Penn State Football

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Penn State’s 24-21 upset over Ohio State

Penn State cornerback Grant Haley recovers the blocked field goal and returns it for a touchdown during the Saturday, October 22, 2016 game at Beaver Stadium. Penn State won, 24-21.
Penn State cornerback Grant Haley recovers the blocked field goal and returns it for a touchdown during the Saturday, October 22, 2016 game at Beaver Stadium. Penn State won, 24-21.

The postgame scene at Beaver Stadium on Saturday night was unlike anything most have ever seen or experienced.

And by no means did it touch what happened on the same ground just minutes before.

For all intents and purposes, the Nittany Lions were left for dead. Down two touchdowns with the fourth quarter just around the corner, a few fans here and there headed for the exits.

Penn State was facing No. 2 Ohio State after all, a team that entered the evening with a 118-point differential in the second half this season. The Buckeyes, barreling through opponents toward a spot in the College Football Playoff, did nothing but win with resolve this season.

No one could’ve predicted how the final 15 minutes would eventually shake out.

But your eyes didn’t lie to you. That all actually happened.

Behind quarterback Trace McSorley’s late-game resilience and a lead-changing blocked field goal returned to the house by Grant Haley, a play that will forever go down in Penn State lore, the Nittany Lions pulled off the unimaginable, rattling off 17 unanswered fourth-quarter points to defeat the Buckeyes on a White Out-drenched evening at Beaver Stadium.

Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin, moments after being encompassed by the Penn State fanbase at midfield and escaping the ruckus only to find more chaos waiting for him in the Penn State locker room, tried to put the evening into words.

“There’s this thing that my college coach used to use: ‘Opportunity is now here,’” Franklin said exasperated. “When most people read it, they read it as ‘opportunity is nowhere.’ I talked to our guys about how that’s how life is. You can look at the same thing two different ways. ... When the No. 2 team in the country comes in and it’s the White Out, we’ve got an opportunity. Opportunity was knocking for us, and we needed to open that door and answer.”

Against all reason and doubt, the Nittany Lions did just that.


Where to start? Let’s go with the play that’ll be retold time and time again — a real “where were you when” moment.

From the press box and confirmed on replay, Tyler Durbin’s 45-yard field goal attempt looked low. But even if it was higher, it still might’ve been blocked.

Penn State safety Marcus Allen, the man who swatted Durbin’s boot to the ground, credited an adjustment made by special teams coordinator Charles Huff.

On Ohio State’s 33-yard field goal in the second quarter, Allen cleared the line of scrimmage untouched but missed the ball. He ran back to the sideline and received instruction from Huff.

“I said, ‘Where am I supposed to be to block the kick,’ and he said, ‘If they are on the right hash they are going to try to kick it onto the defense’s left guard because it is on the uprising,’” Allen recalled. “I went with the adjustment that coach Huff gave me, and I blocked it.”

Haley said Allen’s designed block was really just practiced this past week. And it worked to perfection.

▪  McSorley didn’t have a particularly efficient game. The redshirt sophomore completed 8 of 23 passing attempts for 154 yards for a 25.0 QBR, according to ESPN.

However, he stepped up when it was necessary.

Trailing 12-0 with 29 seconds left in the second quarter, a score for the Nittany Lions — field goal or touchdown — would be pivotal. McSorley rolled right and heaved a ball down the right sideline toward wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton. The ball was thrown only to where Hamilton could get it, and he did for a 34-yard gain.

Two plays later with only nine seconds left before halftime, McSorley spun a pretty 20-yard back-shoulder throw to Chris Godwin, who made a valiant effort fending off his man and hauling in the touchdown.

▪  According to ESPN Stats & Info, Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett was sacked or under duress on 44 percent of his dropbacks, the second-highest mark of his career.

The Penn State defensive front, especially late in the fourth quarter, was a nightmare for Barrett. The Nittany Lions recorded six sacks and 11 tackles for loss.

Previously-injured linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell came back to make 31 combined tackles, and Cabinda recorded a critical third-down sack on Ohio State’s final drive.

The Nittany Lions’ defense looked like a completely different unit than in previous games, and major reason for that was the defensive line. Defensive end Garrett Sickels, suspended in the first half, had 2.5 sacks in two quarters, and Evan Schwan and Kevin Givens combined for the upset-clinching takedown of Barrett.

But leaving stats aside for a minute, the front-four passed the eye test on every level when it came to keeping Barrett contained.

Sure, the Heisman Trophy candidate broke loose on a few scrambles, but for the most part, pressure off the edge by Sickels and Schwan helped bottle him up.

Cautious of giving up a long gainer, the Nittany Lions sent only four rushers for much of Ohio State’s final drive, and it turned out to be more than enough.

“Those guys really battled up front, and that’s where the battle had to start,” Cabinda said of the defensive line. “It needed to be a physical game. I can’t remember being this sore after a game in a long time, and I am really, really happy.”

▪  It wasn’t an ideal situation, but punter Blake Gillikin made a sneakily-significant play.

Tasked with punting deep in his own territory, the freshman saw the snap go way over his head and roll into the end zone.

Gillikin turned and bolted for the ball, beating out a wide receiver, Ohio State sophomore Terry McLaurin.

If the Buckeyes had recovered in Penn State’s end zone for a touchdown and made the ensuing extra point, the Nittany Lions would have trailed 26-7.

Could the Nittany Lions have overcome a 19-point deficit? Maybe not.


▪  Ohio State ran 24 plays before versatile playmaker Curtis Samuel touched the ball, and it wasn’t until the third quarter he garnered his first carry.

Of course, that first carry went for a 74-yard touchdown run, but Samuel’s lack of involvement in the offense was confusing. The junior entered Saturday night as Ohio State’s leading receiver and second-leading rusher.

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer was asked about Samuel, who finished with eight catches for 68 yards and only two carries.

“We probably should have gotten it to him more,” Meyer said. “They (Penn State’s defense) know where he’s at all the time, so we just have to do a better job.”

▪  Special teams wasn’t perfect for Penn State; a blocked Tyler Davis field goal ended his perfect career streak, and a muffed punt by John Reid put Ohio State in position to strike first in the second quarter.

Gregg Garrity took over fielding punts after Reid’s mistake, so we’ll see what Franklin decides to do moving forward at returner.


▪  It rained and was windy. So that was pretty ugly.

▪  On a more serious note, the Penn State offense didn’t click like it did against Maryland, tallying only 276 total yards against the Buckeyes. But McSorley and Co. made plays when necessary.

That, coupled with timely special teams play, produced Penn State’s biggest win in decades.

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9