COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It took about two minutes for reality to set in. With the good vibes still radiating from a breathtaking victory two week ago against Michigan, Penn State at the very least had the advantage of knowing it could topple a tough opponent in unpredictable fashion. Sure, Ohio State had won 19 in a row and was ranked No. 4 in Division I-A, but crazier things (read, a victory after four overtimes) already had happened for Penn State.
Instead, crazy happened to Penn State and not in a good way. Saturday night was a nightmare in a Big Ten Conference showdown at Ohio Stadium.
The Buckeyes defeated Penn State, 63-14, leading, 42-7, at halftime, and quarterback Christian Hackenberg left the game early with a shoulder injury after throwing two interceptions and fumbling the ball once. It was that kind of a game. Historic, even.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, Penn State (4-3, 1-2) had allowed more than 50 points just twice, to Navy in 1920 and West Virginia in 1988. The record for most points given up by Penn State is 106, to Lehigh in 1889, but Saturday was the most it had given up since the 55 it gave up in that 1920 Navy game. The point differential of 49 was the greatest Penn State had lost by since the 19th century. Ohio State's total yardage of 686 eclipsed the previous record of 656 gained by an opponent.
"We didn't have them prepared good enough," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said.
Quarterback Braxton Miller could do just about anything he wanted, finishing with 252 passing yards and 68 rushing yards. Multiple times a Penn State defender would get a hand on him or even hit him, but he would just continue to run, scrambling for several yards or biding time until he found an open receiver.
"We know what type of player he is and he made the plays when we didn't," cornerback Jordan Lucas said.
Thing is, 42-7 at half barely gave justice to how dominant the Buckeyes (8-0, 4-0) were playing. When the Buckeyes got the ball with under a minute left in the second quarter, they had to cover 84 yards, and it felt like there was no way they wouldn't. And Ohio State did, with three seconds to spare while only burning one timeout. It had 413 total yards at halftime on 43 plays. Every time the Buckeyes snapped the ball they were averaging close to a first down. Of all the records and near-records, that's probably the best way to describe the defensive nadir that Penn State was experiencing.
Though the margin of loss wasn't familiar, O'Brien's postgame attitude was. He said the coaching staff shouldered the blame, deflected questions about specifics and said he wanted to see the tape. Lucas and linebacker Mike Hull had a tough time explaining what went wrong. They talked of the athleticism of Miller and running back Carlos Hyde and breakdowns in communication.
Maybe it's simpler than that, and Ohio State's offensive largesse shouldn't have come as a surprise. In its first two Big Ten games Penn State allowed 44 and 40 points. Lowly Purdue was the only Big Ten school with a worse scoring defense going into the game.
Penn State's offense was not sharp enough to keep pace. If there was any point in the game that may have caused a better outcome for the Nittany Lions or kept them in it for longer, it was the first drive. They had pushed the ball into the red zone, trailing, 7-0. Then Hackenberg threw an interception.
By the end of the first quarter, Hackenberg had fumbled the ball (though Penn State recovered) and thrown another interception. He left midway through the third quarter and watched the rest of the game from the bench with ice on his shoulder. O'Brien said the injury stemmed from a first-half hit by an Ohio State defender after the play had been whistled dead for an offside penalty.
From the historically bad defensive performance to the injury to Ohio State coach Urban Meyer's decision to challenge a spot on a first-down call with his team up 49 points, surrealism coated everything in this game, with the atmosphere at the stadium adding to the feel. Every time Ohio State was on defense, preparing to stop Penn State on a third down, a sound effect of ringing bells played over the loudspeaker. The bells sounded like a call for Penn State to wake up, to make something productive out of this debacle, but the bells just kept ringing and Penn State kept falling and falling.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05