Ohio State seemed to be caught Saturday basking in an unusually warm November afternoon at Ohio Stadium, falling behind visiting Penn State by a 14-3 score at halftime.
But when the sun went down, the Buckeyes suddenly woke up.
Fueled by a huge fourth-down stop of the Nittany Lions just before halftime, they tallied five unanswered touchdowns – including two on interception returns – and wound up cruising to a 38-14 victory that kept them on pace for a sixth consecutive Big Ten championship.
It was the largest comeback for the Buckeyes in the Jim Tressel era, wiping out 10-point comebacks against Penn State in 2003 and Michigan State in 2005.
OSU moved its conference record to 5-1 and is in a first-place tie with Wisconsin and Michigan State with two weeks remaining in the regular season. Iowa dropped out of the tie when it absorbed a 21-17 upset at Northwestern earlier in the day.
“I thought the turning point was when we stopped them on fourth down in the second quarter,” Tressel said after the game. “Our guys went out in the second half and took over, but it was fueled by how hard that defense fought to stop them there before halftime.
“We weren’t a good first-half team (and) those are the facts. I guess we do a bad job during open weeks. I don’t know. But they played their fannies off in the second half and we’re awfully proud of them.”
The Buckeyes appeared lethargic following their week off and allowed Penn State sophomore quarterback Matt McGloin to have free and easy reign over the proceedings early. McGloin completed 13 of 18 attempts in the first half for 141 yards and two touchdowns.
It was completely different story in the second half, however. McGloin was able to connect only twice in 12 attempts after the break for 18 yards. He also threw a pair of pick-sixes – a 34-yard return by OSU senior cornerback Devon Torrence and a 30-yarder by sophomore corner Travis Howard.
Those defensive touchdowns marked the fifth and sixth interception returns for the Buckeyes against Penn State in the last seven meetings. Malcolm Jenkins ran INTs back in 2006 and ’07, Antonio Smith returned one in 2006 and Tyler Everett returned an interception for a touchdown against the Nittany Lions in 2004.
While the Ohio State defense allowed 212 total yards in the first half, it completely clamped down on Penn State in the third and fourth quarters. The Nittany Lions managed only 60 yards in the second half to finish the game with 272.
Meanwhile, the OSU offense exploded for 306 of its 453 total yards in the second half. The Buckeyes got their ground game going big-time with 314 yards, including a career-high 190 from junior tailback Dan “Boom” Herron. He carried 21 times and scored a touchdown.
Junior quarterback Terrelle Pryor completed 8 of 13 passes in the game for 139 yards, two touchdowns and an interception while chipping in with 49 yards rushing on nine carries. Senior tailback Brandon Saine added 46 yards on eight attempts.
For Penn State, senior tailback Evan Royster had his streak of 100-yard games snapped at two. He was limited to only 49 yards on 16 carries.
Defensively, the Buckeyes were led by sophomore safety Orhian Johnson, who matched his career-high with eight tackles including the finishing blow on the big fourth-down stop in the second quarter. Senior safety Jermale Hines was also in on that crucial tackle just before halftime, one of seven stops he had in the contest.
Ohio State took the opening kickoff and quickly marched into the red zone thanks mostly by a 49-yard completion from Pryor to Posey. But after setting up with the first down at the PSU 12, the Buckeyes stalled and were forced to settle for a 26-yard field goal from senior kicker Devin Barclay.
That made it 3-0 at the 11:36 mark of the first quarter.
The remainder of the first half was all Penn State. The Nittany Lions went three-and-out on their first possession, but the second was a 10-play, 67-yard march that resulted in a 23-yard touchdown pass from McGloin to sophomore receiver Justin Brown.
Senior kicker Collin Wagner tacked on the extra point, and Penn State had a 7-3 lead with 4:10 left in the opening period.
When the Nittany Lions got the ball back, they did even better. McGloin engineered an 11-play, 82-yard scoring drive that included the Penn State QB completing all three of his pass attempts. The third went for 6 yards and a touchdown to junior receiver Derek Moye, and after Wagner added the PAT, the Lions enjoyed a 14-3 lead with 11:23 left until halftime.
That was the way it stayed until the Buckeyes decided they’d had enough.
Penn State moved to the OSU 20-yard line with 1:46 remaining but was faced with a fourth-and-1. After calling a timeout to discuss his options, PSU head coach Joe Paterno elected to go for the first down but freshman tailback Silas Redd was stopped for no gain. That stop seemed to fuel the Buckeyes – especially on defense – and the Nittany Lions crossed into Ohio State territory only once more the rest of the game.
The momentum really began to change early in the second half. After forcing Penn State to punt away the third quarter’s first possession, OSU embarked upon an 11-play, 96-yard touchdown drive that marked the longest march of the season. It actually encompassed 98 yards since the Buckeyes were called for a false start before the drive got under way, but once it did, Ohio State covered the distance in just over 5½ minutes.
Herron had a nifty 19-yard run early in the possession when he was stopped at the line of scrimmage and then bounced outside. Pryor followed one play later with a fake handoff to Saine and a run up the gut for 14 yards.
Later, Saine had his own highlight run when he swept around left end and broke five tackles on a 19-yard gainer that pushed the ball to the Penn State 5. From there, Herron blew through a huge hole up the middle for the touchdown. Barclay added the extra point and the Buckeyes had pulled within four at 14-10 with 6:33 remaining in the third quarter.
OSU erased the deficit altogether a little over two minutes later when Torrance stepped in front of Penn State running back Michael Zordich and picked off McGloin. The senior cornerback bobbled the ball three times before gaining control, and then made McGloin miss badly with a would-be tackle at about the 12-yard line.
Torrence galloped untouched into the end zone to complete the 34-yard interception return, and once Barclay had tacked on the PAT, the Buckeyes had forged their first lead of the game at 17-14 with 4:29 left in the third period.
The defense responded by forcing three-and-out series from Penn State on its next two possessions. The offense couldn’t cash in the first time when Pryor threw an interception near the goal line, but it converted the second time when Pryor’s deep ball meant for a double-covered Posey bounced directly into the arms of senior co-captain Dane Sanzenbacher for a 58-yard touchdown.
A scant 61 seconds later, the OSU defense struck again when Howard returned an interception 30 yards for his first career touchdown. Barclay hit extra points after both touchdowns and the Buckeyes had pushed their lead to 31-14 with 8:57 remaining in the game.
Ohio State added its final touchdown on a 3-yard pass from Pryor to tight end Jake Stoneburner with 3:59 remaining, a score that was set up by Herron’s 47-yard bolt down the home sideline. The junior tailback carried five times during that 78-yard drive, and accounted for 70 of the yards.
The Buckeyes (9-1, 5-1) will be back in action next Saturday when they travel to Iowa. The Hawkeyes fell to 7-3 overall and 4-2 in conference play following their loss at Northwestern.
Kickoff next Saturday from Kinnick Stadium is set for shortly after 3:30 p.m. Eastern.