Penn State Football

Walt Moody: Nittany Lions proved plenty during second-half comeback

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As he was interviewed by ESPN’s Holly Rowe at halftime, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer had the look of the cat who ate the canary.

In the press box we couldn’t hear what he was saying, but the message in his countenance was clear — he was very comfortable with his team’s 17-0 lead.

After all, his No. 8 Buckeyes were facing a team they had blitzed 63-14 last season. And in their last four games, his squad had racked up at least 50 points.

His team had silenced a white-clad crowd of nearly 108,000.

And more importantly, it sent a message to the more than 100 recruits on the Penn State sideline — we are the real power in the Big Ten.

But 30 minutes of football later, he was sweating bullets.

Two overtime drives would eventually keep his team’s national championship hopes alive, but his chances with some of those recruits may have taken a hit.

Led by a gutty defensive effort, the Nittany Lions made one of the more incredible comebacks in Penn State history. And while the fans left disappointed, James Franklin’s squad gave them some hope that one day soon the Nittany Lions could be among those teams battling the Buckeyes and Michigan State for a right to play in the national title game.

The boo-birds were out at the end of the first half. After the outstanding second-half effort, Penn State’s players left to cheers from an appreciative throng.

It’s funny how fast things can change in this crazy game.

It started so poorly.

On the game’s very first play, Penn State lost one of its emotional leaders when Zach Zwinak, making a rare appearance as a returner on the kickoff return team, appeared to suffer a severe left leg injury while blocking for Grant Haley.

Then came an interception on the first drive that the replay clearly showed had hit the ground before Ohio State’s Von Bell controlled it.

The Buckeyes then drove 39 yards for a score.

It started rolling from there.

The play clock appeared to run out on a 49-yard Buckeye field goal. A horrible punt — it appears James Franklin should have spent two bye weeks auditioning punters — led to another Buckeye 39-yard touchdown drive.

Franklin would not comment on either of the calls during the postgame news conference other than saying, “That’s 10 points, right?”

Then one play changed everything — and no surprise it came from the Penn State defense.

Tackle Anthony Zettel dropped in coverage and with Deion Barnes pressuring, Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett threw the ball right to Zettel. The 276-pounder didn’t set any records for the 40-yard dash, but he rumbled and stumbled for the score.

Suddenly the crowd was back in the game and so were the Nittany Lions.

That defense, which has been stellar this season against weaker competition, proved it is for real. Led by linebacker Mike Hull (19 tackles) and given a lift by true freshman Marcus Allen (11 tackles, two breakups) the Nittany Lion defense stymied a team that had been averaging 46 points per game.

And it gave the Penn State offense a chance to sputter to life.

Hull’s interception set up a jump-ball touchdown to Saeed Blacknall.

But with the game on the line, the offense actually came through with a 19-play, 77-yard drive to set up Sam Ficken’s field goal to tie it.

That drive, against a very good defense, should give the Nittany Lions something to build upon.

In overtime, a touchdown — even out of the much hated Wildcat — by Bill Belton made it 24 consecutive points for Penn State.

Alas, the happy ending was not to be.

Barrett, who was mediocre in the final two quarters of regulation, was outstanding in the two extra periods, scoring both of the Buckeye touchdowns.

And with a beat-up offensive line — one that’s now in dire need of Miles Dieffenbach’s return — the Nittany Lions couldn’t pull off one more touchdown drive.

The scary thing at the end was that PSU quarterback Christian Hackenberg was hit in the knees on the final sack of the game by the Buckeyes’ Joey Bosa.

In addition to Hull and Allen, there were many heroes. DaeSean Hamilton, who at times seemed to be the only player that Hackenberg was looking for, caught a school-record 14 passes. Brandon Bell added a career-high 13 tackles.

An emotional Franklin said they contest proved some things about the team and the crowd.

“I am really proud of Penn State,” he said. “It was an example that when we really come together as a family, we can do incredible things.”

That had to impress those 100-plus recruits.

And as a tough a loss as it was, Penn State fans can even smile.

Like they’ve killed the canary.