, For the second time in as many weeks, No. 2 Ohio State leaned on its defense to overcome a head-scratching start, this time vs. Penn State.,

College Football

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For the second time in as many weeks, No. 2 Ohio State leaned on its defense to overcome a head-scratching offensive performance in which the Buckeyes were timid early and terrifying late for a 44-31 win over No. 13 Penn State that hardly reflected the arduousness of the challenge.

A sack-fumble of PSU quarterback Sean Clifford with 8:26 remaining in the fourth quarter facilitated a lightning strike from Ohio State on a one-play, 24-yard scoring drive in which tight end Cade Stover caught a short pass and broke multiple tackles en route to the end zone. The touchdown extended the Buckeyes’ lead from one score to two and sealed a hard-fought victory.

Head coach Ryan Day’s team finished plus-four in turnover margin and scored 28 points in the fourth quarter — all in the span of nine minutes — to keep pace with Michigan in the Big Ten East.

J.T. Tuimoloau takes it to the house

Ohio State took a 44-24 lead over Penn State after J.T. Tuimoloau picked Sean Clifford off and returned it for a touchdown.

Here are some takeaways University Park:

Michigan sitting pretty

Nearly 400 miles northwest of Beaver Stadium, last year’s Big Ten champion spent its day watching games and killing time before a primetime kickoff with archrival Michigan State. And there was no game more relevant to head coach Jim Harbaugh’s team than a ranked battle between the other contenders in their half of the conference.

Undefeated Michigan entered Saturday two weeks removed from an emphatic stoning of the Nittany Lions that prompted their head coach, James Franklin, to tell reporters he needs to recruit bigger and badder players in the trenches. The Wolverines dared first-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz’s group to stop the tailback tandem of Blake Corum (28 carries, 166 yards, two TDs) and Donovan Edwards (16 carries, 173 yards, two TDs), and the answer was a resounding negative. Harbaugh’s team ran the ball 55 times for 418 yards in a bludgeoning 41-17 win that solidified Michigan’s standing as one of the league’s best teams.

How giddy the Wolverines must have been while viewing Saturday’s rock fight in University Park, where the team they just stomped pushed the team many consider the best in the nation to the absolute brink. The Buckeyes averaged 3.8 yards per carry on 26 attempts to fall light years short of the production Michigan managed in mid-October. And the OSU defense that forced six turnovers in a washout of Iowa gave up 482 yards to the Nittany Lions.

It’s easy to picture the smiles in Ann Arbor.

OSU’s offensive malaise

A week ago, when Ohio State hosted Iowa in what finished as a 44-point blowout, the hilariously calamitous Hawkeyes’ offense siphoned attention from the uncharacteristic struggles of the hosts in Columbus. The Buckeyes had breezed through their first six games on the strength of quarterback C.J. Stroud, the Heisman Trophy front-runner whose batch of 24 touchdowns and three interceptions reflected his individual talent as much as the relentless depth of a wide receiving corps stockpiled with NFL potential.

But against an Iowa defense universally respected for its discipline, toughness and the breadth of responsibility it bears this season, the Buckeyes were held to one touchdown on their first nine possessions. Stroud turned the ball over twice during that stretch, first on a sack-fumble that Iowa returned for a touchdown and later with an unsightly interception to begin the second half. An eventual lopsided victory did little to quell concerns about the absence of an offensive rhythm, especially after the running game amassed just 66 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries.

The inefficiencies followed Ohio State to Beaver Stadium when the offense reached the end zone once in its first nine drives. There were sequences of puzzling play calling from Day, who hovered around a one-to-one ratio of runs and passes — many of which were fruitless bubble screens — despite having arguably the nation’s best quarterback. There was a fresh batch of problems in plus-territory, where the Buckeyes settled for two field goals in the red zone and missed a third from the 35-yard line. And there was a crippling mental error from Day, who appeared to lose track of his timeouts during OSU’s final drive of the first half when the clock expired after Stroud was sacked at the PSU 13-yard line.

Late heroics from the OSU defense afforded Stroud (128 passing yards in the fourth quarter) and tailback TreVeyon Henderson (both rushing touchdowns in the fourth quarter) the chance for some last-ditch heroics to preserve their undefeated season.

Cade Stover rumbles for 24-yard TD

C.J. Stroud linked up with Cade Stover on a 24-yard TD as the Ohio State Buckeyes increased their lead to 30-21 late vs. Penn State.

The comeback kid

From the moment former five-star prospect Drew Allar committed to Penn State, a faction of the Nittany Lions’ fan base yearned for the day he would supplant veteran Clifford as the starter. There was no denying the gaudy statistics Clifford amassed across his first five seasons in State College before returning for a sixth in 2022, but he’d also been a central figure in PSU’s 11 losses during the previous two years combined, and that was more than fans were willing to tolerate with such a highly touted prospect waiting in the wings.

Fans wanted him benched during and after a damaging loss to Michigan two weeks ago in which Clifford completed just seven of 20 passes before leaving the game with an injury. That he responded with a dazzling performance in the 45-17 romp of Minnesota — Clifford finished 23-of-31 for 295 yards and four touchdowns — and entered the showdown with Ohio State as the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week was met with air quotes and eye rolls. That he promptly threw two interceptions on Penn State’s first two drives against the Buckeyes invited questions about a potential mid-game benching.

But Franklin stuck with his struggling veteran, and Clifford responded with a level of poise that rewarded his coach. His gutsy throw to wideout Parker Washington afforded the team’s best run-after-catch threat the chance to spin away from two Ohio State defenders and gallop down the sideline for a 58-yard score that got the Nittany Lions on the board. He later escaped the pocket and heaved a pass to tight end Theo Johnson down the left sideline for 42 yards, and fired a strike to wideout KeAndre Lambert-Smith for a 23-yard score on the very next snap.

Clifford’s second touchdown pass pushed Penn State ahead, 14-10, midway through the second quarter, and the Nittany Lions entered halftime with a lead. Their advantage held until a 41-yard touchdown by Henderson with 8:51 remaining in the fourth.

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

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