The “Dark Night at The ‘Shoe” turned out to be a dreary one for Ohio State’s passing game, but the ground attack and defense pulled through for a 38-10 win over Penn State in front of the second-largest crowd in Ohio Stadium history of 108,423.
For the second time in 2015, redshirt junior starting quarterback Cardale Jones was benched in favor of redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett for an extended time after going just 9-of-15 for 84 yards. Combined with Barrett’s 30 yards through the air, the Buckeyes were held to a season-low 114 yards passing.
“That’s one of the best defenses in the country,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said. “And statistically, the personnel, they are.”
Donning black uniforms for the first time in program history, the Buckeyes (7-0, 3-0) were able to shake off the ineffective aerial game to pile up 315 yards on the ground against the visiting Nittany Lions (5-2, 2-1), led by junior running back Ezekiel Elliott with 153.
“We went out there in the nice uniforms, the crowd was into it, they were in all black also, so I definitely think it lived up to the hype,” senior defensive lineman Adolphus Washington said.
Despite the energy from the crowd, Penn State quickly took the first shot in the game, holding OSU to a loss in its first possession before generating its own offense. A first-play 11-yard run followed by a 45-yard pass from junior quarterback Christian Hackenberg to freshman receiver Brandon Polk got the Nittany Lions inside the red zone. The Buckeyes held from there, however, holding the visitors to a 33-yard field goal to grab a quick 3-0 lead.
The Penn State defense, which came into the game ranked 10th in the nation, continued to give OSU problems in the passing games on its next two drives, both resulting in punts. Through three drives, Jones was just 3-of-7 for six yards.
The fourth finally featured life from the OSU offense, as redshirt senior H-back Braxton Miller had consecutive gains of 17 and 15 yards — a catch and run, respectively — to move OSU inside the Penn State 30-yard line.
After a run by Jones lost three yards to end the first quarter, Barrett supplanted him to begin the second. Barrett and junior running back Ezekiel Elliott traded runs of six, 12, eight and five yards — the last of which was by Barrett after a fake handoff — to find the end zone and take a 7-3 lead.
The score was Barrett’s fourth rushing touchdown in six trips inside the red zone since Meyer implemented a two-quarterback system in Week 6 against Maryland. The Buckeyes scored a touchdown in each of their first seven trips to the red zone with the system.
Barrett made it 8-for-8 in OSU’s next drive, handing off to Elliott on his first play for a 10-yard touchdown run, in which Elliott dodged several tacklers to muscle into the end zone. The score was Elliott’s 11th of the year.
“I think it’s really my mindset,” Barrett said about his improved performance in the red zone. “The first two weeks, I was coming out trying to make plays, trying to force it. You’re asking for bad things when you try to force it instead of letting the game come to you.”
Looking to answer, the Nittany Lions drove the ball into OSU territory, but a 4th-and-8 attempt from OSU’s 31-yard line was stopped when sophomore linebacker Chris Worley sacked Hackenberg.
OSU went right back to work after the stop, rapidly moving the ball 66 yards in six plays to extend its lead to 21-3. Barrett entered the game at the 16-yard line, and just two plays later, he was in the end zone, this time from 13-yards out after faking a handoff to Elliott.
At the half, Jones was 7-of-12 for 56 yards, while Barrett did not attempt a pass but filled in for 30 yards and two scores in three runs. Elliott had 78 yards in 15 carries.
For Penn State, Hackenberg struggled mightily, going 4-of-9 in the first half for 56 yards, 45 of which came on his first attempt of the night. Freshman running back Saquon Barkley picked up the load for the Nittany Lions, piling up 86 yards in 13 carries.
Not going down quietly, the Nittany Lions erupted in the second half, traveling 78 yards in just three plays. The first play was a 56-yard pass, followed by a run of 14 yards from Barkley and an eight-yard touchdown catch-and-run by redshirt sophomore receiver DaeSean Hamilton to cut OSU’s lead to 21-10.
“The D-line, we take some credit for that, because we’ve got to get some pressure on (Hackenberg),” Washington said. “We can’t just let him sit back there and pass the ball.”
Both offenses stalled for the rest of the third quarter, but early in the fourth OSU padded its lead by three when redshirt senior Jack Willoughby connected on a career-long 39-yard field goal. On that drive, which started from OSU’s own 25-yard line, Barrett took over for Jones for the entirety.
“The No. 1 job we have is to win football games and give Ohio State the best chance to win,” offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said about the change. “Whoever can help us do that at the time, is what we’ll do … we’ll go any direction in a game to win a game.”
Barrett said he feels that whether he is starting, coming in for red-zone sets or simply replacing a struggling Jones, his role and mindset must remain the same.
“At the end of the day I’m just trying to help the team win,” Barrett said. “Whether it be going in the red zone or if I’m starting quarterback, at the end of the day I don’t think it really matters.”
Penn State was able to get the ball into the OSU red zone on the ensuing possession, but a fourth-down sack by senior defensive lineman Tommy Schutt gave OSU the ball back. Barrett then engineered an eight-play, 85-yard drive culminating in a five-yard jump-pass to Miller to extend the lead to 31-10.
“Coach Meyer’s made that famous over the years,” Warinner said of the jump-pass, which was a common weapon of Tim Tebow when Meyer was at Florida. “That’s always something that’s been in our package, and it happened to have the perfect opportunity there.”
After a Hackenberg fumble forced by Washington, Barrett put the exclamation point on the game with another touchdown pass, a six-yard fade to redshirt junior receiver Michael Thomas.
“I think he sparked us,” Warinner said about Barrett. “Some of the things we did with him in there helped get us get some momentum. He had a big impact.”
With his 153 rushing yards, Elliott became the ninth OSU player to eclipse 3,000 career yards on the ground.
Junior punter Cameron Johnston starred on special teams for the Buckeyes with four punts downed inside the 10-yard line. With Johnston’s help, the Nittany Lions’ average starting field position was at their own 17-yard line.
For Penn State, Hackenberg finished 6-of-12 for 120 yards, while Barkley led the way with 26 carries for 194 yards, something Meyer called “alarming.” Overall, OSU outgained Penn State 429 to 315.
OSU senior linebacker Joshua Perry suffered what Meyer said after the game was an ankle sprain on OSU’s third defensive play of the game and was carted to the locker room. He did not return to the game, and Meyer said he will be reevaluated later in the week.
OSU is next set to travel to Piscataway, New Jersey, to battle Rutgers on Oct. 24. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m.