How one awful play call ended Penn State's party against Ohio State

Pete Thamel

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – There are few environments in all of sport so intimidating they unleash a visceral cocktail of shaking pom-poms, pulsating music and a roar that will ring in your ears for a fortnight.

That’s the setting at Penn State when it plays a “White Out” night game in Happy Valley, an experience and energy that can’t be duplicated by pumping music into practice.

For more than 50 minutes on Saturday night, No. 9 Penn State outplayed and outclassed No. 4 Ohio State, building a 12-point fourth-quarter lead behind a blitz-happy defense and the verve and guile of precocious quarterback Trace McSorley. For most of the night, Penn State’s performance managed to match its scintillating surroundings.

Then everything unraveled in a devastating spiral that abruptly ended the party for the 110,889 at Beaver Stadium on Saturday night. Imagine a phalanx of cops showing up at the high school party of the year. Or a stink bomb at the symphony. Or a fire alarm at the monastery. The air got ShopVac’d out of Beaver Stadium in the fourth quarter almost faster than the second-guessing could begin. And James Franklin went home with a whopping migraine of regret, knowing Penn State squandered a signature victory for the program.

Ohio State escaped with a 27-26 victory that ended with a dizzying flurry, minting it the best game so far in this college football season. More than 100,000 white-clad fans left muttering about Penn State’s play call on fourth-and-5 from the Ohio State 45-yard line with 1:16 remaining that essentially ended the game. And started the head-scratching.

After calling two timeouts to get the right play, Penn State ran a zone-read play that took the ball out of McSorley’s hands and put it in the gut of tailback Miles Sanders. He was swallowed whole by Ohio State’s Chase Young two yards behind the line of scrimmage, and the generations of second-guessing in Centre County began moments after.

“We obviously didn’t make the right call in that situation, and that’s on me, nobody else,” Franklin said. “Obviously, it didn’t work.”

Ohio State is in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten after Saturday’s action. (Getty)
Ohio State is in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten after Saturday’s action. (Getty)

Ohio State came back thanks to a balletic 47-yard touchdown weave by Ohio State’s Binjimen Victor that changed the game and a 96-yard drive to win the game that Urban Meyer minted as “one of the great drives in Ohio State history.”

But those moments were all trumped by Penn State’s final offensive call. McSorley looked for much of the night like Baker Mayfield 2.0, the 2018 sequel of the former Oklahoma star’s resplendent Heisman Trophy season. He gashed Ohio State on quarterback draws, showed a feathery touch down the field when needed and finished with a program-record 461 yards of total offense (286 passing and 175 rushing). He was, essentially, their entire offense and would certainly top any advanced metrics that calculated grit. But with the game on the line and two timeouts to think about it, Franklin and coordinator Ricky Rahne could only muster a zone-read that Meyer said the Buckeye defensive coaches predicted was coming on the headset. “We had an idea what they were going to do,” defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones said, “and they did exactly what we planned for.”

The final play was preceded by dueling timeouts in a way that essentially replicated an NBA end game. Penn State took its first one because the game was on the line. Ohio State showed a blitz and then took a timeout, getting a peek at what Penn State may do and then switching schemes during the timeout to counter. Ohio State altered alignments from a three-down front to a four-down front. Penn State countered with another timeout. Ohio State stuck with the four-down, and on the head set Meyer said he heard: “They’re going to try and do a zone-read and get the quarterback the ball.”

Ohio State ran a technique they call “Tar” in which the two inside linemen, Jones and Jashon Cornell, run straight up the field and the ends, Young and Jonathon Cooper, loop around to follow in their wake. Cornell will be the unsung hero of the night, as he made enough of a push inside that it allowed Young a clear path to Sanders for the night’s clinching play. Young also had a sack earlier in that series to put Penn State four yards behind the chains, and he finished with two sacks, three tackles for loss and an earlier key fourth-down pass break-up. “It’s a coming-out party for him,” Meyer said, as Young is considered one of the three best pure talents on the Buckeyes’ roster.

That party would have been muted if Victor hadn’t authored the most dazzling play of the night. Until the game’s final eight minutes, Ohio State’s offense had been blitzed and battered into a shell.

“The first half was awful and very concerning and very alarming,” Meyer told Yahoo Sports after the game. But Victor hauled in what was essentially a 10-yard catch and sashayed the rest of the way to the end zone, breaking two tackles and then cutting back on poor Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons so violently that it was the football version of an ankle break. “Ben Victor,” Meyer said of the junior receiver, “changed the whole deal.”

On the subsequent drive, Ohio State began on its own 4-yard line, backed up to the rowdy student section. They escaped, thanks to the only offensive play that worked consistently for Ohio State all night – the screen pass. Dwayne Haskins shook off three uneven quarters and hit a middle screen to J.K. Dobbins, who galloped 35 yards out of the shadow of the goal line. K.J. Hill capped the drive with another screen, dicing past Penn State’s John Reid and prancing 24 yards into the end zone for the winning score. He was accompanied by strong wide receiver blocking, something that surely makes Meyer, a former receivers coach, giddy to the core. “They knew they had to get after him,” offensive coordinator Ryan Day said of Haskins. “They were rushing hard. They were coming after us.”

The 96 yards, bookended by screens, slammed the door on Penn State and kept everything wide open for all of Ohio State’s goals – from Big Ten East all the way to the College Football Playoff. Ohio State committed 10 penalties for 105 yards, gave up the longest touchdown in school history (again, 93 yards) and seemed helpless at times to stop obvious quarterback runs.

But when it all mattered, Haskins’ night flipped from pedestrian to gritty, Ohio State’s defense went from porous to opportunistic, and the Buckeyes found a way to end the party in State College a few hours before last call. “Where did the last drive start from?” Meyer said. “The 4-yard-line? And we went 96 yards? At Penn State?”

His paused for a second, his eyes looking like they’d seen a flash bulb, and then retreated into the locker room to try and sort out what had just happened. The Penn State fans streaming into the chilly night were wondering the same thing.

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