With Lions and Buckeyes, biggest difference is clear


Let's play the biggest trap game in all of sports: Which football team would you rather be?

Team A: 482 total yards, 371 passing yards, 111 rushing yards, a 45 percent conversion rate on third and fourth downs, and seven tackles for loss on defense. Or...

Team B: 452 total yards, 354 passing yards, 98 rushing yards, a 38.5 percent conversion rate on third and fourth downs, and four tackles for loss on defense.

Pretty clear choice, right?

Forgot to mention this, though:

Team A: Four turnovers.

Team B: Zero turnovers.

That one number just ruins everything on the gridiron. Every level. Every league. Every time.

And that's how Team A is leading by five points with 9:26 left Saturday, with a chance to turn its season around, and somehow finds itself trailing by 20 points less than seven minutes later. That's Penn State football, folks. Catch the fever.

The Nittany Lions landed body blow after body blow in the early rounds, had a college football behemoth on the ropes at Beaver Stadium, and somehow left its chin open for Ohio State to swing for in the fourth quarter. Unthinkably, the No. 2 Buckeyes scored 28 points in a span of 6 minutes, 9 seconds after the No. 13 Nittany Lions grabbed the lead, clinching their typical 44-31 win.

"I thought we played our tail off," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "But you can't turn the ball over that many times against that type of opponent and think you're going to be successful. That is something we, for the most part, we have done a good job of this year, but we did not today.

"To me, that game starts and ends with the turnovers. You can't give that type of team a short field that many times and be successful."

Franklin is correct, obviously. On this day, in this particular vacuum, the turnovers buried Penn State. Two helped Ohio State grab a 10-0 lead early, and two more handed them late touchdowns with the Nittany Lions still in striking distance. Especially hard to take for a team that, for a long while, looked like it was primed to pull off the upset.

But for sure, this game showed the same frustrating truth for this program that keeps rearing itself against this particular program, and it's something Franklin has to consider strongly moving forward.

For as much as he talks about recruiting, about building facilities to draw in talent, about donations to NIL collectives that will help them keep and secure talent, about bringing in the biggest-name assistants to develop talent, it's never really so much a talent gap that burns them against Ohio State.

But there's a a Grand Canyon-sized gap when it comes to how both teams' offenses execute.

And look, Penn State's defense was not blameless in this collapse.

After the offense grabbed a 21-16 lead with 9:26 left on a 1-yard run by Kaytron Allen, the defense looked overmatched for the first time all day. The Buckeyes went 75 yards in three plays and scored on a 41-yard run by TreVeyon Henderson, who didn't have two dozen yards before that carry.

Penn State fought back hard, all day, because they kept putting themselves in inexplicable situations. All day.

They couldn't figure out a way to block sophomore defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau — the highest-rated defensive player the Buckeyes have recruited in the modern era, for what that's worth — and he had a hand in all four turnovers. But the last two were daggers.

With the Buckeyes up, 23-21, Tuimoloau sacked quarterback Sean Clifford on a second-down pass, driving senior right tackle Bryce Effner into the backfield and stripping the ball from Clifford's right hand. Tuimoloau fell on the loose ball and, on the next play, Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud calmly threw a touchdown pass to tight end Cade Stover for a 30-21 lead.

After Penn State rallied for something it badly needed — points, in the form of a 44-yard field goal by Jake Pinegar — the Buckeyes went 75 yards in seven plays for another touchdown. And on their next desperation attempt to get back in it, Clifford threw a quick pass that Tuimoloau intercepted and returned 14 yards for a touchdown.

Just too many turnovers, too deep in your own territory, too often. Just not enough offense when they need it most. And it happens pretty much every year in this matchup.

Ohio State won by 9 points in 2021, when Penn State lost the turnover battle and the Buckeyes returned a Clifford fumble for a touchdown.

Ohio State won by 1 point in 2018, when Penn State's offense didn't get anything going in the last 12 minutes and the Buckeyes rallied from 12 points down.

Ohio State won by 1 point in 2017, when the Buckeyes trailed, 35-20, with 11 minutes left but outgained Penn State, 202 yards to 54, in a fourth quarter in which they outscored the Lions, 19-3.

"I feel like we're there, honestly," cornerback Joey Porter Jr. said, when asked what Penn State has to do to get to Ohio State's level. "We just have to finish when we need to. We need to make the plays when they're required. I feel like we didn't do that today."

They don't do that, against this program, ever.

That's taking nothing away from the talent Ohio State has. It's loaded. It showed that. But this shouldn't be a series the Buckeyes win every year, in the same kind of fashion, the same kind of way. Penn State should be a team that learns from its experiences. But it hasn't yet.

That says quite a bit more about where the gaps in this series, between these two teams, really lie.

DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at dcollins@timesshamrock.com and follow him on Twitter @PennStateTT.

DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at dcollins@timesshamrock.com and follow him on Twitter @PennStateTT.