STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - The gateway to a fifth straight Big Ten championship opened up just
before kickoff Saturday. Ohio State then surged right through it, wearing down Penn State before winning 24-7 in dominating fashion.
The Buckeyes, who were deeply engrossed in their final moments of preparation for a showdown with the No. 11 Nittany Lions, slipped out of character for just a nanosecond. They stole a quick peek at the scoreboard, where Northwestern's upset win over previously unbeaten Iowa had just been posted.
Suddenly, the Buckeyes were back in the Big Ten title sweepstakes and potentially sitting in the driver's seat.
Now, with a win over Iowa next week, Ohio State will clinch a share of the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl bid.
"I know we're not supposed to be looking up there," junior wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher said, "but when we heard the way the crowd reacted to seeing the Iowa score go up, I think a lot of us just took a quick look at the scoreboard, to see what all the cheering was about. We didn't need any more motivation to play well today, but that just made this game even bigger."
No. 15 Ohio State played without a turnover, did not allow a sack, and made several impact plays on special teams. The Buckeyes traded field position maneuvers with Penn State for the better part of three quarters and led only 10-7 before quarterback Terrelle Pryor hit DeVier Posey with a 62-yard touchdown pass.
"You never know when it is going to happen," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "You knew this was going to be a field position game. We felt like we had decent field position then, and it was time to strike."
It was one of three scores that involved Pryor, a Pennsylvania native playing for the first time in Beaver Stadium.
Ohio State's defense got the ball right back following Posey's long touchdown, forcing a punt after one of seven three-and-out series it had against the Penn State offense. Ray Small backpedaled to receive the kick, then split the coverage and raced 45 yards before punter Jeremy Boone made a touchdown-saving tackle.
In business at midfield, the Buckeyes got a 12-yard scramble from Pryor and a 13-yard run by Small on a reverse. Pryor rolled out and hit Brandon Saine with a six-yard TD pass, and OSU went up 24-7 with less than 10 minutes to play.
"Those special teams plays get it all going," Tressel said about Small's fourth-quarter punt return. Small had taken Penn State's first punt of the game back 41 yards to set up OSU's initial touchdown. "It was a heck of a win, and it all started with special teams."
Small's first return set Ohio State up at the Nittany Lions' 9-yard line, and after Saine gained two yards, Pryor dropped back to pass, slipped a couple of tackles, then sprinted to a score. Backup kicker Devin Barclay, filling in for the injured Aaron Pettrey, kicked the first of his three extra-points for a 7-0 lead.
"Scoring first - that was big, because everybody expected this to be a low-scoring game, a real struggle," Ohio State offensive lineman Jim Cordle said. "We knew with the kind of defense Penn State had, points would be tough to come by."
The Buckeyes drove deep into Penn State territory the next time they had the ball but stalled at the 29. Looking at a 46-yard field goal into the wind, and with Barclay appearing in the second game of his career, Tressel opted to take a delay of game penalty and punt.
The Nittany Lions (8-2, 4-2) were driving and inside the OSU 30 as the first quarter ended. A pass interference penalty on the Buckeyes set Penn State up at the 2, and quarterback Daryll Clark jumped over the stack to score from one yard out on fourth down to tie it.
The Buckeyes regained the lead before the first half was over after driving from their own 19 to the Penn State 20. Pryor hit Sanzenbacher for a 22-yard gain over the middle on a third-down play near midfield, and the possession ended with a 37-yard field goal by Barclay and a 10-7 Ohio State advantage.
Ohio State's defensive line continued to make life difficult for Penn State's Clark. When a harried Clark was intercepted by Ross Homan with about nine minutes left in the game and the Buckeyes up by 17, most of the 110,033 on hand gasped, sensing the game was over.
Pryor was efficient, effective, and tidy. He was 8-of-17 passing for 125 yards and two touchdowns, rushed for 50 yards and another score, and played without a sack, fumble, or interception.
"The big thing about it is that they're ranked ahead of us, and this is my first time to lead the team, the offense, to a big win like this," Pryor said. "It gives me a lot of confidence."
Pryor and the Buckeyes (8-2, 5-1) host Iowa (9-1, 5-1) Saturday and then close the season at Michigan.
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The gateway to a fifth straight Big Ten championship opened up just before kickoff Saturday. Ohio State then surged right through it, wearing down Penn State before winning 24-7 in dominating fashion. The Buckeyes, who were deeply engrossed in their final moments of preparation for a showdown with the No. 11 Nittany Lions, slipped out of character for just a nanosecond. They stole a quick peek at the scoreboard, where Northwestern's upset win over previously unbeaten Iowa had just been posted.