Dana Pennett O'Neil | Nittany Lions played as if losing were inevitable

20071029_dn_0jqltc6p
Buckeyes' Chris 'Beanie' Wells finds hole in Penn State defense.

STATE COLLEGE - They took few risks and looked passive; they played, it seemed, not to lose rather than to win.

For the first time in a long time, that categorization applied not just to the Penn State offense, but the defense as well.

Over the past four seasons, Nittany Lions fans have grown accustomed to a few things. They know that they will at times be flustered, frustrated and flabbergasted by the Lions' offense and sometimes all three in the span of one snap count.

One fan making his first visit to Beaver Stadium on Saturday night said he thought there was almost an air of dread in the stadium when the offense took the field, as if the 110,134 fans were just waiting for the inevitable shoe to drop.

(It did, of course, in the form of an abominable Anthony Morelli interception that led to six points for No. 1 Ohio State and a mad rush to the exits in the fourth quarter).

But Penn State fans also are used to the defense bailing out its predictable offense. Ranked seventh in the nation, the defense has been the best beard since Debbie Rowe married Michael Jackson, masking the woes of a counterpart that seems hell-bent on throwing 25 dink and dunk passes so as not to upset Morelli's delicate confidence. In his fourth year in the program.

All of which made Saturday night all the more inexplicable. Conjuring up the many ways the Lions could lose to the top-ranked Buckeyes - and Penn State fans who were around for the 6-4 loss to Iowa in 2004 have some pretty vivid imaginations - no one imagined Ohio State running roughshod over the defense to the tune of a 37-17 whupping.

That's the most points the defense has allowed since Notre Dame spanked them for 41 last season and marks only the third time since the 2004 season that they've surrendered plus-30.

There is, of course, a chance that Ohio State simply is that good. It certainly seemed that everything Jim Tressel called worked almost flawlessly. The Buckeyes never punted and converted 12 of 16 third downs.

But there is an equally good chance that the Lions' defense caught the case of the yips that long has plagued the offense. A group predicated on playing aggressively, a group that leads the nation in sacks, only got to Todd Boeckman once.

They were gashed up the gut for 133 yards on the ground by Chris "Beanie" Wells, even giving up huge chunks of real estate when they stuffed eight men in the box. To be fair, Penn State just lost both Jerome Hayes and Jared Odrick for the season, so the defensive line isn't what it was even 2 weeks ago.

No such mulligans for the secondary. Playing a good 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, the cornerbacks nonetheless were burned for 253 yards in the air.

Ohio State scored on its first three possessions, most damaging after Penn State's offense put together an impressive, 78-yard opening drive to take a 7-3 lead. A forced punt there would have sent the sardine-packed stadium into a tizzy.

Instead, the Buckeyes drove 80 yards in six plays, with Boeckman completing a 60-yarder to Ray Small that left Lydell Sargeant in a twisted junk heap.

Two plays later, Ohio State was in the end zone and whatever energy the crowd had mustered was pretty much gone for the night.

Or check that. The "White Out" fans who were seeing red by game's end did have one more group yell in them. With under 2 minutes to play in the first half and still down just 10, Penn State faced fourth-and-2 from the Ohio State 38.

There was a time not too long ago - say maybe 3 weeks - when Paterno would have rolled the dice there, figuring if the offense doesn't make the first down, the defense can handle whatever Ohio State throws at it. This time, he rolled out Jeremy Boone for the punt amid a loud chorus of boisterous booing. It was a playing-not-to-lose call from a team that was, ahem, already losing.

But then again, maybe Paterno had it right. Those glasses are coke-bottled, not rose-colored and through them, maybe Paterno saw the cold, hard reality.

On this night at least, his defense looked a whole lot like an offense.

And when does that ever look like it's worth a risk? *

Send e-mail to oneild@phillynews.com