The Columbus Post-Dispatch was replete with remorseful prose this morning, as its writers sorrowfully described the Ohio State Buckeyes’ (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) big loss to our Penn State Nittany Lions (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten). A distant echo of Robert Frost could be found in one lamentation about the big play that cost the Buckeyes the game: Pryor took the road less traveled, and it made all the difference.
Until the fourth quarter, the game was best described by my friend, Agent G. “This is like a Ravens game.” It was a defensive masterpiece in both blue and white and scarlet and gray. The old sportswriter’s metaphor about two heavyweight boxers feeling each other out, bobbing, weaving, jabbing, trying to spot an opening came to mind. First mistake costs big. There were no crucial mistakes in the first three quarters in a battle of field position in which Ohio State held the slight edge on the scoreboard, 6-3.
The first mistake that could have cost the game was a missed field goal by Penn State’s Kevin Kelly early in the fourth quarter. Fortunately, it didn’t. In The Turkey’s Cave, it was quiet, as the tensely rapt audience including Zbeard, Jackstand, and Artificially Sweetened concentrated on what was unfolding Panasonically on the big screen. After a second and two play in which Beanie Wells powered the ball for a yard leaving a third and one, this Turkey commented that no one had made a big mistake.
“Yet!” chimed in Artificially Sweetened.
That word was echoed by Zbeard, “Yet.”
Then it happened, right on cue. In a situation that should have been a practically automatic first down on the quarterback sneak called by the coaching staff, young freshman Terrelle Pryor, a lad with seemingly limitless potential who could have merely fallen forward for the first down behind the surge of his offensive line, thought he saw something. The Nittany Lions were “all pinched in” and all he would have to do was bounce to the outside for a big gain instead of playing good, fundamental football as his coaches wanted. So he thought, anyway. Pryor soon discovered that he was not in high school anymore, in much the same manner as another freshman Ohio State quarterback, Art Schlichter was welcomed to big-time college football in The Horseshoe in Penn State’s heretofore most recent win there, thirty years ago. In taking “the road less traveled” Pryor felt that he merely needed to get around Penn State safety Mark Rubin. Rubin knew he had to stop Pryor and he did, squaring up, meeting the kid, and knocking the ball loose in the process. The ball skittered around, eventually to be recovered by linebacker Navorro Bowman. Pryor went to the bench and hung his head in bemused shame. So much for freelancing, Kiddo.
Later, Pryor noted that he knew at the time he made the decision that he would take heat in the film room for it. This Turkey feels bad for the kid, because not only is he going to take heat in the film room, but he now has an entire state and a large collection of alumni on his ass. It was indeed a bad decision, a huge mental error, the kind that he’ll grow out of as his development progresses. However, it is not at all unfair to pin this loss on Pryor for defying his coaches.
“I can’t explain this,” he said. “I just didn’t hold the ball. I saw the end zone. It was there and the ball just fell out. I thought I was on my way to a touchdown but I just lost the ball. As soon as I fumbled it, I knew they would score.”
After the turnover, Pat Devlin entered the game to run the offense as Daryll Clark’s replacement. Clark’s bell had been rung in the previous series, and Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli diagnosed a concussion. Clark was upset about being benched, desperately wanting to get back into the game to direct the potential winning drive. However, it was not to be. Meanwhile, Devlin was stunned to be called upon. One of the guys asked him what was wrong with Clark. He said, “I have no idea. They just told me to go in.” Devlin performed flawlessly, mostly handing the ball to Evan Royster. A pass interference penalty gave the Lions the ball at the Ohio State 14. A few more handoffs and two quarterback sneaks later, the Lions hit paydirt, taking a 10-6 lead.
After a three-and-out by the Buckeyes, the Nittany Lions were deeply in Paternoesque Sphincter Mode. Slim lead, clock winding down, backup quarterback, hostile field—the conditions were ripe for it. Devlin safely handed the ball off to Royster six more times, interspersed with a two-yard quarterback sneak of his own, positioning the ball on the Ohio State 18. On fourth and four, Kevin Kelly added a three-pointer to increase Penn State’s lead to seven points with 1:07 on the clock.
Kelly’s kickoff sailed deep into the Ohio State end zone, setting up the Buckeyes’ final drive from their own 20. Pryor came out throwing. With the Penn State safeties dropped back in Sandusky Memorial Prevent Configuration, Pryor managed to complete two passes to Ray Small, moving the Buckeyes to the Penn State 43. Then, with 27 seconds left on the game clock, Pryor made his final mistake of the game, throwing deep toward the sideline near the Penn State end zone. Lydell Sargent was there to intercept the pass. Game, Penn State.
The Penn State passing attack never gained traction, as the Nittany Lions could muster only 121 passing yards to 160 rushing. However, the telling statistic is the Ohio State rushing total of 61 yards. By bottling up Beanie Wells and forcing Pryor to throw, the Lions flawlessly executed a well conceived game plan. Pryor did manage to rack up 226 passing yards.
The officiating was interesting, to say the least. In their pre-game meeting, the zebras must have agreed upon a new definition of holding in which nothing short of a full nelson or a bear hug would qualify for a penalty.
Most of us, especially this Turkey, were wrong about this game. The great Penn State offense did not put big points on the board. It was the defense that shone. Both defenses did. Both game plans were sound. It all came down to a single turnover. It was ironic that it was Ohio State’s turnover, not Penn State’s. In the game of the season, Penn State took care of the ball.
Joe Paterno won his 381st game, watching once again from the press box. The Columbus media were pretty cruel, snidely alluding to octogenarian somnolence. However, the best quote I could dig up was this one by Tim May, of the Post-Dispatch:
The Nittany Lions gave Joe Paterno career win No. 381 and showed that coaching life begins at 81. He’s going for it all. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes fade into the background.
With a bye week ahead of us, we’ll have some extra time to savor this victory and to allow Clark to recover from his concussion. Iowa is next, followed by Indiana and Moo U. If the boys can maintain their focus, an undefeated season, capped by a run at the SSMNC and a Paterno retirement at the top of his game are entirely possible. Stay tuned!