There was Barkley, but there was no bite.
A “Dark Night in the Shoe,” as Ohio State’s marketing team labeled it, got dark indeed for Penn State as the team fell to the No. 1 Buckeyes 38-10 under a pitch-black sky and black-clad crowd of over 108,000 on Saturday night.
Freshman running back Saquon Barkley made his return to the field after sustaining an ankle injury against San Diego State that sat him for the last couple of weeks, and rushed for 194 yards (averaging 7.5 per carry), stiff-arming and juke-stepping defenders on his way — he even brought a hurdle out of his bag of tricks, an homage to the first big play he showed football fans back in the second week of the season.
But the one time Barkley saw the end zone, on a beautiful run after quarterback Christian Hackenberg faked a handoff to Brandon Polk and gave it to Barkley, who curled out wide right for the score, he was called right back as flags flew when offensive guard Brian Gaia was caught holding on the play.
“That callback for a penalty, I think, was a significant play in the game at that point,” head coach James Franklin said after the game.
“We had some opportunities early in the game. Our defense was playing well, the offense was moving the ball, and those things, we weren’t able to capitalize on. And when you don’t capitalize on the road, on the No. 1 team in the country, you’re going to have some problems.”
Take out Barkley, and the offense produced just 121 total yards. Hackenberg finished with 7 completed passes on 13 attempts, a touchdown, five sacks and a fumble.
Field position, too, hurt the Nittany Lions. Between the two punters, Chris Gulla and Daniel Pasquariello, Penn State averaged 33 yards per punt and allowed Ohio State to begin its drives well within the visitor’s territory four times.
“We’re having major issues, we’ve had major issues for two years with punting the ball,” said Franklin. “The way we need to play right now, which is play great on defense, and find ways to grind it out on offense and play field position, we haven’t been able to do that for two years. If we need to have open tryouts, we’re going to have to find a way to solve that problem. That’s been a major issue for us.”
The Nittany Lions started well enough in the hostile, roaring environment. Joey Julius booted in a 33-yard field goal to put the first points by either team on the board after Penn State’s defense forced three straight punts as Buckeyes starting quarterback Cardale Jones and his offense struggled to find mometum.
And for 13 minutes, 29 seconds, Penn State led.
The defense contained — the Nittany Lions have now held opponents to just 14 first-quarter points combined through seven games — but could not sustain once Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer began to rotate his quarterbacks.
J.T. Barrett punched in the first touchdown for the Buckeyes, with a five-yard run.
Barrett, Braxton Miller (a former quarterback-turned-receiver prior to the start of the year) and Jones each took a snap apiece on the second touchdown drive, to march the ball 45 yards in four plays, before Ezekiel Elliott took a handoff for 10 yards and the score.
Then, Barrett, a dual-threat with prodigious skill, scored again on a 13-yard keeper, Ohio State’s third unanswered touchdown of the quarter.
“I thought we were actually playing pretty good when it was a traditional drop-back quarterback (in Jones),” said Franklin. “Now, Barrett comes in, and the speed and the athleticism he has, not only to beat you with his arm, but also beat you with his legs.”
Barrett finished with 106 rushing yards on 11 carries with two rushing touchdowns.
The Nittany Lions bulldozed their way 78 yards down the field in just three plays to open the third quarter with a touchdown.
Hackenberg threw deep on his first snap to receiver Chris Godwin, who took corner Eli Apple for a 20-yard ride on his back after snagging it over Apple’s outstretched arms for the 56-yard play, Hackenberg’s longest passing play of the season. A 14-yard carry by Barkley set up an eight-yard touchdown catch-and-stretch by receiver DaeSean Hamilton.
The Nittany Lions’ defense held Ohio State scoreless in the third as defensive end Carl Nassib notched a sack-and-a-half (he leads the nation with 11 1/2 on the season) to help the Buckeyes accumulate just 62 yards of offense throughout the period.
“The same guys keep stepping up,” Franklin said of Nassib and his defensive line.
Ohio State kicker Jack Willoughby knocked in a 39-yard field goal with 12:54 left to play to push the Buckeyes’ lead to 24-10.
Barkley cut-and-ran for 56 yards up the field to answer, but was stuffed on the resulting series’ third-and-two. Penn State decided to go for it — and Hackenberg was sacked as Barkley curled outside, waving for the ball with nothing but air covering him.
“I just saw my first two reads were taken away,” Hackenberg said. “By the time I got to three and four, I had to kind of climb up in the pocket and figure out how to evade some things, so, you know, it was what it was. I have to look at that one on film again.”
Barrett, jumping in the air, threw a five-yard bloop-pass over the middle to Miller for Ohio State’s next score, and then tossed a six-yard connection to Michael Thomas for the final touchdown of the night.
“I thought we did a lot of really good things, but we just weren’t able to capitalize on some things when we needed to,” Hackenberg said. “String some things together. So we just need to go back to the film, figure out how to string those things together, you know, tie everything together, and go out and finalize, and finish when we need to.”