UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- By the start of the fourth quarter, the white-outed mass was still impressive in its size, and the speaker on the closed-circuit public-address system announced that 107,818 people comprised its whole. The party atmosphere that had abounded all weekend was visible and audible.
The bars were full Friday night, and scalpers already were hawking their wares on College Avenue. The tailgaters started early in Saturday morning. All the seniors linked arms for the coin toss.
Happy Valley was truly booming again, setting everything into place Saturday for one of those memorable games Penn State fans talk about for years, but the official guests would not acquiesce to the plans. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller did what he usually does, which is run the momentum out of stadiums, while linebacker Ryan Shazier and the Buckeyes (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) defense held Penn State (5-3, 3-1) to its lowest point total in Big Ten play this season as No. 9 Ohio State won, 35-23.
The past month had been a party. Matt McGloin had played like the best quarterback in the Big Ten, and a blog or two even christened him a Heisman candidate. Michael Mauti tackled and intercepted everyone and everything. But Ohio State provided an abrupt ending just when it seemed everything was falling into place.
Credit Miller for authoring much of the conclusion. His second-half totals looked like this: 85 rushing yards, 2 touchdowns, 98 passing yards, 1 touchdown. He scored a touchdown from the 1 in which he evaded and then hurdled over a would-be tackler. That made it 21-10 late in the third quarter. Ohio State's next possession ended with another Miller rushing touchdown, and the game was never close afterward.
"It's just surprising, the elusiveness," linebacker Mike Hull said. "It's hard to describe. You just think he's there, and he's cutting on a dime."
Penn State never had played a regular-season game like this. And that's not hyperbole. It's truth, based on the extraordinary circumstances enveloping both teams.
This was the game coach Bill O'Brien talked about in late July, when the NCAA decided that Penn State would not be allowed to play in a so-called meaningful game for four years, a postseason game.
O'Brien said, essentially, that bowl games didn't matter. Said Penn State would have plenty bowl games of its own, at Beaver Stadium, in front of 108,000 screaming fans. Here was their bowl game.
Stopping Miller was the key for Penn State to win it. There was no disputing that. For the most part in the first half, Penn State did.
Defensive end Pete Massaro had his first sack in two years, and linebacker Gerald Hodges and defensive end James Terry had one as well.
Take away one play, and Miller had 13 carries for 26 yards. The second half, Penn State didn't, and it continued to struggle on offense until late in the game.
During the win streak and especially the previous three games, the offense performed as if it were an avalanche, starting strong, gaining momentum and seldom stopping.
"This offense works best when you start moving the ball and we're getting first downs and momentum builds on itself," offensive guard John Urschel said.
O'Brien admitted that the offense was playing a field-position game in the first half. It only had 26 plays, compared to 50 last week.
After the game, he spoke of a need to watch the tape and need for himself to better diversify the offense.
Several players had said earlier this week that the game was the season's most important and even the most important of their career. In the last four games and then the next season and the next and the next, it will have to maintain the enthusiasm, whether or not the electricity and attention are as obvious as Saturday.
Even with the loss, Penn State felt as relevant as possible this weekend, and cornerback Stephon Morris believes it can continue.
"If I had to do it all over again," he said, "and if I was in those seats, I'd definitely come here."
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @mdent05. First Published October 28, 2012 4:00 AM