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Missed opportunities doomed Nittany Lions in Columbus

DEREK LEVARSE
YorkDispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Saquon Barkley had waited two-and-a-half weeks for this. The running back's dinged-up ankle looked just fine as he burst down the right sideline and gave a fist pump as he hit paydirt.

Only it didn't count.

A little laundry back at midfield was all it took to spoil Penn State' party.

Barkley's big run was opened up by a hold from right guard Brian Gaia, erasing what would have been a 44-yard touchdown and a 10-point Nittany Lions lead over the defending national champs.

They never recovered in a 38-10 loss in front of the second largest crowd in the history of the Horseshoe.

"We had some opportunities early in the game," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "The defense was playing well. The offense was moving the ball. We weren't able to capitalize on it.

"When you don't capitalize on the road against the No. 1 team in the country, you're gonna have some problems."

Those miscues gave time for Ohio State and its trio of stars — Ezekiel Elliott, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett — to trump Barkley.

And make no mistake, Barkley can be mentioned in the same breath as the Buckeyes' group after ripping off 194 yards on 26 rushes (7.5 ypc) against the No. 1 team in the country. The rest of the offense combined for just 121 yards.

But it wasn't enough to keep pace with the Buckeyes after they entrusted the ball to Barrett at quarterback instead of the ineffective Cardale Jones, which sparked the offense.

That, and the all-around excellence of Miller, who scored his 11th career touchdown against the Lions when he caught a jump pass from Barrett midway through the fourth to officially put the game away.

Barrett, who had been relegated to a red zone role for Urban Meyer's offense for much of the season, ended up rushing for 102 yards and two scores and throwing for two more. Elliott added 153 yards on the ground and a touchdown.

Penn State (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) had a better start than reasonably expected against the nation's top team. But the Lions didn't get enough out of it.

Christian Hackenberg delivered a 45-yard strike to Chris Godwin, but the Lions had to settle for a 33-yard Joey Julius field goal. Two drives later, tight end Mike Gesicki dropped a wide open pass at the Buckeyes 20 before Barkley's potential score was wiped out.

"We need to do a better job of bouncing back from that," Hackenberg said. "Stringing some plays together right after that on the ensuing drive."

Instead of points, the drive ended with a Joey Bosa sack and one of several mediocre punts. The Lions' average drive started at their own 17, 20 yards worse than the Buckeyes.

"We've had major issues for two years with punting the ball," Franklin said. "The way we need to play right now, which is play great on defense and find ways to grind it out on offense and play field position — we haven't been able to do that for two years.

"If we need to have open tryouts, we're going to have to find a way to solve that problem. That's been a major issue for us."

Ohio State (7-0, 3-0) was able to weather the storm long enough to get their footing on offense and take control early in the second quarter.

The Bucks had punted three straight times to start the game — including once from the Lions 34-yard line. They finished the first half with three straight touchdowns to make it 21-3 at the break.

Almost as alarming — Hackenberg was sacked on a fourth-and-8 play from the Ohio State 31 and awkwardly hobbled off the field.

But there wasn't any alarm on the Penn State sideline, evidenced by the fact that backup Trace McSorley kept on his ballcap and never moved an inch to start warming up.

"Christian got banged up," Franklin said. "Asked the doctors if he was good to go, and they said he was good to go."

"Just a little banger," Hackenberg said. "I'm fine. I'm good. I just got whacked pretty good. But it's all good."

Despite all of the sacks, Hackenberg has still never missed a snap due to injury in his career. And he played every offensive snap Saturday, even on a head-scratching final drive despite being down by four touchdowns.

"It's no different than — late in the game they had Bosa and their starting defense in there," Franklin said. "You're still playing to win. Trying to find a way to be successful."

Where the Lions erased a 17-point halftime deficit a year ago to force overtime, there wasn't going to be a repeat while facing an 18-point hole this time around.

They did, however, summon a brief spark with a three-play, 78-yard scoring drive right out of the locker room. A 56-yard pitch and catch to Godwin set up a nifty 8-yard screen pass to DaeSean Hamilton, as the sophomore tightroped the sideline before leaping to break the plane.

Down by 14 points early in the fourth, Barkley broke a career-best 56-yard run to give the Lions some life. But Hackenberg was sacked on fourth-and-2 at the Ohio State 13-yard line.

Barkley flashed wide open on the right side, but Franklin said the freshman was Hackenberg's fourth read on the play and because of the pass rush, there wasn't time to check down to him.

"I saw my first two reads were taken away," Hackenberg said. "I tried to get to three and four, but by that time I had to climb up in the pocket and figure out how to evade some things."

The Buckeyes quickly answered with an 85-yard touchdown drive to put the game away.

"We lacked execution today," said defensive end Carl Nassib, who ran his nation-leading sack total to 11.5 during the game. "It won't happen again."