Instant Analysis: Penn State-Ohio State

Staff Columnist
Posted Oct 25, 2008

When Terrelle Pryor left the state of Pennsylvania, the residents of Happy Valley might have been inclined to think that Joe Paterno lost his last best chance to reach the BCS Championship Game. Instead, Pryor made the freshman mistakes that have Penn State and its iconic coach three wins from a perfect regular season and a possible trip to Miami in January.

Texas and Alabama, if they win out, will prevent the Nittany Lions from a date with championship destiny, but if either the Longhorns or Crimson Tide crack in the next five weeks, the 81-year-old Paterno will bring his team to a title tilt in the first days of 2009. This amazing story might never find fruition, but after Penn State's grinding 13-6 win over Ohio State, it's now well within the realm of not only possibility, but probability. And as cruel as it might be to say so, the fact of the matter is that the night's biggest play in this consequential collision in Columbus was turned in by the quarterback who hoped to lead Ohio State to the promised land.

Penn State now sits on the doorstep of another Big Ten championship because Pryor made the kind of mistake that will decide an old-fashioned smashmouth slugfest. On a night when the Lions and Buckeyes staged the kind of struggle that has defined Big Ten football for generations, all the old coaching clichés and Midwestern maxims about ball security and fundamental football came into play.

There's really no other way of putting this nighttime fight into perspective: With the Lions and Buckeyes trading defensive stops, conservative offensive approaches, and virtually dead-even statistical profiles, only one play carried the weight of a season while bearing the sound of a thunderclap heard with disgust in Austin, Tuscaloosa, Norman, and L.A. That single snap could be easily identified by the tens of thousands of people who piled into Ohio Stadium, not to mention a nationwide television audience. Terrelle Pryor—hero of Ohio State's comeback win against Wisconsin—now had to wear the goat horns after committing a freshman mistake he won't soon forget.

Let the record show that with just under 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Jim Tressel's Buckeyes—with a 6-3 lead and facing 3rd and 1 at midfield—had the Nittany Lions right where they wanted them. Blessed with a lead, field position, and a favorable down-and-distance situation in the midst of a defensive battle, the Buckeyes had all the game's major indicators on their side of the divide. Slowly gaining momentum on the line of scrimmage, and armed with Beanie Wells to supplement Pryor's own athleticism, the Buckeyes were steadily squeezing the Lions in the minimalist Big Ten style of old. Ohio State, by playing close to the (Mister Sweater) Vest, was winning in the manner cherished by the likes of Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler. As long as the Bucks held onto the ball and avoided a shocking slip-up, they'd have maintained a modest but meaningful advantage down the home stretch.

This backdrop to the game's defining play only made its components that much more ironic and ultimately remarkable.

The snap which stunned the Scarlet and Gray, while sending shock waves through the 2008 college football season, was the most conservative football play imaginable, a quarterback sneak. No play involves a lower degree of risk, a lesser amount of uncertainty. The call was just like the gameday wardrobes of Tressel and Paterno, his counterpart: old-school, respectable, buttoned-down, no-frills, and entirely utilitarian in nature. The last thing anyone in the Ohio State camp expected on this sneak was the disastrous sequence that transpired.

Pryor did not make a mistake by trying to bounce his sneak wide in an improvisational act. Locked in a one-on-one matchup, Pryor had the leverage and the angle needed to lean forward for a first down. The problem was that the Buckeye quarterback carried the ball like a jug of milk, and with the ball representing a piece of low-hanging fruit, the Nittany Lions poked it loose and then pounced on the prize 12 yards behind the original line of scrimmage, at the Ohio State 38. After a pass interference penalty enabled the visitors—without injured starting quarterback Daryll Clark—to set up shop inside the Buckeye 15, PSU's offensive line found the extra gear needed to nudge backup quarterback Pat Devlin to the goal line for the game's game-winning—and only—touchdown.

Some football philosophers like to say that no one play ever decides a sixty-minute showdown, given the dozens of snaps that could all break in one direction or another. That view is backed by a considerable amount of solid logic, but there are some occasions when one snap simply looms larger than the rest of them. Saturday night in Columbus, Penn State managed to sneak to the top of the Big Ten—and to the forefront of the national championship chase—because Terrelle Pryor couldn't protect the pill in a short-yardage situation. The Nittany Lions were good enough to make the Buckeyes pay, and now, they stand three wins from putting their proud papa, Joe Paterno, into one more national championship game.

For a coach who's been denied national titles after undefeated seasons in the past, perhaps this fateful fumble in Ohio is the football gods' way of paying back JoePa. As the season careens toward its conclusion over the next month of play, Penn State will do its very best to ensure that tonight's gift is maximized to the fullest extent possible.

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