COLUMBUS, Ohio — For nearly three months, the Ohio State football team had stomped through its schedule like a ruthless cyborg, an army of scarlet and gray automatons executing play upon play upon play with little regard for the opponent or scoreboard.
And that, really, has been the only knock on the Buckeyes — that they had not had their mettle tested like the other national championship contenders. Clemson had to overcome a jittery moment at North Carolina. Louisiana State withstood a litany of formidable opponents, including its nemesis Alabama. The other contenders — like Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah — have had to recover from defeat.
But Ohio State had treated each week as an opportunity to crush the many mediocre teams on its schedule and dismantle the few decent ones. Nobody had lost to them by fewer than 24 points.
That all changed on Saturday when the Buckeyes looked human for the first time.
They beat back No. 8 Penn State, 28-17, on a damp and chilly afternoon but also had to beat back their own nerves, surviving three lost fumbles and nearly losing a 21-point third-quarter lead against a backup redshirt freshman quarterback.
The victory sends the second-ranked Buckeyes (11-0) to Michigan next week having already clinched a berth in the Big Ten championship game, and keeps them on track to reach the College Football Playoff for the first time since the 2016 season. But the Buckeyes may not carry the same aura of invincibility that they had built this season by steamrollering through a schedule whose only ranked teams had been Wisconsin and Cincinnati.
“You know your team, but you don’t see them in that environment,” said Coach Ryan Day, who succeeded Urban Meyer after last season. “You don’t see them with everything on the line. You talk about everything on the line; everything is on the line at that moment, and everything is real.”
The moment of football vérité arrived on Saturday for Ohio State: After building a 21-0 lead and knocking Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford out of the game midway through the third quarter, the Buckeyes soon found themselves rather unexpectedly in a game.
Or maybe it should have been expected, considering the history of the series between what have been the best teams in the Big Ten in recent years.
The past three seasons, their games were marked by palpitating comebacks. Penn State rallied from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to win on a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown in 2016, and Ohio State returned the favor the past two seasons, rallying from fourth-quarter deficits of 15 points in 2017 and 12 points in 2018 to eke out wins. The total margin of victory over those three games had been 5 points.
Penn State nearly authored another comeback, this time by Will Levis, a redshirt freshman quarterback who entered the game after Clifford was hit as he completed a pass to Nick Bowers with about 10 minutes left in the third quarter. Levis kept Penn State moving until Journey Brown broke off an 18-yard scoring run to draw the visitors within 21-7.
It soon got even tighter. The Buckeyes, who lost a touchdown in the first quarter when quarterback Justin Fields fumbled just before he crossed the goal line, lost two more possessions in their own territory — first by running back J.K. Dobbins and then by Fields.
“We kind of took our foot off the gas,” receiver Chris Olave said. “We had a couple mental mistakes on offense. It let them have 17 unanswered points. We had to get it back together.”
The fumbles were rare self-inflicted mistakes for the Buckeyes, who had turned the ball over just eight times in their first 10 games. And while they had only four penalties, they were enough to cripple some promising drives. The mistakes negated much of what had been a dominating performance with the Buckeyes outgaining Penn State, 417-227.
That advantage came with a contribution from Chase Young, the star defensive end who returned from a two-game suspension for borrowing money to fly his girlfriend to the Rose Bowl last December. Young repaid the loan, but since it came from someone he only came to know after he had been recruited by Ohio State, it was considered an impermissible benefit.
The missed games have dampened his Heisman Trophy prospects. Young, a 6-foot-5, 265-pound junior who is expected to be one of the top picks in the N.F.L. draft, had been a terror for a defense that has been the best in the country.
But the Buckeyes hardly missed Young the last two weeks.
They beat Maryland, 73-14, and Rutgers, 56-21.
On Saturday, Young managed three sacks, 2 ½ of them credited in the second half, to push his season total to a school-record 16 ½. His best work came late in pressuring Levis, a redshirt freshman from Madison, Conn., who had thrown passes in just two prior games this season — all in mop-up duty.
On the first play after Brown’s touchdown run, Micah Parsons forced Dobbins to fumble, and safety Lamont Wade, who had forced the goal-line fumble by Fields, pounced on it at the Ohio State 12-yard line. Levis hit tight end Pat Freiermuth for 11 yards, then bulled into the end zone on the next play and suddenly the Nittany Lions were within 21-14.
On the next possession, Wade again stripped Fields, and Penn State had the ball at the Ohio State 35-yard line. The Nittany Lions drove to the Ohio State 11, but a false start and a sack on third down by Young and Jashon Cornell forced them to settle for Jake Pinegar’s 42-yard field goal with 4:22 left in the third quarter.
“We talked about going into a big, heavyweight match and you’re going to take shots,” said Day, who pulled his team together during a break after Fields’ second fumble. “And one of the things about playing in a game like this is you have to be willing to take punches and you have to not flinch when it happens.”
Day had not flinched with his decision-making most of the afternoon, keeping his offense on the field for two fourth-down calls — including a fourth-and-5 that Fields converted with a 22-yard run on a draw, with help from a critical block by center Jake Myers. But faced with a fourth-and-2 at midfield late in the third quarter, Day punted, putting the game on his defense, which entered Saturday ranked first in yards and scoring but at the moment was reeling.
“The country considers us the best defense in the land,” defensive tackle Davon Hamilton said of that moment. “We’ve got to show it.”
The Buckeyes kept Penn State pinned deep, forced a punt and Fields connected with Olave for a 28-yard touchdown pass with 13:18 to play, putting some distance between the teams.
It was not the last challenge for the defense, though, with Levis driving his team deep into Ohio State territory before he was intercepted by linebacker Justin Hilliard at the 20-yard line. The Nittany Lions never crossed midfield again.
When Levis’s last pass fell incomplete, on fourth down with a minute remaining, the Buckeyes finally could let their guard down. What began like another blowout and felt like another dominant performance at hand, had instead turned into something different for Ohio State, something the Buckeyes had not had to endure this season — a test.