COLUMBUS, Ohio — For the second straight year, it was a block on special teams that changed the season for Penn State and Ohio State.
The Nittany Lions’ upset of the Buckeyes in 2016 was fueled by a blocked punt and a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown, giving the Lions the final 10 points in a 24-21 win.
The Buckeyes got their revenge on Saturday.
Just as Penn State had a miserable special teams night before their blocks last year, the Buckeyes were ready to blame their own unit for a loss this time around.
But Denzel Ward got the edge on the Lions punt unit early in the fourth quarter to blocked a Blake Gillikin punt. Two plays later, the Buckeyes were in the end zone, fueling a furious 19-point rally in a 39-38 win.
“The blocked punt was a huge play in the game,” Lions coach James Franklin said. “It really just came down to … as the game went on, our splits (between blockers) got tighter and tighter, and it created a short edge. Part of your protection is your spacing, and we got too tight, and they run well enough to take advantage of it.”
And this came after Penn State had opened the game on a Saquon Barkley kickoff return touchdown and later added a 59-yard return by linebacker Koa Farmer when Ohio State started pooching kicks to keep it away from Barkley.
“Special teams looked awful at times,” said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who is known for working personally with the unit,” But also made the play that save the game with the blocked punt.”
• Penn State appeared to suffer its second significant loss on the defensive line of the season. Sophomore Ryan Buchholz was carted off the field on Penn State’s first defensive snap of the afternoon.
Buchholz has been starting because another Lions’ lineman, Torrence Brown, is out for the season with a knee injury. He, too, was carted off back in September against Georgia State.
Buchholz did not return and there was no update on his health after the game. Penn State typically only gives injury details when a player has been ruled out for the season.
Without Brown and Buchholz, the Lions’ rotation got much younger as redshirt freshmen Shaka Toney, Shane Simmons and true freshman Yetur Gross-Matos all took more snaps, as did walk-on Colin Castagna.
Also going down was steady left tackle Ryan Bates, who suffered an apparent left ankle injury when Saquon Barkley rolled up on him from behind after being tackled.
Bates tried to return on the following drive but eventually had to come out for the game for the rest of the way. Redshirt freshman Will Fries moved from right tackle to left — where he had been practicing for most of the season behind Bates — while Chasz Wright slotted back in at right tackle.
“We lost a number of guys that are good players for us,” Franklin said. “They either came out or were limited, tried to go back in and weren’t able to get it done. There’s no doubt about it — we’ve got better depth than we’ve had, but obviously when you’re playing that type of opponent and you don’t have your starters on the field, it’s magnified.
• The only notable name missing from Penn State’s travel roster was senior tackle Andrew Nelson, who hasn’t played since the first half of the Iowa game.
• Later in the first quarter, senior cornerback Christian Campbell suffered an apparent left arm or shoulder injury and needed to come out. He was replaced by junior Amani Oruwariye, with true freshman Tariq Castro-Fields also seeing action before Campbell returned.
Defensive end Shareef Miller likewise missed a series before returning.
ESPN’s “College GameDay” followed Penn State from Happy Valley to Columbus for the week’s biggest matchup.
This time, the traveling panel — which included local legend Jack Nicklaus — all went with the Buckeyes. Lee Corso, who donned the Nittany Lion mascot head to pick Penn State last week, went with a Halloween theme on Saturday.
Instead of putting on the traditional Brutus the Buckeye head, Corso was handed a pumpkin carved with Brutus’ likeness and wore that instead.
Penn State isn’t the only Big Ten squad coming off of a brutal loss.
Next Saturday’s opponent, Michigan State, had also been unbeaten in conference play before losing in triple overtime at Northwestern, 39-31. Kickoff time at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing will be finalized on Sunday — either noon or 3:30 p.m.
Michigan State is now 7-2 overall, with the other loss coming to Notre Dame.
Prior to that, the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season will come out at 7 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN.
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse