STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — In one play, everything changed.
A 45-yard field goal that would have put Ohio State ahead by seven points with less than five minutes to go was instead blocked and returned for a touchdown that gave Penn State a 24-21 win over the No. 2 Buckeyes.
There were so many dynamics involved in Ohio State’s decision to kick, the execution of it and the way Penn State attacked it. The ultimate outcome of all of that, however, carried a feeling of finality.
“They made a great play,” Ohio State right guard Billy Price said. “A big-time play in a big-time game. That’s where the tide changed.”
Here’s how it all went down.
Ohio State looked like it got away with a mistake one play before the field goal. Facing third-and-7 at the Penn State 28, quarterback J.T. Barrett targeted receiver Terry McLaurin and lofted a pass toward the end zone. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, the only player on the field with a chance at catching it was cornerback John Reid. He had a great look at it, but it bounced off his hands.
Had he caught it for an interception, Penn State likely would have had to go 95-99 yards to score a touchdown, and PSU’s best-scenario was merely that his momentum would have carried him into the end zone for a touchback. Obviously Ohio State didn’t know its next play would lead to a Penn State touchdown, but it’s interesting to see in hindsight that dropping that ball helped the Nittany Lions win the game.
That incompletion brought up fourth-and-7, and the Buckeyes had a full 40-second play clock and two timeouts to work with. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer often leaves the offense on the field in these situations. Even though he’d been conservative earlier against Penn State, Ohio State center Pat Elflein wouldn’t have been surprised had Meyer left them out there to try to convert the first down.
“I knew it was a good possibility because we play aggressive,” he said. “It was a big possibility we could have done that.”
Meyer was wrestling with what to do well into the play clock. He ultimately decided to go with walk-on kicker Tyler Durbin, whose longest field goal in a game was 40 yards but who routinely made long-distance kicks in practice.
“I was going back and forth,” Meyer said. “That would’ve put us up by seven. Obviously, it didn’t work out. You punt it there, I think it was on the 30-something yard line. I went through my mind, but I had confidence in Durbin to kick that thing because he does it in practice all the time.”
The killer likely wasn’t the decision itself but the wait. With seven seconds left on the play clock, the offensive linemen used in the field goal package were still running onto the field and getting into place. Durbin had about two seconds to steady himself before the snap had to come.
Durbin had made two field goals in the first half, and on one attempt Penn State safety Marcus Allen felt the ball whiz right by his hands as he leapt. So he sought Penn State special teams coach Charles Huff and told him what he saw.
They decided he should move slightly to the left instead of lining up directly over a guard. When the snap came, he exploded upwards and felt the contact.
“I jumped, and nobody touched me. I put my hands up, and it smacked me right on my koi fish,” he said, pointing to a tattoo on his right forearm.
The ball ricocheted back in the direction of Durbin and holder Cam Johnston but was scooped by Penn State cornerback Grant Haley, who took off.
But Johnston overcame a five-yard deficit to chase him down. The Australian caught Haley at the 10-yard line and dove to make the tackle but couldn’t hold on. He slowed down Haley, but the defender was still able to stagger into the end zone to deliver the points that handed Ohio State its first loss of the season.
“My eyes got big when I was picking it up, and when I got to the end zone it was just a sigh of relief, like, ‘I made it,'” he said. “The first thing was just to scoop it, run and don’t get tackled. The rest is history.”