On Oct. 22, then-unranked Penn State defeated then-No. 2 Ohio State 24-21 at Beaver Stadium. It was a surprising game for many onlookers, including Penn State fans. The Nittany Lions dropped two games in September and had barely scratched out an overtime win at home against Minnesota just three weeks prior. Yes, Penn State had handled Maryland with ease, but at the time it was not yet clear that the Nittany Lions had turned a corner.
It became a season-defining win for Penn State, currently ranked seventh in the College Football Playoff heading into the Big Ten Championship Game this Saturday in Indianapolis against No. 6 Wisconsin. For 11-1 Ohio State, it was the one blemish on an otherwise sterling résumé that may just be the best in the country for any team other than Alabama.
In retrospect, the Ohio State game made a ton of sense. The Buckeyes have clearly shown signs down the stretch that they have limitations on the offensive side of the ball, and defensive coordinator Brent Pry's unit took advantage of them. Aiding him in his efforts was the return of two crucial players: linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell.
Many (especially those in Ann Arbor) are all too happy to point out that Penn State was drubbed by Michigan 49-10, while conveniently ignoring just how devastated by injury Penn State's defense was at that point in the season. Cabinda, Bell, and cornerback Grant Haley missed the game. Defensive end Evan Schwan was just coming back from a leg injury and could only manage 10 snaps. Defensive tackle Curtis Cothran was in the final game of his suspension. Brandon Smith was ejected on a nonsense call, and his replacement Jan Johnson subsequently went down with a season-ending knee injury. It took the burned redshirt of true freshman Cam Brown just to get the Nittany Lions to the end of that game.
One might look at the whole of Penn State's season and conclude that a healthier defense, an offense finally gelling under the tutelage of new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and new offensive line coach Matt Limegrover, and the development of youth and depth throughout the season all combined to see this program turn the corner under its third-year head coach James Franklin.
Instead, the convenient argument has been that Penn State built a paper tiger 10-win team on the heels of one fluke win at home against Ohio State. Because Penn State's game-winning score occurred on a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown by Haley, it's easy to wave a hand and go "They needed a crazy special teams play to win that game." Twitter may not be the ideal place to judge the legitimacy of an argument (you can get the gist of it from this search), but even ESPN's Brett McMurphy has recently appeared on television making the same case that Penn State's win over Ohio State is devalued by the manner in which it happened.
This argument is weak for a couple of reasons. The first is that special teams matter. Commentators regularly pay lip service to special teams being a third of the game, but as soon as it could factor into the College Football Playoff rankings, they cry that it means less than other ways of winning. Was Haley's play a lucky bounce? Sure. But those happen in football, and the process of getting that field goal blocked was not simply luck.
The second reason is that the special teams play in that Penn State-Ohio State game was essentially a net neutral. Yes, Ohio State had a blocked punt and a blocked field goal in the second half. But Penn State had a blocked field goal, a muffed punt return (which led to a field goal), and a safety on a snap over punter Blake Gillikin's head. I count three Penn State special teams miscues to Ohio State's two.
Penn State did not play a particularly great game against Ohio State! If it had, maybe these accusations of a fluke win would ring a little more true. They were opportunistic down the stretch, sure, but that is in fact how they have won many of their games this season. They are one of the best second half and, more specifically, fourth quarter teams in all of college football. It's a trend at this point, not dumb luck. If anything, it appears that Penn State's blowout loss to Michigan was the flukiest game they played in.
So when you hear someone dismiss Penn State's win over Ohio State as some sort of lucky fluke that should not be counted like other games, what you are hearing is simply nonsense. Penn State beat Ohio State, and it is a key factor in determining their merit for the College Football Playoff.