- Ivan Maisel, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- No. 3 Penn State had scored 45 points in six of its eight victories before it arrived at Ohio Stadium. Although no one expected the Nittany Lions to treat No. 9 Ohio State as if it were your everyday Wisconsin (which Penn State beat 48-7) or just another Michigan (which Penn State beat 46-17), it is also true that no one expected the clash of bodies and clash of wills that took place Saturday night.
That final score is correct: Penn State 13, Ohio State 6. In a year when college football has forgotten what smashmouth defense looks like, the Nittany Lions and the Buckeyes gave a nationally televised clinic in front of 105,711, the biggest crowd in the history of the Horseshoe.
"I've been around a lot of football," Penn State head coach Joe Paterno said in the wake of victory No. 381, his first in this stadium since 1978. "I've seen some football games. That was a good, tough game."
In the season of the Spread HD, when the Penn State offense has scored points with passing, with running and with abandon, the Nittany Lions' defense has been an afterthought. Not ignored, exactly, but defensive coordinator Tom Bradley's crew doesn't have a hip nickname.
"We're like the fourth line in hockey," Bradley said. "We're just muckers and grinders, you know?"
Penn State played on Ohio State's turf, and not just literally. This was Tresselball, so named because Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel uses defense and the kicking game to pressure the opponent until the ball pops out of its hands. Ohio State waits for a mistake, then pounces.
Penn State refused to cooperate. The Nittany Lions committed no turnovers and only one penalty, which the Buckeyes declined to accept. The fact is, Penn State beat Ohio State at its own game.
The Nittany Lions may have gained only 281 yards and scored only 13 points, 201 yards and 32 points fewer than their respective averages. But Penn State held Ohio State to 287 yards and two field goals. Buckeyes tailback Beanie Wells rushed for 55 yards, nearly 70 yards fewer than his average, on 22 carries.
More important, the Nittany Lions forced the turnover on which the game pivoted. On third-and-1 at the 50, with Ohio State holding a 6-3 lead early in the fourth quarter, freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor tried to bounce a quarterback sneak to the outside. The daylight outside tantalized him. He saw a touchdown. All he needed, however, was a first down.
When Pryor moved to his right, Penn State hero safety Mark Rubin raced up, met him at the line and swatted the ball out of his hands, igniting a scramble that knocked the ball back 12 yards.
"I almost got it one time," Rubin said, "then it jumped back 10 yards. The ref pulled me off the pile. There were four more guys underneath me."
At the bottom, linebacker Navorro Bowman held the ball at the Ohio State 38.
"That's what I believe got us the victory," Bowman said.
Rubin finished with 11 tackles and Bowman with 10. Muck and grind, indeed.
But that description also applied to the Penn State offense that came onto the field without its starting quarterback. Junior Daryll Clark had taken a blow to the head, so his backup, sophomore Pat Devlin, came in looking a lot like Clark. That is to say, he doesn't have much experience, but he played as if he did.
"Surprisingly, I didn't have butterflies," Devlin said. "I was confident in our offensive line. This is what you prepare for. You don't remember the fear."
Devlin drove the Nittany Lions to the winning touchdown in seven plays, getting the last yard on a pair of quarterback sneaks. He followed that drive with a 45-yard, eight-play, clock-eating effort that kicker Kevin Kelly finished with a 35-yard field goal with 1:11 to play.
Muck and grind, move the chains, eat the clock. That's what Penn State did all game.
In their offensive meeting Saturday morning, the players watched two videos, one for each side of their brains.
One video appealed to their football intellect. The Nittany Lions watched the 2007 Illinois offense consume the last 8:09 on the clock on this very field. The Illini converted four third downs, never gave the ball back to the Buckeyes and won 28-21.
That's why, with the score 3-3 at the half, Penn State came out and ran the ball right at Ohio State. On six of seven plays, the Nittany Lions ran the ball, and five of those six plays went between the tackles.
The drive fizzled just past midfield, but Penn State made its point.
"We wanted to wear them down," assistant coach Jay Paterno said. "We knew we weren't going to go out in the second half and score a lot of points."
The plan didn't exactly wow the boss. After the drive, Joe Paterno turned to his son and said, "For crying out loud, would you open it up?"
It just was not that kind of game. It never is when you play Tressel. The clock rarely stopped. Nobody played no-huddle. The officials assessed only four penalties. Penn State had only eight possessions and ran only 57 plays.
"They came in and played extremely hard and didn't make a whole bunch of mistakes, and they came away with a hard-fought win," Tressel said.
The other video that Penn State's offensive players watched appealed to their emotions. They saw highlights of big road victories from previous undefeated seasons: the 23-3 rout at Alabama in 1986, Penn State's most recent national championship season, and the 31-24 victory at Michigan in 1994.
Penn State is 9-0. If Bradley is looking for a nickname, he could try "Huge Defense," or HD for short.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.
It might be the season of Penn State's Spread HD offense, but the Nittany Lions' huge defense proved to be the difference in a smashmouth win at Ohio State.