COLUMBUS, Ohio — Hanging on, hanging on. … Haaaanging on.
Time to come back, a chance to come back, a field goal would be enough, if the Penn State Nittany Lions could find a couple of first downs. … Nope.
The Lions had used up all their breaks of this Saturday inside Ohio Stadium. They had earned their lead but a lead is nothing like a win in this place, even if you have that lead practically all afternoon.
Their defense or their offense, either one, needed to step up and take the Nittany Lions over the top.
One quarterback was allowed to stand in his backfield and survey the field with full immunity. They’ll remember Saturday around here as a special afternoon for Buckeyes QB J.T. Barrett. The other QB needed to be sneaky just to find the space to try to get off a pass. Trace McSorley made some of those plays, as he always does. He didn’t have the time to be special. Reverse what the quarterbacks had to deal with, and reverse the result.
Add 39-38, Ohio State, to the lore of this series. A game Penn State led from the opening kick return but never controlled. No solace to the Nittany Lions that they’ve lost just twice since Sept. 24, 2016 — on a field goal on the final play of the Rose Bowl, and by a point at Ohio State. No solace when they get to watch opposing students storm the field each time around them.
Nittany Lions coach James Franklin had it right afterward when he broke it into simplest terms: “We’re not protecting well and we’re not running well.”
Franklin told his guys he loved them, but he still told it like it was, including this about his defense: “I don’t think we’ve handled sudden change well enough this year.”
Ohio State, now 7-1 and 5-0 in the Big Ten, handled it, including when Saquon Barkley took the opening kickoff to the house and the Buckeyes immediately fumbled it back and Penn State struck again, up two TDs, 204 seconds in.
If you thought Ohio State trading a field goal for another Barkley score put Penn State fully in control, up 21-3, obviously you were mistaken.
If you thought Penn State could have called different plays to either quicken the clock or forget the clock — choose your criticism — you also are mistaken. Sometimes you control the game, sometimes the game gets to control you.
Sudden change? Yes, there was more. Ohio State handled it when a Buckeyes interception in the end zone, on further review, turned out to be a spectacular catch by Penn State’s DeAndre Thompkins, one angle showing it definitively, putting Penn State up 35-20 midway through the third quarter.
Penn State did not handle it well enough when Ohio State, on the short end of special teams until then, blocked a punt and turned the field. Biggest play of the game, Franklin suggested later. Hard to argue. His defense still had a chance to turn a short field into a field goal. Didn’t happen.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had more respect for a human being,’’ Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said of Barrett. “You earn respect and you witness people in very dire straits at times, tough situations.”
Never mind Barrett’s gaudy overall stats — 33 of 39 passes for 328 yards, four touchdowns, plus 95 rushing yards. Look at the scoring line. With 4:20 left, Dixon, Johnnie, 10 yard pass from Barrett, J.T. With 1:48 left, Baugh, Marcus, 16 yard pass from Barrett, J.T.
It helped Ohio State handle it that the Buckeyes dominated the total-yardage battle all day. Everyone knew the stakes here. After losing early to Oklahoma, Buckeyes fans understood this day. “This is our playoff game,’’ a woman told her friend outside the main gate, hours before kickoff.
There will probably be a one-loss team or two in the national playoffs, but now the Nittany Lions will need big-time help to make it. Now their light non-conference schedule comes into play. Now, even if they get even with Ohio State in the Big Ten East standings, the Buckeyes will have the tiebreaker.
Sudden change? Yes, there’s a lot to handle right now for the Nittany Lions.