they wouldn’t feel the consequences until the second.
Looking to answer Penn State’s first score of the game midway into the third quarter, Dobbins coughed it up, handing the Nittany Lions the ball at the Ohio State 12.
Penn State redshirt freshman backup quarterback Will Levis pounded it into the end zone, and suddenly it had climbed back from a 21-0 deficit to score 14 points in 26 seconds of game time.
“We talked about going into a big, heavyweight match, and you’re going to take shots,” Day said. “And one of the things about playing in a game like this is you have to be willing to take punches and you have to not flinch when it happens.”
The nightmare continued for the Buckeyes, as just three offensive plays later, Fields fumbled once again on another rush attempt.
Penn State sophomore linebacker Micah Parsons, at one time Fields’ fellow 2018 Penn State commit, forced a fumble and recovered one on consecutive Buckeye possessions. The second of which set the Nittany Lions up at the Ohio State 35, but the Buckeye defense held them to a field goal.
As the rain poured down in Columbus, the momentum swung lightning-quick, and Penn State was within a touchdown of the lead.
“We knew this was going to be a tough game. Things like that happen,” redshirt senior defensive tackle Davon Hamilton said. “We weren’t really surprised things like that happened –– we were ready.”
A fortunate stroke of serendipity saw Ohio State protect its ultimate lead with a takeaway of its own, as redshirt senior linebacker Justin Hilliard intercepted a Levis pass in the fourth quarter to snuff out Penn State’s chances of a full-scale comeback.
Fields put the ball on the ground once more on a fourth down scramble late, though he recovered it. With the game virtually in hand, the consequence this time was that Fields remained down on the turf, with a deafening silence befalling the home crowd.
“He’s good. He’s a warrior. I’m telling you, he’s tough,” Day said. “He ran the ball today.”
Fields and the Buckeyes survived, but it remains to be seen if the scars they received against the Nittany Lions are a hurdle cleared or a sign of things to come.