COLUMBUS, Ohio – It took about two minutes for reality to set in. With the good vibes still radiating from the breathtaking victory against Michigan two weeks ago, 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 the country, but crazier things (read, a victory after four overtimes) had already happened for Penn State.
So the idea that Penn State could compete against Ohio State was prevalent. Then about two minutes into the game Ohio State scored a touchdown on a drive of seven plays for 75 yards. Reality had arrived quickly, and the rest of the game played out like a nightmare.
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 night. Historic, even.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, Penn State 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 the 63 points were the most they had allowed since that 1920 Navy game.
Another part of Saturday night’s game was unprecedented. The Nittany Lions got blown out in the first half. Under coach Bill O’Brien, this had never happened. While Penn State has trailed teams significantly in the second half – Ohio State last year and Indiana this year – it had always started out games relatively strong.
In addition to the score, the hurtful part for Penn State was the way Ohio State was scoring. 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.
Thing is, 42-7 at half barely gave justice to how dominant the Buckeyes were playing. When they got the ball with under a minute left in the second quarter, they had to cover 86 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.
Perhaps 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. By giving up more than 40 points yet again, Penn State allowed 40-plus points for three straight games for the first time since 1899, according to the Big Ten Network’s Dave Revsine.
Penn State’s offense was not nearly 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, he had fumbled the ball (though Penn State recovered) and thrown another interception. He left about midway through the third quarter. No single hit appeared to be a deciding factor, Hackenberg watched the rest of the game from the bench with ice on his shoulder.
From the historically bad defensive performance to the injury, surrealism coated everything on this night, 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