COLUMBUS, Ohio — For Penn State, score this as a heartbreaker.
The Nittany Lions had an 18-point lead against
No. 6 Ohio State. Twice. And, they blew it.
They had three separate drives in the fourth quarter that likely would have sealed the win if they were able to score a touchdown. One of them started firmly in Buckeyes territory, and they punted. Another saw them facing a first-and-goal situation from the Buckeyes 7, and they settled for a field goal.
They didn’t capitalize on enough of the Buckeyes’ myriad mistakes. They didn’t take advantage of enough of the big plays they had grown accustomed to making. Ohio State won, 39-38, after Penn State led, 28-10, with a little more than 38 minutes of game time left at Ohio Stadium in a game the world was watching.
If this is the only game the Nittany Lions lose this season, and they have to settle for another ranking outside of the College Football Playoff final four, rest assured they will take the bitter result of this game with them to their graves.
PSU not eliminated from playoff race: That said, this assumption that they eliminated themselves from the CFP by how they finished Saturday night is laughable.
“Yeah, we have a chance,” Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley said, with a tinge of defiance. “There are a lot of one-loss teams out there now. Who are the best of those one-loss teams out there now?
“Unfortunately, we don’t control our own destiny. The only thing we control now is how we approach the rest of the year.”
There were times this didn’t look good for Penn State, for sure. They were outgained by a wide margin, 529 yards to 283. Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett played a nearly perfect game, in large part because Penn State couldn’t get a pass rusher anywhere near him. By the end, momentum clearly had set up camp on the Ohio State sideline, and there was little Penn State could do to curb that.
But, look at this for a second like the College Football Playoff committee probably will.
Not a terrible or unacceptable loss: They will release their first playoff rankings Tuesday, and it’s a sure bet Ohio State will be in the initial top four and Penn State won’t be. But, it’s not like Penn State is going to be struggling to find a spot in the top 10, either.
They’ll view this as a one-point loss, in an extremely difficult environment, against a team that might have more sheer talent than anybody in the nation outside of Alabama. They’ll consider that Ohio State was coming off its bye week, and that if you’re looking for one coaching staff in the nation to game plan for one game coming out of a bye week, Urban Meyer’s is firmly in the running.
Don’t act like this is a terrible, unacceptable loss. The committee won’t.
This isn’t as bad a loss as Ohio State suffered at Beaver Stadium just a little more than a year ago. The Buckeyes were three-touchdown favorites in that game, lost to a Penn State team that had been underdogs to Maryland just a few weeks earlier, and did something championship-caliber teams do from that point on.
Lions must win: They took care of business. They won their games, They ran their schedule. They let others around them eliminate themselves, which is why Penn State linebacker Koa Farmer answered a question about how the Nittany Lions can overcome a loss that devastating with one word: “Win.”
Penn State came into the Horseshoe as a touchdown underdog and led for all but the last 1:48. It might not count for anything, depending on how everything else plays out with teams like Notre Dame and Georgia and Clemson and even Wisconsin down the stretch.
History says it probably will, though, once the season plays itself out.
“The margin of error is very small when you play these types of games,” head coach James Franklin said. “We still have a lot of football ahead of us, as we saw how everything played out last year. This is a crazy game with a lot of different storylines.
“More than anything, I’m hurting for our kids in the locker room. But, we didn’t finish. We had an opportunity. I thought we played, but obviously not good enough.”
Another blown fourth-quarter lead: That’s a big deal, too. Because in the end, Penn State wasn’t good enough to hold an 18-point lead on the road. Because Penn State has now lost two games in the last year, both in which they had two-score leads in the fourth quarter against dynamic offenses: USC in the Rose Bowl and now Ohio State.
The big difference between those two games, their gritty quarterback said: Penn State has a chance to turn the season around this time.
“We can’t let this define our season,” McSorley said. “We need to move on, get back to work and kind of use this as fire. This has to propel us throughout the rest of the year.
“It’s college football. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Lot of football left: As Franklin said, there’s a lot of football to play, plenty of results to follow. You might recall, the final CFP rankings in 2016 sent Ohio State to the Playoff and had Penn State fans seething.
But the Big Ten team the committee had ticketed for the CFP in its first set of rankings, you might recall, was Michigan.