STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — They met Saturday night as bowl-banned programs on vastly different trajectories.
For Ohio State, its perfect season under new coach Urban Meyer seemed to herald a golden new era.
For Penn State, there was a creeping sense this could be the last big game for a while — its inspired season with players recruited in better times inevitably to give way to the reality of postseason purgatory and devastating scholarship reductions.
On this night, before an ear-splitting crowd of 107,818 at Beaver Stadium, the rivals appeared to cross paths as equals.
That’s what made the ninth-ranked Buckeyes’ 35-23 victory over Penn State so gratifying for the visitors.
In a game between Leaders Division frontrunners — and a pick ‘em in Vegas — OSU made its most resounding statement of the season.
A denounced and depleted defense held firm for a second straight week, quarterback Braxton Miller — eventually — looked like his old self, and the Buckeyes overcame an edgy start to escape this white-clad cauldron of energy still unbeaten.
“This is a big-league atmosphere, and one thing about coming on the road and playing is there’s a gladiator-type mentality,” Meyer said. “There’s us against the world and our guys seemed to thrive on that.”
After Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) fell behind 7-0 late in the second quarter on a blocked punt recovered in the end zone, Miller and Co. closed the half with a 75-yard touchdown drive before the Buckeyes quieted the stadium for good in the third quarter.
Linebacker Ryan Shazier returned an interception from Penn State’s Matt McGloin for a 17-yard touchdown on the third play of the second half and the offense took it from there. Miller closed back-to-back long scoring drives with pirouetting touchdown runs to push OSU ahead 28-10 by the end of the third quarter.
It was not always pretty. Miller, who returned despite leaving the stadium in an ambulance a week earlier, looked skittish early. He nearly threw a pair of first-quarter interceptions — including a prospective pick-six on the second drive — and was reliably scattershot, his early overthrow of a streaking Corey Brown on a seam route illustrative of his passing night. Miller completed 7 of 19 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown.
He did make the plays that mattered, igniting the Buckeyes when the odds appeared long and later piling on with a series of plays that had the highlight reels working overtime.
The night looked to swing away from the Buckeyes late in the second half because of their perplexing Achilles’ heel — punt coverage. On fourth-and-13 on the Buckeyes 14, linebacker Mike Hull blocked the punt and Michael Yancich recovered in the end zone to put the Nittany Lions ahead 7-0. It was the third punt Ohio State had blocked this season.
Ohio State answered with a 75-yard touchdown drive. After a defensive holding call on a punt extended the drive, Miller set off on a 33-yard run that set up a 1-yard touchdown by Carlos Hyde.
The Buckeyes’ defense, meanwhile, came through for the second straight week, limiting a no-huddle offense that averaged 95 plays per game the past two weeks to 10 points through three quarters and 36 rushing yards for the night.
Shazier, wearing the No. 48 in honor of a late former classmate from his native Florida, delivered the biggest play of them all. With the game tied, Shazier sacked McGloin on the second play of the opening series of the third quarter and picked him off on the next one.
“As soon as Shazier caught that pick, we got the momentum from there. We went no-huddle the entire second half, and we really kind of caught them off guard, tired them.”
OSU had third-quarter touchdown drives of 57 and 85 yards, both capped by 1-yard dashes by Miller. The first one will stay with his teammates for a while. Miller faked a handoff to Hyde, backstepped a defender at the 5, and eluded another before diving into the end zone.
“We work on that,” Meyer said with a smile. “We have a drill, make seven guys miss and then dive across.”
“Never seen anything like that,” said tight end Jake Stoneburner, whose 72-yard touchdown catch provided the finishing blow in the fourth quarter.
Miller finished with 134 rushing yards on 25 carries. Hyde added 55 yards on 22 carries.
Zach Boren, making his second straight start at linebacker, led the Buckeyes with seven tackles.
Contact David Briggs at: email@example.com, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.