What Now for the Nittany Lions?

It remains to be seen if Penn State has turned a corner or simply played above its head in forcing Ohio State to the brink.

Was this a building block, or a blip? Did Penn State turn a corner on Saturday night, or merely peek around it?

Those are the unanswerable questions today, after the Nittany Lions extended No. 13 Ohio State to double overtime before losing, 31-24. Questions that can't really be answered for a while.

On one hand, the Lions were competitive with the Buckeyes, who had outscored them 98-37 the first two times the teams had met with Urban Meyer in charge in Columbus, and were a double-digit favorite in this matchup. On the other, they had victory in their hands in the first overtime, only to see Ohio State forge a tie on a touchdown run by redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, then win it in the second extra session on another run by Barrett.

“There are no moral victories at Penn State, and there never will be,” coach James Franklin said, “but I'm proud of how they fought and stood together. With that, we'll get where we want to go.”

So yeah, there was some suspicion that the Lions defined themselves in defeat as well as they had in any of their four victories to date. That the first signs of their true identity began to emerge, as they continued to hone in on what they do well (i.e., throw the ball to DaeSean Hamilton, play really, really good defense and -- wait for it -- run the ball a little with Akeel Lynch).

Of course, it's also possible that this was all a mirage, that PSU merely summoned its best effort of the year because Beaver Stadium was full (not to mention whited-out), the game was televised in prime time and a ranked opponent was on the opposite sideline.

At least it felt different than their desultory losses to Northwestern and Michigan. At least there was some reason to believe it might have been a watershed moment for this club.

“We did a lot better than we've been doing,” tight end Jesse James said, while allowing that there is still much to be done.

Middle linebacker Mike Hull, outstanding once again with a career-high 19 tackles (as well as an interception), echoed Franklin's no-moral-victories theme.

“But,” Hull said, “I think that we are heading in the right direction. I think that if we keep playing like this every week, with the same type of effort, we will be hard to beat.”

Hull spearheaded a defense that shut the Buckeyes out in the second half, after OSU built a 17-0 halftime lead -- in part because of poor Penn State punting, in part because the Lions' offense stalled, in part because the replay team didn't appear to have a working television in its bunker.

The latter came into play after it was ruled after a review that the Buckeyes' Vonn Bell intercepted Christian Hackenberg on Penn State's first possession of the game, even though Beaver Stadium's video screens showed Bell did not catch the ball cleanly.

“The play,” referee John O'Neill told a pool reporter, “technically was not thoroughly reviewed due to some technical difficulties with the equipment.”

And no, O'Neill added, the replay team is not, by rule, permitted to look out the nearest window at the stadium's video screens. So the call stood, and Ohio State wound up scoring a touchdown.

“I think that we are heading in the right direction. I think that if we keep playing like this every week, with the same type of effort, we will be hard to beat.”

O'Neill and Co. also appeared to miss it when the play clock ran out before a 49-yard field goal by the Buckeyes' Sean Nuernberger in the second quarter, but replay official Tom Fiedler said the play is not reviewable.

So, 17-0. Lions defensive tackle Anthony Zettel triggered the comeback a little over a minute into the third quarter by dropping into coverage on a zone blitz, intercepting Barrett and returning it 40 yards for a touchdown.

The defensive resurgence continued from there. Linebacker Brandon Bell had a career-high 13 tackles, as well as a sack. Freshman safety Marcus Allen, making his first career start in place of an injured Ryan Keiser, had 11 stops. Linebacker Nyeem Wartman and defensive end C.J. Olaniyan each had his career high for tackles as well, with nine and eight, respectively.

And Hull was everywhere.

“You guys have heard me say this before,” Franklin told reporters, “but I have a man crush on that guy.”

Hull's pick early in the fourth quarter set up Hackenberg's 24-yard touchdown pass to freshman wideout Saeed Blacknall, who out-fought cornerback Eli Apple for the ball on a fade route to the right side of the end zone.

It was one of four receptions for Blacknall. Another freshman, Chris Godwin, had three, as they continue to emerge at the expense of Geno Lewis, who had just a single catch.

But Hamilton has clearly separated himself from the group. Already the Big Ten's leading receiver entering the game, he came up with a school-record 14 catches, for 126 yards. Again and again he ran precise routes. Again and again he came down with the ball in traffic.

Three of his grabs came during the 19-play, 77-yard march that resulted in Sam Ficken's game-tying field goal with nine seconds left in regulation. Two more came in the first overtime -- the biggest an 18-yarder on first-and-20 -- when Penn State forged ahead for the first and only time all day, on Bill Belton's one-yard TD blast out of the dreaded Wildcat.

Alas, Belton finished the day with eight yards on nine carries, the Lions 16 on 31. Lynch, forced into action when Zach Zwinak went down on the opening kickoff with what appeared to be an injury to his left foot or ankle, had some good moments, though his final line was modest: 38 yards on 13 attempts.

That left the game, as always, in Hackenberg's hands. He hit 31 of 49 passes for 224 yards, and was picked off twice (with an asterisk on one of those). He was also sacked five times, the last coming when OSU defensive end Joey Bosa, he of the 2.5 sacks Saturday, pushed Lynch into the QB on fourth-and-five in the second overtime, knocking Hackenberg over and ending the game.

That wasn't what Zettel was thinking about later, though.

“At the end of the game, when our offense needed us most, we couldn't come through,” he said.

He did say that the defense had “moments of greatness,” which is what we are left to wonder about the team as a whole: Was this game just a singular moment, or a signal that better things lie ahead?


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