STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Ohio State cornerback Cie Grant made a correlation that was somewhat surprising following Ohio State's history-making loss to Penn State last Saturday in Beaver Stadium.
“This game hurts like our game against Michigan State in '98,” he said after Penn State's 29-27 victory, making Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno the winningest Division I-A coach ever with his 324th triumph.
OSU was upset by the Spartans 28-24 that year. It was the Buckeyes' only loss that season and might have cost them a national championship.
Did it hurt more than the last two losses to Michigan? Or how about the last two setbacks to Wisconsin, following leads of 17-0 on both occasions, the most recent being two weeks ago when OSU lost 20-17?
Saturday, for the second time in the last three games, Ohio State allowed 20 unanswered points, losing both times to fall to 4-3, 2-2.
It has become a disturbing pattern that creeps back even further than 1998, and not only includes losing games where the Bucks had big leads, but losing big games.
The term “killer instinct” was pitched at Tressel Saturday, a rationale he wisely avoided.
“It will be obvious to us as we watch ourselves and evaluate the decisions we made and the performance we had, and we'll obviously be very disappointed with that,” he responded. “I don't know if I'd put a phrase on it like killer instinct, or whatever, but we have to do things all the time that you need to do to win.”
After OSU tailback Jonathan Wells had raced 65 yards for a touchdown and cornerback Derek Ross had returned an interception 45-yards for another TD less than two minutes later to give Ohio State a 27-9 lead early in the second half, victory seemed all but assured.
“You knew there was a long, long time left in that football game and we've all been watching Penn State for many years and they're going to keep playing,” Tressel stated. “Everyone in the Big Ten keeps playing.”
Everyone, with occasional exceptions, such as Ohio State.
“Like in any game, the things you practice for months and months and try to do them on game day, you've got to do them better and better as the game goes on, and you have to credit seven, he made some plays,” Tressel added.
No. 7 was Penn State redshirt freshman quarterback Zach Mills, who survived three interceptions by passing for 280 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 138 yards and another TD. His total of 418 yards was a Penn State record.
And what about No. 8? Ohio State quarterback Steve Bellisari proved he can throw the long ball, hitting sophomore Michael Jenkins on passes of 66 and 68 yards, the first for a touchdown. Jenkins finished with 172 yards on four receptions.
But Bellisari, unlike his young adversary, again couldn't make the plays when needed most. After passing for 167 yards in the first half, he was 3-of-9 for 42 yards in the second half with one interception. Another interception was nullified by a Penn State penalty.
“We've played seven games and with a couple of plays here or there we could have won seven games, but we haven't, and that's real, and we have to answer that,” Tressel said.
Scoring 27 appeared ample against Penn State, which ranked last in a number of critical Big Ten statistics, including total offense. But Ohio State's once-stellar defense gave up a total of 531 yards.
There were two schools of thought as to what happened, with a third thrown in for good measure.
Grant said the Nittany Lions were extremely motivated to win the game for Paterno and that the Bucks were battling not only a team but a fervor.
OSU free safety Donnie Nickey had another notion: “We (defense) dropped the ball,” he stated. “The offense puts up 27 points and we've got to win the game. It's that simple. There's no excuse for that. It's like a big punch in the gut.
“We (the defense) just lost focus and didn't rebound well. We just lost all of the respect - any respect - that we started to get. It's back to Square 1.”
There was another motivational involvement that wasn't unearthed until after the game.
The Nittany Lions vividly recalled last season when they were trailing Ohio State 38-6 in Ohio Stadium and Penn State freshman cornerback Adam Taliaferro suffered a broken neck trying to make a tackle with 1:39 remaining in the game. He was temporarily paralyzed and didn't walk for five months.
There were some among the Nittany Lions who felt the game should have been terminated at that point, but the Buckeyes then passed for a first down on fourth-and-six at the Penn State 16. OSU scored on the next play to hand Paterno his most lopsided loss ever.
“I personally remembered those two plays,” said Penn State defensive end Michael Haynes, who had two of Penn State's three quarterback sacks Saturday. “We felt that it was an insult with what they did after Adam's injury. I went all out today on every snap because I wanted to beat them so much.”