Penn State Football

Penn State football: Defense comes through for Nittany Lions again

Penn State’s Anthony Zettel (98) returns an interception for the Nittany Lions first touchdown of the game in the third quarter of their 31-24 double overtime loss to Ohio State on Saturday.
Penn State’s Anthony Zettel (98) returns an interception for the Nittany Lions first touchdown of the game in the third quarter of their 31-24 double overtime loss to Ohio State on Saturday. CDT photo

A pair of interceptions made Penn State’s comeback possible.

After the Ohio State offense operated efficiently to build a 17-point lead in the first half, Nittany Lions defensive tackle Anthony Zettel grabbed an interception and bolted into the end zone on the first drive of the third quarter.

Penn State was on the board.

After holding Ohio State scoreless in the third quarter, Penn State linebacker Mike Hull picked off another J.T. Barrett pass to end the Buckeyes’ first drive of the fourth quarter.

Penn State inched closer on the ensuing drive, cutting the deficit to a field goal on quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s 24-yard touchdown pass to Saeed Blacknall.

The Penn State defense buckled down and kept Ohio State off the board in the second half, helping the Nittany Lions erase a 17-point deficit to force overtime. The Nittany Lions ultimately fell 31-24 after two overtimes Saturday night at Beaver Stadium.

Head coach James Franklin said the defense made adjustments at the break and felt his defense benefited from its defensive line rotation.

“It’s not like we went in there and reinvented the wheel at halftime,” Franklin said.

Hull finished with a career-high 19 tackles to lead the defense.

Ohio State established its running game behind Barrett and running back Ezekiel Elliott in the first half. Barrett rushed for 46 yards on 13 carries, a number that included two sacks. Elliott ran for 76 yards on 14 carries and gave Ohio State a 7-0 lead with a touchdown early in the first quarter.

The Buckeyes also managed 11 first downs in the first half.

“Early on in the game, they were really getting some push,” Franklin said. “They got a big, physical offensive line. … As the game went on, I think the fact that we were rotating our defensive line was helpful.”

The offensive success disappeared in the second half, starting with Zettel’s 40-yard interception return for a touchdown on third down of the opening drive of the second half.

C.J. Olaniyan hopped up from his position on the right side of the defensive line and motioned to Deion Barnes on the left. The Nittany Lions then lined up, and Barnes came free to pressure Barrett.

Barrett fired a pass pulled in by Zettel for an interception, and Zettel took off for the left corner of the end zone. Zettel made his way to the sideline, where he was greeted by a fired up Franklin.

The head coach grabbed Zettel by the helmet, celebrating a momentum-changing play that suddenly brought the whiteout crowd back to life.

“He’s a disruptive guy,” Franklin said of Zettel. “He’s been that from week 1. … He’s made big plays, he’s got a great motor, he’s been really active.”

Penn State was finally on the board and within striking distance, trailing 17-7 with 13:47 left in the third quarter.

On Ohio State’s next drive, Elliott fell and lost four yards — his first loss of yards all night. The Penn State defense forced a three-and-out.

The Nittany Lions pitched a shutout in the third quarter, thanks in part to a missed 41-yard field goal by Ohio State kicker Sean Nuernberger.

Hull came up with the second interception at the start of the fourth quarter.

Hackenberg connected with Blacknall on the following drive to pull Penn State within 17-14.

The defense then made plays to keep Ohio State scoreless over the final 11-plus minutes.

Ohio State took possession with 5:17 left, and Hull made two stops, including chasing down Barrett — his 18th tackle — to force fourth down.

The Buckeyes punted the ball and Penn State went on its game-tying drive capped by Sam Ficken’s 31-yard field goal.

“I’ve been doing this 20 years, I’ve coached in a lot of leagues, even the NFL and the guy is playing at a really high level week in and week out,” Franklin said of Hull.