For all the talk about a late-season matchup between Michigan and Ohio State and its role in deciding the eventual Big Ten champion, there hasn't been very much chatter around the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Maybe that's with good reason — a 5-2 overall record might not wow the critics — but that could change, especially given the team's 24-21 victory over the Buckeyes in Week 8.
Three wins in the Big Ten Confernece has Penn State (PSU) in lockstep with Ohio State (OSU) in the Big Ten East division (3-1 in conference), with both teams trailing the Michigan Wolverines (4-0 in conference, 7-0 overall). There's still plenty of football left to play, of course, but it's time for teams to start making their move to jockey for position before bowl season.
One more win would make PSU bowl eligible for the third straight year. Head coach James Franklin has managed to steer his squad to two consecutive 7-6 seasons, splitting the team's two bowl apperances, but there has yet to be a signature win during his time in Happy Valley.
Big Ten and College Football Playoff scenarios aside, a win over OSU gives the Nittany Lions an outside chance to get to double-digit wins for the first time since 2009 when PSU took down LSU, 19-17, in the 2010 Capital One Bowl.
Those who watched this week's primetime matchup between OSU and PSU would likely still be left wondering how the Buckeyes blew a 14-point fourth quarter lead. Others might question how PSU — of all challengers — could be the one to break OSU's 20-game road winning streak.
At the end of the day the answer is simple: The Any Given Saturday mentality. This is why you play the games because anything can happen.
For the Nittany Lions, a matchup with their Big Ten foe, the Buckeyes, was the perfect time to play up to their compeition. Given that there are only nine undefeated teams left in all of college football, any time an unbeaten team takes the field eyes are watching.
In this case, Penn State was up to the challenge. Cue the spotlight.
That said, going up against an unbeaten team at some point is a pseudo-right of passage if a team plays in one of the Power Five conferences. It may come early in the year or late in the conference slog, but odds are it's going to happen and in many cases that matchup can make or break a team's season.
For the teams entering a bout with against an unbeaten, the goal is clear — prove you belong on the field. But the Nittany Lions did far more than just that in Week 8.
PSU's offense on this day was not exactly the most inspiring brand of football. A blocked kick on the first drive of the day for the Nittany Lions would prove to be an omen of things to come, but the team's effort was resilient if nothing else.
The offense was certainly at a premium for the Nittany Lions (less than 300 yards total) on this day, but the tandem of quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley managed to keep their team in the game well into the second half.
Though the Buckeyes led 21-7 entering the final frame, an early fourth quarter touchdown from McSorley run cut the lead to 21-14, giving PSU life in a game that they trailed from the early stages of the second quarter.
However, a blocked punt on the ensuing drive really kickstarted the comeback effort.
After a short touchdown run by PSU QB Trace McSorley, the Nittany Lions defense forced the Buckeyes into a quick three-and-out. However, as OSU's defense prepared to take the field, punter Cameron Johnston had his kick blocked and scooped up by PSU safety Troy Apke.
PSU would be held to a field goal, cutting the lead to 21-17, but the tide of the game had already began to turn in favor of the home team.
On OSU's next drive, which could have put the game away, another blocked kick would prove to be the death knell for the Buckeyes.
A few first downs allowed OSU to start grinding away at the clock, and it looked like the Buckeyes would be able to keep the Nittany Lions at bay after all. With just about four minutes left in the game, OSU place-kicker Tyler Durbin lined up to attempt a field goal that would have upped the lead back to a touchdown.
But, PSU had other ideas.
Durbin's kick would be blocked on a fantastic individual play from PSU's junior safety Marcus Allen, and the defense ran back the botched field goal attempt for a touchdown. All of a sudden, PSU led for the first time in the game. A lead they would not relinquish.
It may not have been the conventional go-ahead score, but on this day the Nittany Lions and their coaching staff would take the victory any way they can get it.
OSU got the ball one more time, but to no avail. Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett and company ultimately would surrender the ball on downs before PSU ran out the clock.
The win over OSU was not only the team's biggest victory of the year, but it also marked a number of other milestones in the PSU program. This is why you play the games, y'all.
- First against Ohio State since 2011.
- First over a ranked team under Franklin.
- First against a top-five team since 1999 against Arizona.
- First against a top-two team since 1990 against No. 1 Notre Dame.
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