It's always tough playing at Ohio Stadium, aka the "Horseshoe", in Columbus, Ohio. Since Penn State's first season in the Big Ten conference in 1993, we had won there only once, in 2008. As of yesterday, make that twice!
A 20-14 win against Ohio State Saturday night was characterized by more offense than anyone expected in the first half, and then by a complete defensive shutdown by both teams in the second half. The six-point difference in the game made it possible for either team to win until the final seconds of the game.
Gotta credit Ohio State's defense. Penn State's defense recovered two turnovers - both fumbles - in the second half. After the first fumble, recovered by Jordan Hill on OSU's 11-yard line, Penn State's offense drove to the OSU one-yard line and was denied three times on three rushing plays down the middle. That was an amazing defensive performance by Ohio State.
On fourth down, Coach Tom Bradley chose to forego a make-able three-point field goal to try to score a touchdown from the one-yard line on fourth down.
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The score at that point in the third quarter was already 20-14, and there was plenty of time left on the clock for anything to happen in this game. Penn State was denied a fourth time, on another rush down the middle.
Four times rushing down the middle? I have a vague memory about an old 1980's era joke about Joe Paterno driving down the highway and refusing to pass. I can't quite recite it. Maybe one of my readers will know the joke?
Why would Bradley not take the points? It would have felt a heck of a lot more comfortable to be ahead 23-14, by nine points, than by six points. To force Ohio State to score twice.
My husband Terry was fuming, as were others sitting around us. Terry was convinced that Coach Tom Bradley had just made the decision that would cost him the game and possibly even a shot at the head coaching job at Penn State.
It didn't make much sense to us to do anything else when our offensive production has been questionable at best all season. On the other hand, we had scored 20 points in the first half, and there was plenty of time left. It was a calculated risk of sorts by Bradley.
From his press conference comments, Tom Bradley basically was sending a message to his team that he would go "to the wall" with them to win this game.
Okay Coach, maybe. I can see that you might have been thinking that there was plenty of time to score if somehow OSU managed to get ahead. And you might have also been thinking that the defense could win this game against OSU's offense.
But still…I would have taken the points. Sorry.
Then, with Ohio State starting a drive from its own one-yard line, they made it to the OSU 35-yard line. Glenn Carson forced another fumble, and Nick Sukay recovered it on the OSU 46-yard line.
Great! Another short field for our offense! But Ohio State's defense held firm, Penn State went three-and-out, and punted it away to the OSU three-yard line.
Penn State was winning the battle of field position but after recovering two fumbles there were no points on the board. Not good.
With an entire fourth quarter yet to play in this game, we weren't feeling too optimistic about our chances to win this game if we couldn't score on such great turnover opportunities.
When Ohio State took over on their own 13-yard line with 7:09 remaining in the game, the decision not to go for those three points loomed large. Ohio State had plenty of time to score a touchdown. And they could run down the clock. Had Penn State been up by two scores, we would have been a lot less tense.
Credit Penn State's defense. Ohio State was able to make three first downs on mostly rushing plays that ran down the clock.
But their drive stalled at the PSU 36-yard line, and they needed a touchdown, not a field goal. On fourth down with five yards to go, they had a false start. On fourth and ten, quarterback Braxton Miller carried the ball when everyone was expecting a pass. He came up a yard short of making that first down.
Penn State took over on downs with 1:41 left on the clock. A false start meant they needed 15 yards for a first down. Running plays forced Ohio State to burn their remaining two time-outs. But basically Penn State's offense could not move the ball to get that crucial first down.
Ohio State got the ball back on their own 35-yard line with 36 seconds left in the game. It was left to the defense to shut them down one more time.
At that point I had an ill feeling in my stomach. Memories of 2005 at Michigan haunted me during those last 36 seconds, when Penn State was ahead until the last second of the game. But fortunately three passes fell incomplete and the game was over. Ohio State ran out of time for a comeback.
And we walked away with a hard-fought victory. Wow. Good win, guys. Very good win.
Let's back up a moment. Did I mention that this Penn State team scored 20 points in the first half of the game? That I felt that perhaps the offense had found some rhythm early for a change? In a game dominated by the running game, it was great to see Stephfon Green gain 94 yards on 16 carries and score our only two touchdowns.
