On the road against a Penn State team boasting a 1-9 record in Big Ten play, an Ohio State team ranked No. 2 in the country had jumped out to what seemed to be an insurmountable lead. At the half, the visiting Buckeyes led, 40-19, and seemed the Nittany Lions were on pace for a record-setting loss.
Instead, they rallied and proved why winning on the road in the Big Ten is so difficult. An OSU team with three future first-round NBA Draft picks saw the home team storm back and outscore the Buckeyes 43-24 in the second half and come within a desperation trey at the buzzer from pulling off the upset.
Few players from that OSU team remain on the roster this season, but seniors Jamar Butler and Matt Terwilliger could only shake their heads when asked why the team has struggled in the Bryce Jordan Center.
"It's just a different environment over there," Butler said. "There is just something about that place, they always seem to have a good crowd when we play there."
Although the arena holds just 15,621 – and only 10,027 were in attendance for last year's game – Terwilliger said the arena seems bigger than OSU's Value City Arena at the Jerome Schottenstein Center.
"It's real big," he said. "It might be bigger than the Schott. It seems so open. Sometimes it seems a little empty in there."
This season, the Buckeyes are again chasing a Big Ten title while the Nittany Lions are again closer to the basement than the top of the conference. OSU is 5-2 within the Big Ten, but both of those losses have come on the road. Head coach Thad Matta said there has been no common thread to the team's road losses, but pointed out that too many turnovers spelled his team's downfall against Purdue on Jan. 12.
Should they hope to win a third consecutive conference title, the Buckeyes will have to win games on the road. Six of the team's final 11 games are in enemy territory, where OSU will have to succeed in hostile environments.
Last season, the Buckeyes finished 14-1 in the Big Ten and went 7-1 on the road. One season before that, they were 12-4 in the conference and 5-3 away from Value City Arena. With road games against Michigan State and Purdue – two teams ahead of OSU in the conference standings – already come and gone, the Buckeyes' biggest remaining road challenge will be Feb. 26 at Indiana, the current conference leader.
"You've got to get some road wins if you're going to contend for a Big Ten championship," head coach Thad Matta said. "That winning percentage on the road has got to be high."
In OSU's last game, an alley-oop dunk from Butler to Terwilliger brought an announced sell-out crowd to its feet late in the second half, helping spur the Buckeyes to a victory against Minnesota. After the game, the players talked about how they fed off the energy of the crowd and used that to help pull away from the Golden Gophers.
This time around, they are well aware the shoe will be on the other foot.
"When you're at home you can feed off that crowd energy and the crowd can get you back into it, whereas on the road if you get down they're going to cheer for the other team," Terwilliger said. "You can't feed off the energy of the crowd."
Should the Nittany Lions hope to knock off the Buckeyes this season – a feat they have not accomplished since a 64-47 victory Jan. 10, 2004, they will have to do so without a major component of their team. Two-time All-Big Ten honoree Geary Claxton, a senior, suffered a torn ACL in the team's game against Wisconsin on Jan. 15 and is lost for the season. Including the game against the Badgers, the Nittany Lions have dropped five straight after previously enjoying a seven-game winning streak.
In his team's near come-from-behind victory against OSU last season, Claxton had a game-high 19 points.
With or without Claxton, Butler said the Buckeyes know they have to be on their guard as they head into a game they should win.
"If you don't have the physical and mental toughness to fight back, it's tough on the road," he said.
The game tips off Tuesday night at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN.