Something about the loss left Ohio State feeling particularly bitter.
The Buckeyes had outplayed underdog Penn State all night long, winning most of the offensive and defensive battles, but had seen their hopes for an undefeated season undone by two gaffes on special teams.
“Blocked punts, blocked field goals,” defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis said. “It’s a terrible feeling.”
In this wide-open college football season – with so many upsets and only Alabama looking anywhere near dominant – the margin of error has shrunk. Turnovers and mistakes have become more decisive.
On the flipside of Ohio State’s agony, No. 10 West Virginia jump-started its victory over Texas Christian by forcing a fumble on the opening kickoff. Even the top-ranked Crimson Tide needed a timely scoop-and-score to ignite their win against No. 9 Texas A&M.
Coming down the homestretch, with a dozen or so teams still in contention for the College Football Playoff, the final four could be determined by an interception here, a deflected kick there.
As West Virginia Coach Dana Holgorsen put it: “You’re only as good as your next one.”
Through the first eight weeks of the season, the teams that have made big plays – as opposed to giving them up – have done the best job of hanging around an ever-changing Top 10.
Alabama remains at the top of the heap in large part because it has lapped the field with 12 non-offensive touchdowns, or “NOTs,” three times as many as any other FBS team.
The streak – which has added a new category to the popular statistical nomenclature – began against Mississippi in mid-September and has continued to gain steam.
Coach Nick Saban tends to duck questions about his team’s success in this area, saying only that he starts each practice with turnover drills. But lots of coaches do that.
On Saturday, he offered another explanation: “It’s the players.”
That might be the best answer given Alabama’s reputation for recruiting athletes to restock its trademark swarming defense. There is also some belief that turnovers can be contagious.
Among the Crimson Tide players, they are certainly an expectation. When Texas A&M muffed a handoff in the third quarter, defensive lineman Jonathan Allen did not simply dive on the ball.
“My first thought was ‘scoop and score’,” he said. “That’s what we preach in practice.”
Thirty yards later, Allen was in the end zone and a close game was blown open, Alabama on the way to a 33-14 victory.
Big plays had an even bigger impact on the Ohio State game.
With the Buckeyes leading, 21-14, in the fourth quarter, Penn State blocked a punt, setting up a field goal to narrow the gap. A few minutes later, the Nittany Lions – who had effectively rushed kicks earlier in the game – blocked an Ohio State field-goal attempt.
“At that moment, for me, time stood still,” said Grant Haley, who grabbed the bouncing football and sprinted toward the end zone. “”I just didn’t want to get caught by the kicker.”
While the Nittany Lions waited until the last moment to secure their 24-21 upset, West Virginia got started on the first play against TCU.
In addition to that quick fumble recovery, the Mountaineers forced a second turnover on special teams to fuel their 34-10 win.
Their unexpected run at the playoffs might need a few more breaks, with a second-half schedule that includes powerful offenses in Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Baylor.
“Can’t get too excited about it.” Holgorsen said after the TCU game. “Can’t feel too good.”
At Michigan, Coach Jim Harbaugh knows the value of a big play. Last season, his Wolverines had all but cemented an upset of rival Michigan State when they lost on a flubbed punt as time ran out.
This year, Michigan not only excels at blocking kicks but has also pressured opposing punters. Officially, the team has one blocked punt, a statistic that Harbaugh questions.
Ohio State would probably agree after Saturday night.
Buckeyes players used words like “sick” and “frustrating” to describe losing to Penn State after amassing more than 400 yards on offense and holding the Nittany Lions to under 300.
Coach Urban Meyer said he will deliver a simple message when practice resumes this week. With his team still in reach of a playoff spot, there will be extra reps on special teams.
“Time to get to work,” he said.