Some people blink when they come face to face with adversity. Others calmly throw on a pair of sunglasses, turn up one corner of their mouth in a knowing smile, and say, “I’ve been waiting for you.” The Buckeyes were the latter on Saturday in Happy Valley, and their nonchalant patience and quite-chalant preparation paid off in a 44-31 win over Penn State.
Head coach Ryan Day had been preparing them for this situation since winter conditioning. “Toughness” has been both a rallying cry and a requirement.
Mantras are mantras because while they are meant to evoke an outcome, they are repeated ad nauseum because you never really know if they’re going to actually work when the time comes.
Coaches learn from their teams every week, and this week Ohio State head coach Ryan Day learned that his team can be trailing on the road in the best environment the Big Ten has and not blink.
And not only not blink, but stare a hole through an opponent that would make anybody uncomfortable if it happened anywhere other than on a football field.
The Buckeyes trailed 21-16 with nine minutes to play in the game. All of the momentum was with Penn State following a Kaytron Allen touchdown run on fourth down. The Nittany Lions had finally taken the lead back. The crowd was hotter than a July grease fire.
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, used the fire to toast a few s’mores during the commercial break.
When play resumed, Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud and the Buckeyes responded with a three-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to recapture the lead 23-21.
Two plays later, defensive end JT Tuimoloau sacked Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford and recovered the fumble that he caused. Stroud then found tight end Cade Stover over the middle for a 24-yard touchdown catch and run.
In the span of about 34 seconds, the Buckeyes went from losing to up by two scores. The damage was done at that point and the momentum that Penn State had was leaving with the crowd.
Ohio State was presented with a test and they passed. Ryan Day couldn’t have been more pleased because his team saw the byproduct of all of the work they had done in the offseason.
“It’s huge. It’s huge,” he said. “Because nothing comes easy in this environment against Penn State. And there are times where things maybe come a little bit easy for us. And that’s a different experience than this right here. This is totally different. And to respond the way we did and figure out what was going on in that is great.”
For a coach who has preached toughness, it’s a gratifying thing to see that toughness exhibited in a game. And it wasn’t just one or two players, and it wasn’t just the offense or the defense.
Quarterback CJ Stroud was 6-of-8 passing for 128 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Running back TreVeyon Henderson rushed for 55 yards on five carries in the final quarter, scoring twice. Receivers Marvin Harrison and Emeka Egbuka combined for five catches for 104 yards in the fourth quarter, and Stover saved his best for last with his 24-yard touchdown.
Defensively, JT Tuimoloau dominated the Penn State offensive tackles all game long, posting six tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and a touchdown. He had a full season in one day.
When it was all over, Day and his Buckeyes saw the reward for the work that they had put in. They responded exactly as they had planned.
“That’s what means everything to us, because there are a lot of things that come into play here,” Day said after the game. “We’re talking about the best quarterback in the country in C.J. Stroud, and JT’s coming out party, and Marvin, and the score and what we did the first half. But what you just said is everything. That’s, to me, the difference between winning a championship, reaching our goals or not, and we responded today.
“I think that’s why it’s so satisfying, is that we did that today. Can we clean things up? Yeah, but that’s football, and you see it every single week. You see games go back and forth. And again, a lot of respect for Penn State and James Franklin and his staff, and this environment. This is a hard place to play, and it always is. So for us to do that, I mean that locker room was on fire afterwards.”
Adversity has a negative connotation, but it’s a truth teller. It is a revealer. Some programs hope they don’t face adversity because they know they’re not ready for it. Other programs prepare for it and then look forward to the day.
“Every game has its own story,” Day said. “And this is one that we’ll be telling for a while.”
The Buckeyes prepared for more than just Penn State. They prepared for the moment. The moment when the game would be on the line.
And when they saw it, what did they do?
They threw on their sunglasses, turned up one half of a wry smile, and said, “What took you so long?”
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