Knockout punch belongs to OSU

Commentary

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Just when it appeared that Penn State was about ready to take the torch from Ohio State as the Big Ten’s flagship program, the Nittany Lions were dealt a cruel reality that will be forever etched in their craw.

Penn State came into hallowed Ohio Stadium unbeaten, the reigning Big Ten champion, ranked No. 2 and had the Buckeyes on the ropes throughout.

Saquon Barkley returned Saturday’s opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, the Lions twice built three-score leads and held a two-score lead for the majority of the game, including as late as 38-27 with 5:18 remaining.

And then Ohio State showed who’s boss as the Buckeyes punched in two late touchdowns to win, 39-38, reinforcing that the road to the 2017 Big Ten title definitely runs right through here.

“Obviously, very disappointed,” James Franklin said afterward. “The margin for error is very small when you play these types of games.”

Penn State led for more than 58 minutes, but the Lions also left the door open just long enough for the Buckeyes to storm through it.

“We didn’t finish,” Franklin said.

The theme was repeated throughout a dejected PSU camp.

“We focus on finish, finish, finish,” linebacker Koa Farmer said. “That’s not what we did today.”

As was the case in the Rose Bowl when Penn State couldn’t put away Southern Cal, the Lions were not able to control the clock in the fourth quarter and protect a lead with an effective running game.

Barkley was repeatedly snowed under when he attempted to make yardage between the tackles. Leading 35-27, the Lions had a good drive and moved to the Ohio State 7 before they got conservative and ran three straight times into the middle of the line before settling for a field goal and a 38-27 edge with 5:18 left.

“I thought that was a big drive,” Franklin said. “That gave us a chance and made it a two-score game again. But they were gaining momentum, especially offensively. We had a hard time slowing them down.”

Scoring 38 still should have been enough, but the Lions’ defense got weaker and more vulnerable to the pass as the game unfolded and was carved up by Ohio State star quarterback J.T. Barnett.

“Winning minimizes problems,” safety Marcus Allen said, “and losing maximizes problems.”

After the Buckeyes pulled within 38-33, Penn State tried three more runs out of a playbook that suddenly appeared from the 1960s, and its resulting punt set Ohio State up for its game-winning drive.

“Our four-minute offense is something that hurt us last year, and it hurt us again,” Franklin said.

“We didn’t close out the game very well,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “We get a couple first downs, the game’s over.”

Franklin took the blame and spread it, too. He questioned whether the Lions took their foot off the gas too soon.

“We’re not able to consistently run the ball at the end of games to finish the game with a four-minute mentality,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt if you can run the ball more consistently (it helps) or don’t even think like that and stay with your mentality.”

While the offense didn’t put the game away, the defense can’t be exonerated. It got almost no pressure on Barrett. Consequently, the Buckeye receivers were wide open throughout the second half.

“We’re usually able to get to the quarterback, either through pass rush or blitz, and we weren’t able to do that,” Franklin said. “When you can’t get pressure, it’s tough to cover athletes like they have that long.”

Statistically, Ohio State dominated. The Buckeyes helped keep the Lions in the game by allowing 175 yards of kickoff return yardage and committing 10 penalties — seven in the first half as PSU built leads of 21-3 and 28-10.

“We didn’t play good enough at a lot of positions,” Franklin said. “I didn’t manage the game well enough. We didn’t call the game good enough. There’s enough blame to spread all around here.”

Ohio State, of course, got the same kind of emotional lift from its crowd as the Lions got a year ago at Beaver Stadium.

“We lost to a very good team in a tough environment,” Franklin said. “I thought we played good but obviously not good enough.”

Exactly.

To win here, playing well is not good enough.

You have to play great.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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