Then there was that wildcat offense! We looked around at each other in bewilderment when #5 Bill Belton and then #7 Curtis Drake each tried wildcat plays at various points in the game. Fun to watch, and confusing not only to the Ohio State defense but also to the fans. Who's #5? Nobody knew. Some of us knew Curtis Drake's number, and remembered that he had recently recovered from injuries. Unexpected.
Kicker Anthony Fera was reliable as well making field goals from distances of 43 yards and 46 yards. His punts averaged 36 yards, and he contributed to Ohio State's unfavorable field position at several points in the game. Kickoffs averaged 69.2 yards.
Rob Bolden? Whatever happened to him? Everyone's best guess is that he will transfer. I feel badly about that. He had potential that was never quite realized in his first two years at Penn State, and it will probably never be now. Perhaps it's best for him to find a place where his talents can shine more readily.
We were staying at the same hotel as our team, something I hadn't anticipated to be part of our tour. We ran into several players, every one of whom greeted us and thanked us for being there to support them. Fortunately most of the media circus hadn't followed the team to Columbus.
We had a chance to talk briefly with Coach Tom Bradley, and also a bit longer with Brad "Spider" Caldwell, Penn State Football's equipment manager. I had gotten to know Spider through Ladies' Football Camp over the past two years, but it was the first time he met Terry.
Both Bradley and Caldwell assured us that the team was ready to play and determined to win.
What I caught from their comments was a true admiration for the grit and pure strength the team was displaying in a most difficult time on the Penn State campus and in the community surrounding it.
The news kept getting worse regarding the alleged crimes of child sexual abuse perpetrated by former football coach Jerry Sandusky, many years before these student-athletes arrived at Penn State.
Media was hounding every young person on campus. One student told me she was stopped four times in one day for a comment. She kept refusing, even though she wanted to speak.
Only the team knew how tough it was during the past two weeks. I could only imagine, having been in the classroom and often finding myself fending off rumors about what was going to happen next. Among the team, I can only guess that morale and focus was hard to keep up in the face of this adversity.
Of course, none of this can be compared to the horror that any victim of child sexual abuse faces. In dealing with the past, or in potentially reliving a past long dealt with that is somehow erupting into consciousness again due to such intense media coverage.
What I want - what we all want - is the truth, and justice. Not through the media, but through the courts.
There are stories that are still to be told, by so many people. But these stories can't be thoroughly told until court proceedings begin and people testify under oath and are cross-examined by defense attorneys.
That may take a while. A long while.
And so in that context, the victory by this football team at Ohio State, a tough place to win under normal conditions, is all the more impressive, if somewhat bittersweet.
This Penn State football team has a chance to win the Leaders division of the Big Ten if they beat Wisconsin. If they win, they will go to the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis. If they win there, they will play in the Rose Bowl.
Yes, they could go that far. And if they win, they deserve to be there. Wow.
As for the atmosphere at Ohio State, we were a bit apprehensive when we left State College and boarded a bus for Columbus.
We have always had a good experience at Ohio State and have always enjoyed the fans there. We have personally witnessed few if any incidents of harassment, dating back to our first trip to Ohio State in 1993, the year Penn State became a part of the Big Ten Conference.
Last year, our trip to the Horseshoe was the friendliest yet. Fans seemed to come out of nowhere to welcome us to Ohio State. Even my students had noticed an improved attitude of sportsmanship by Ohio State students. I credit this partly to an organized effort by Ohio State Athletics to create a welcoming atmosphere at Ohio Stadium.
An even more concerted effort took place this past week by Ohio State and its student club leadership on campus.
Ohio State understood that the student-athletes who were to take the field to play a football game on Saturday had nothing to do with any of the alleged crimes.
Ohio State also sent a clear message to its fans, faculty, staff, and students that the fans in the stands had nothing to do with those alleged crimes and should be welcomed and supported.
We are grateful to the Ohio State fans that they did not at all scorn people wearing blue and white during the weekend we were in Columbus.
In fact, we had some very good interactions with Ohio State fans over the weekend and at the game, who expressed their sincere sorrow over what has occurred. We even had people come up to us, and tell us they were glad we were there supporting our team.
And while Ohio State fans weren't too happy about losing this game, even after the game they were courteous towards us.
For that, we will always be grateful. Thank you Buckeye fans!
Finally, reeling from the news that former coach Joe Paterno has been diagnosed with a treatable form of lung cancer, I can only respond with prayers for him and his family and well wishes for strength and fortitude to get through this new challenge.
Best wishes to all. Please, be kind to one another. It's the only way to get through times like these.