But two poor throws by junior quarterback Anthony Morelli in the final 2:31 led directly to a pair of late Buckeye touchdowns, and a game that had been close all day degenerated into a 28-6 laugher.
It was Penn State's seventh straight loss to OSU in Columbus. And it marked the second straight game the Lions were on the wrong end of a lopsided score against a top-five opponent, having absorbed a 41-17 thumping at Notre Dame Sept. 9.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who left the field for parts of the second and third quarters with what can best be described as stomach problems, had a familiar speech for his charges afterward.
Keep your heads up, he said. We'll be a good football team before it's all over.
The temptation is to use the coach's stomach-turning illness as some sort of metaphor for the afternoon. After all, 22-point losses can have that impact on a man. But realistically, this was nowhere near the blowout the final score indicated.
The Nittany Lion defense generally held the high-octane Buckeye offense in check, allowing only two scoring drives, one which ended on a 12-yard run by Antonio Pittman early in the third quarter and another on a 37-yard pass from Troy Smith to Brian Robiskie near the start of the fourth quarter.
It was the lone highlight for Smith, the Heisman front-runner who was limited to 12 completions for 115 yards and two interceptions on the day.
That was a big play in the ball game, Paterno said of the TD pass, on which Smith avoided a rusher, rolled left and fired deep. And you have to give [Smith] credit, because he made it.
Wideout Ted Ginn Jr. never got going, either, as PSU corner Justin King was in his face all afternoon, limiting him to two catches for 15 yards. All told, Ohio State had 253 total yards and a mere 14 first downs, far below its season averages.
Offensively, Penn State was effective if not spectacular. Tony Hunt pounded out 135 yards on 24 carries and the Lions controlled time of possession, 34:50-24:48 — the perfect recipe for springing an upset.
If it wasn't for him, who knows where we'd be, Morelli said.
But State never did get off the haymaker necessary to take out the No. 1 team. Mistakes at key moments were critical. Late in the first half, PSU had first and goal at the OSU 9. Morelli turned the wrong way on a handoff and was sacked for a loss of four. The Lions settled for a Kevin Kelly field goal and 3-0 lead.
Early in the second half, linebacker Dan Connor intercepted Smith. Four plays later, Kelly missed a 42-yard field goal. The Buckeyes responded with their first scoring drive.
After Smith's TD pass early in the fourth, Penn State pounded out a 10-play drive on the strength of Hunt's legs to set up fourth and goal from inside the OSU 1. The Lions intended to go for it. But guard Rich Ornberger, playing in a critical situation for the first time and only 15 yards from the crazy Buckeye student section, jumped.
State settled for a 23-yard Kelly kick to make it 14-6.
We keep making mistakes, Morelli said. We're killing ourselves.
He knew of that firsthand. On Penn State's next possession, Morelli tried to find tight end Kevin Darling in coverage. The ball was high, Malcom Jenkins made the pick and tight-roped the sideline for a 61-yard TD.
A minute and a half later, Morelli looked for Derrick Williams. The ball floated and Antonio Smith grabbed it, taking it 55 yards for a TD. Just like that, with 1:07 left in the game, it was 28-6.
The Buckeyes improved to 4-0 and stretched their winning streak to 11 games. The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, fell to 2-2 heading into next weekend's home game with Northwestern.
Afterward, questions centered on Morelli's tough afternoon, but to a man his teammates rallied behind him despite the 16-of-25, 106-yard, three-pick game. Everyone wanted to know if the Lions are capable of bouncing back, too.
Paterno does not believe that will be an issue.
I thought we played hard and were very competitive until the end, when we made some mistakes, he said. Later, he added, It's a question of consistency and discipline and kids being used to playing under pressure.
Asked what will drive the Lions after the 2-2 start, Hunt minced no words.
There's a lot of season left and it's fun to play football, he explained. That's enough motivation for me.