Penn State’s fourth quarter struggles prove costly in sixth straight loss to Ohio State
Penn State was 10 minutes away from shocking the world and upsetting No. 2 Ohio State.
The Nittany Lions were leading 21-16 and were on their way to defeating the Buckeyes for the second time in 10 years, but disaster ensued.
The blue and white allowed 28 points in the final 15 minutes and turned the ball over twice, leaving the Beaver Stadium crowd stunned.
Ohio State came away with a 44-31 victory, and after silencing his critics last week, the blame was once again placed on Sean Clifford.
Clifford turned the ball over four times in the loss, and while they were not the only reason Penn State lost, they did significantly affect the outcome of the contest.
“First half, we were able to overcome the turnovers and stay in the game and battle,” James Franklin said. “But you can't turn the ball over that many times against that type of opponent and think you're gonna be successful.”
On the game's opening drive, Ohio State drove down the field and kicked a field goal, setting the stage for Clifford and the offense.
Clifford responded by throwing his first interception, which was deflected by defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau into the hands of Zach Harrison.
His interception proved not too costly as the Buckeyes missed a 53-yard field goal, and the Nittany Lions took over near midfield.
However, for the second straight drive, Clifford was intercepted by Tuimoloau.
“I thought that [Tuimoloau] and Zach Harrison had a really good day,” Clifford said. “I thought that we pass protected really well. They just made plays.”
It took Ohio State just three plays to score after the second interception, but things started to turn around for the blue and white once the second quarter began.
Minutes into the second, Clifford connected with Parker Washington, who broke two tackles and was off to the races for a 58-yard touchdown.
On the next drive, Clifford escaped the pocket and fired a beautiful strike to Theo Johnson for a 42-yard catch, and one play later, Penn State had the lead as Clifford found KeAndre Lambert-Smith for the 23-yard score.
The Nittany Lions trailed 16-14 entering the fourth quarter, but once again Clifford led his team down the field for the go-ahead score.
The Cincinnati, Ohio, native was 10 minutes away from upsetting his home state team and capturing his first-ever win over the Buckeyes.
Just like against Minnesota, Clifford faced boos from the home crowd after some early turnovers but battled back to put his team in an excellent position to win.
All Penn State had to do was continue to play the way it had for the first three quarterbacks, and it would be victorious.
Well, that’s not what happened.
“I thought that we were in the game for the majority of it and then just, football, turn of events,” Clifford said. “Kind of a momentum swing, and they converted on it.”
On the ensuing Ohio State drive, it took just three plays and 37 seconds to score, taking a 23-21 with under nine minutes left.
The next drive for the Nittany Lions was short-lived, with Tuimoloau sacking Clifford and forcing the ball to come out, which he recovered.
The next play, CJ Stroud connected with Cade Stover for a 24-yard touchdown, and the once raucous crowd was left silenced as the Buckeyes scored 14 points in just around one minute of game time.
The blue and white pulled within one score after a Jake Pinegar field goal, but Ohio State marched down the field, and TreVeyon Henderson capped off a long drive with a touchdown.
The nail in the coffin for Penn State came on the next play as Clifford attempted to throw a screen pass that was picked off by Tuimoloau and returned for six.
The Nittany Lions failed to find an answer for the Buckeyes, who scored every time they touched the ball until they took a knee.
After the crushing loss, Franklin didn’t assign blame to anyone but gave his perspective on what went wrong in the final 10 minutes.
“The game starts and ends with the turnovers,” Franklin said. “We knew this type of opponent we were going to have to be able to score points on. They’re explosive on the offensive side of the ball. They’re explosive on the defensive side of the ball.”
Despite the loss, Penn State is still on track for a 10-win season, but from a long-term view, the loss means so much more.
During Franklin’s tenure, his inability to beat teams such as Ohio State and Michigan has held the Nittany Lions back from being serious contenders for the college football playoffs.
“I think, in a lot of ways, we've taken some steps in the right direction,” Franklin said Tuesday. “But there are still some areas that we need to get resolved.”
The areas Franklin alludes to are things such as facility upgrades and improved recruiting that are being “resolved.”
A new university president, athletic director and renovated football building should all help in the long term. However, those are long-term issues that don’t help Penn State end its six-year losing streak against the Buckeyes.
The Nittany Lions are keeping the same mentality of building from the ground up, step by step, as they head to Indiana next weekend.
“Losses are hard. They’re hard around here in a place like Penn State where we have really high expectations and standards,” Franklin said. “But that's our job as coaches, and that's their job as players, to rebound as quickly as we possibly can, get the corrections made and move on to our next opponent.”
Alex Rocco is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.