COLUMBUS – With each blowout the question began to be asked more and more.
How would Ohio State react to dealing with adversity? What would the Buckeyes do if they found themselves in a close game after winning 10 straight games by margins that ranged from 24 points on the low end to 71 points on the high end?
The answer came in a 28-17 win over Penn State on Saturday that clinched the Big Ten East Division and sent No. 2 OSU (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten) to the Big Ten championship game for a third straight season.
The answer maybe wasn’t as emphatic as it could have been. It wasn’t perfect. But it was enough and it was definitely the right answer.
The worst of the adversity arrived when No. 8 Penn State (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) scored two touchdowns in 25 seconds midway through the third quarter, then added a field goal to cut a 21-0 Ohio State lead to 21-17 with four minutes left in that quarter.
A lot of Ohio State’s difficulties were self inflicted. Quarterback Justin Fields threw for two touchdowns and carried the ball a season-high 21 times for 103 yards, but he also lost two fumbles. His first fumble came just before he would have scored a touchdown that would have sent OSU out to a two-touchdown lead late in the first quarter.
And J.K. Dobbins, who rushed for 157 yards and two touchdowns, lost a fumble that set up the second of Penn State’s two scores in 25 seconds in the third quarter. And there were other mistakes that made OSU’s win more difficult than it could have been.
“There was a point in the game where we were taking shots,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said.
“We brought the team together, offense and defense. One of the things about playing in a game like this is you have to be willing to take punches and you have to not flinch when it happens. And that was a great example.
“To win a game like that which was not clean shows the toughness we have. You walk out of that game thinking, ‘Oh, we probably could have won a lot bigger than that.’ I said to one of the coaches, ‘Maybe it’s been a little too easy at times. That was hard today.’ We learned some lessons and hopefully we can go from there.”
After Penn State pulled to within four points, Fields’ 28-yard touchdown pass to Chris Olave early in the fourth quarter made it 28-17 and Ohio State’s defense shut out Penn State over the last 19 minutes of the game.
“We talked all week about going through adversity. When they started throwing punches we took it but we knew we had to come back with something and put some good drives together,” Olave said. “We showed people we could get through adversity. We showed the nation that we’re real.”
Dobbins said, “We were pushed but we made a lot of mistakes. Credit to them but we messed up a lot. We knew we could move the ball and we were just killing ourselves. We just rallied around each other and said we were going to fix it.”
Ohio State had 417 yards total offense in the game and Penn State had 227 yards. The disparity was even greater in the first half when OSU gained 255 yards and Penn State had only 60.
“We couldn’t get things going offensively early, especially with the running game, which made us one dimensional,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “They had explosive plays and we didn’t.”