COLUMBUS - The defense was supposed to be the ugly stepchild of the Ohio State football family - too young, too inexperienced, and too vulnerable to be much of an asset.
Well, that defense morphed into something handsome and virile and led a 28-6 dismantling of Penn State yesterday.
While the Buckeyes' offense trudged and slogged most of the afternoon, the defense intercepted three passes, returning two of them for touchdowns to distort the score of what had been a close game until the final minutes.
"The defense showed up big time today, and this is just what we've been waiting for," said cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, who returned an interception 61 yards for a score when Ohio State was nursing an eight-point lead with less than three minutes to play in the game. On Penn State's next series, corner Antonio Smith took an interception back 55 yards for another touchdown.
"Creating turnovers is something we've been working on as a defense. We've been preaching that since last year," senior tackle David Patterson said.
The No. 1 ranked Buckeyes (4-0) weathered a wobbly performance from quarterback Troy Smith, who was picked off twice and passed for just 115 yards. Ohio State had a modest 253 yards on the day - its lowest output of the season by far.
"Offensively, we just didn't get going, and we didn't play with the consistency we need," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "But whenever you hold people to six points, you ought to have a chance."
The Ohio State pressure on Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli produced three sacks in addition to the turnovers.
"We got behind and had to throw the ball more than we would have liked," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "They held Texas to a touchdown on their own field, so we knew it wasn't going to be easy."
Smith was picked off on Ohio State's first possession of the game, ending a streak of 152 pass attempts without throwing an interception.
The only points of the first half came after a pass interference call on Jenkins set the Nittany Lions up at the OSU 40. Tony Hunt broke a couple of tackles in the backfield and got loose for a 15-yard gain as Penn State moved to the 13, and after Jenkins was called for roughing the kicker on a missed field goal attempt, Kevin Kelly moved closer with the penalty and hit a 21-yarder for a 3-0 edge.
Ohio State's longest drive of the day followed a missed Penn State field goal attempt in the third as Smith blended short passes with the running of Antonio Pittman. A screen pass to Pittman gained 17 yards and set the Buckeyes up at the 12, and on the next play Pittman broke out of a pack along the line, got hit inside the five, and extended himself to get the ball in the end zone for the touchdown. The Buckeyes struck again early in the fourth quarter with an improvisational duet by Smith and end Brian Robiskie. Working from the Penn State 37, Smith got flushed from the pocket, reversed his field under a rush, and then drilled a laser to Robiskie breaking across the goal line for a 37-yard touchdown.
Kelly closed the gap to 14-6 with a 23-yard field goal with 7:33 left in the game, but the Nittany Lions expected more after a 34-yard burst by Hunt set up a Penn State first down at the Ohio State five. On fourth down at the one, an offside penalty forced Penn State to settle for three points.
The Jenkins interception came on the next Penn State series as he snared the ball inside Ohio State territory, shot down the sideline, and cut back to avoid several tackles. That put Ohio State up 21-6, and Smith repeated the effort on the following series with his interception and return for a score.
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