The story of a Saturday night under the lights in Beaver Stadium usually centers on the 107,000 screaming, pom-pom shaking fans decked out in white.
This year, however, the seats were mostly empty. The student section in the south end zone that typically has a starring role on the TV broadcast was populated with cardboard versions of themselves instead.
The normally-deafening noise was limited to some pre-recorded cheering at a muted volume and the ever-present lion roar sound effect.
But based on the was things started on Saturday night in State College, even if the stands had been packed and the fans fueled up by a day of tailgating, it wouldn’t have taken long for the Buckeyes to turn the volume down.
On the very first play of the game Saturday night, OSU wide receiver Garrett Wilson took an end-around and raced 62 yards up the left sideline to set the Buckeyes up at the Penn State 13. Two plays later, they were up 7-0. It was a bolt of lightning that set the tone for the rest of the night.
“I thought offensively we got off to a good start. I thought we had good balance, we controlled the ball,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said after the game.
That balance helped the Buckeyes jump out to a 21-3 lead late in the second quarter before the Lions put together a quick 10-0 run sandwiched around halftime. A bizarre sequence handed PSU a 50-yard field goal attempt with 0:01 left on the clock, which they made, and then their dormant offense woke up and put together a 75-yard touchdown drive to cut it to 21-13 after the half.
But right when it looked like PSU might make a game of it, the Buckeyes answered right back. Justin Fields connected with Wilson to convert one third down, then Master Teague hammered through the middle of the line to pick up another.
Two plays later, Fields pump-faked on a double move and found Chris Olave deep down the left sideline. Olave caught the ball, stumbled, but kept his balance long enough to cross the goal line for a 49-yard touchdown. Just like that, the lead was back to 15.
After the game, Day said opportunities for big plays don’t come often against the Nittany Lions, and they knew they had to make the most of them.
“They’re hard to find against against Penn State because they put a safety in the middle of the field and get a lot of depth and you got to really pick your shots on that. That was a double move we spent a lot of time on,” Day said.
When Penn State answered later with a pair of insane one-handed catches by Jahan Dotson to once cut into the Buckeyes’ advantage, the offense didn’t leave any doubt.
Fields deftly avoided the pass rush to hit Wilson and pick up a crucial 3rd-and-8. Then, on a 4th-and-1, with the Lions expecting a run up the middle, Fields play-faked and found Olave for a first down. Then, on 4th-and-goal from the 1, Fields hit a wide-open Jeremy Ruckert in the corner of the end zone to make it 38-19.
“We knew that was possibility with the look,” said Ruckert. “We ran a play earlier and that was kind of off of it. We repped it in practice we knew was a possibility, but the ball was in the air forever just happy to catch it.”
“I think I needed a drink after that drive,” Day joked. “You’ve got to be aggressive. One thing I learned early on was that when you’re calling these plays if you put them in the game plan and you can execute it you got to call them in those moments. You have to trust it. And it doesn’t make it easy. It’s stressful, but that was great execution.”
Every time Penn State showed signs of life, Ohio State immediately delivered a crushing response.
With the Buckeyes completely obliterating Penn State along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, the string of nail-biters in the series was over.
“It wasn’t clean, but our guys just kept swinging away. And we had some adversity along the way, we just we just kept playing hard,” said Day.
Things weren’t perfect, but having a quarterback like Fields and a talented receiver corps can paper over a lot of holes, even on the road against a ranked opponent.
“It certainly helps when you have players like that who can make plays,” Day said. “We’ve got a lot of weapons and the good thing is when you just have one guy, sometimes they can kind of take that away but when you have several guys like that, and then you have the offensive line like we have in the running game, now that really makes them play honest.”
Now Ohio State heads into a couple of games against far less daunting opposition, including a home date with Rutgers, and a road game at Maryland. But Saturday night, the Buckeyes had a national prime-time stage to themselves, and they made the most of it.
“In big games like this when those guys play like this on this stage, it’s big time,” Day said. “This was a big stage, and this was kind of our moment to show everybody where we’re at and I’m proud of the way our guys played.”