Did Ohio State fumble away its bid for top spot in College Football Playoff rankings?

Pete Thamel

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The dueling directives of both No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Ohio State are simple – avoid No. 3 Clemson.

That’s the best way to cast the race for No. 1 in the College Football Playoff standings, as whoever shuffles into the No. 4 slot in the College Football Playoff standings won’t loom as ominous as the defending national champions. The race for No. 1 means avoiding a Clemson team that appears likely to be cast as No. 3.

On the way to making a declarative statement to surpass LSU for the No. 1 spot in the College Football Playoff, No. 2 Ohio State fumbled in its 28-17 victory over No. 2 Penn State. And then it fumbled again. And for the first time in the Ryan Day era at Ohio State, the Buckeyes found themselves in a contested matchup in the fourth quarter of a college football game.

By treating the ball as if it were covered in Vaseline, Ohio State took a game shaping up as an exclamation point and left it sprinkled with question marks. Star quarterback Justin Fields fumbled on his way into the end zone in the first half, and second-half fumbles by both Fields and tailback J.K. Dobbins set up a pair of second-half scores by Penn State. A statistical blowout – 417 yards to 227 yards – belied the scoreboard, as Ohio State’s carelessness with the football cost them a day set up for style points.

Ohio State leaped out to a 21-0 lead, despite Fields fumbling into the end zone early after a helmet-to-ball sniper hit from Penn State’s Lamont Wade. The day turned when Penn State starting quarterback Sean Clifford, who’d mustered little resembling an offense all day, got injured on Penn State’s first possession of the third quarter.

Ohio State QB Justin Fields fumbles the ball at the goal line after being upended by Penn State's Lamont Wade. (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Ohio State QB Justin Fields fumbles the ball at the goal line after being upended by Penn State's Lamont Wade. (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Enter Penn State redshirt freshman quarterback Will Levis, who was so unknown that his name was spelled incorrectly on the two-deep roster handed out to media. He emerged with a hero cameo, as he led three second-half scoring drives and cut the Ohio State lead to 21-17 late in the third quarter.

The game turned back to the Buckeyes thanks to a pair of game-changing defensive plays by Chase Young, the Heisman Trophy candidate who is regarded by NFL scouts as the best player in college football. Coming off a two-game suspension for a loan that ended up under NCAA scrutiny, Young’s presence over Penn State right tackle Will Fries led to a false-start penalty on a third-and-11 from the Ohio State 12-yard line. That penalty took Penn State out of four-down territory and forced them to settle for the field goal that cut the Buckeyes’ lead to 21-17.

Young, who finished with four tackles for loss, three sacks and two forced fumbles, made his second game-changing play when he swallowed Fries – poor, poor Fries – whole to sack Levis at the 1-yard line. That helped flip field position and set up a final 28-yard touchdown pass from Fields to Chris Olave to salt away the game early in the fourth quarter.

The victory clinches the Big Ten East for Ohio State, which has games remaining with two likely top-15 opponents. Ohio State plays at No. 13 Michigan next weekend and plays either No. 10 Minnesota or No. 12 Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Both of those games should give Ohio State the platform to potentially leap LSU.

Despite giving up 17 points on Saturday – nearly double the average it has on the season – Ohio State’s defense reinforced its best argument for why it should be No. 1 in the CFP rankings. Ohio State entered the game with both the country’s No. 1 scoring offense (51.5 points per game) and the No. 1 scoring defense (9.8 points per game). And it’s that defense that LSU can’t compete with, as the Tigers rank No. 44 in scoring defense (23.8 ppg) and don’t have personnel comparable to the Buckeyes.

Ohio State defenders, left to right, Malik Harrison, Chase Young and Tuf Borland sack Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford during the first half. (AP)
Ohio State defenders, left to right, Malik Harrison, Chase Young and Tuf Borland sack Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford during the first half. (AP)

What stood out on Saturday was just how hopeless Penn State was on offense in a first half where it averaged just 2.6 yards per play. First-year coordinator’s Jeff Hafley’s defense has given up one first-quarter touchdown on the season and only three first-half touchdowns against their first-team defense. The Buckeyes are also No. 1 in total defense, passing yards allowed and rank a paltry No. 3 nationally in third-down conversion percentage defense.

There’s no statistic to quantify feel, and by halftime there was a general sense that Penn State wasn’t going to be able to score on a sustained offensive drive. That changed when Levis entered, as Ohio State struggled against a barrage of zone-read plays that allowed for one sustained scoring drive. Penn State’s other two scoring drives came after fumbles that gave the Nittany Lions the ball at the Ohio State 12- and 35-yard line. (Credit PSU’s Wade for being the day’s best ballhawk, as he had a hand in all three OSU turnovers and hit Justin Fields late — leading to Ohio Stadium holding its collective breath as Fields was slow to get up. He jogged off to a roar and appeared fine.)

On a day where the Nittany Lions struggled on offense, especially with Clifford in the game, PSU coach James Franklin will be relentlessly second-guessed for punting at the Ohio State 36-yard line after Penn State’s only ember of offense in the first half. With scoring chances at a premium, Franklin made a decision that only Jim Tressel and Mark Dantonio could love.

There were 14 NFL scouts at the Horseshoe to see the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions.

They saw Ohio State’s Malik Harrison hit Clifford so hard that it injured him, defensive back Shaun Wade render PSU star KJ Hamler virtually invisible and linebacker Baron Browning 2.5 TFLs. Young, not surprisingly, was the best player on the field as he broke the school’s all-time sack record by getting up to 16.5 on the season.

“It’s the most talented team that I’ve seen this season,” a veteran NFL personnel man told Yahoo Sports this week. “They come on the field, and it’s ‘Holy cow.’ Across the board, I’d say that they’re better than LSU.”

And for the next two weeks, that debate will rage on.

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