STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – For the final act in a spectacular performance, J.T. Tuimoloau kept a blocker from cutting his legs, reached up and grabbed a pass intended for a receiver a few yards behind him and casually cruised into the end zone to seal an Ohio State victory.
The interception was the second of the day for the Buckeyes' defensive end — yes, defensive end — to go along with two sacks, a fumble caused and recovered, and a tipped pass that a teammate came down with for another takeaway.
“This is kind of his coming out party today,” said Ohio State coach Ryan Day, underselling the sophomore’s breakout game.
Tuimoloau's strip sack and pick-6 in the fourth quarter helped the No. 2 Buckeyes erase a deficit and pull away from No. 13 Penn State 44-31 on Saturday.
The former five-star recruit from Seattle said the last time he intercepted a pass was as a sophomore in high school and he never remembered getting two in one game.
“I mean, it hasn’t hit yet,” Tuimoloau said about having an all-time great game on such a big stage. “I just take it as a great team win right now.”
The 6-foot-4, 270 pounder's first interception of his career came in the first quarter on a play in which he dropped into coverage and broke quickly on a sideline throw to a running back.
“Brother's an athlete, you can’t teach that,” said fellow defensive end, Zach Harrison, who had the interception on Tuimoloau's tipped pass.
Tuimoloau said the tipped pass to Harrison was his favorite of the game-changing plays he made.
Day said Tuimoloau has been playing well this season, getting pressure despite not putting up big stats. He had only one sack coming into the game.
“He been right there,” Day said. “He's almost been like the unsung hero of the defense.”
On this day, Tuimoloau outshined all the Buckeyes stars.
C.J. Stroud passed for 354 yards and the Buckeyes (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) ran their winning streak in the rivalry to six in a row — none by more than 13 points.
As has often been the case when these teams get together lately, the Buckeyes were a double-digit favorite and the Nittany Lions (6-2, 3-2) played them tough.
In this case, though, Penn State didn’t just hang around. The Nittany Lions went up 21-16 with 9:26 remaining in the fourth quarter on a tough 1-yard touchdown run by Kaytron Allen on fourth down.
Ohio State then went on a 28-3 run, with Tuimoloau providing the key plays after the Buckeyes went up 23-21.
Tuimoloau recovered the fumble after swiping the ball from Sean Clifford with 8:26 left in the fourth quarter. One play later, Stroud connected with Cade Stover, who rumbled through the Penn State defense for a 24-yard touchdown to make it 30-21.
“Turn of events, a momentum swing and they converted on it,” said Clifford, who threw for 371 yards.
Clifford, the sixth-year quarterback whose up and down play has had some Nittany Lions fans clamoring to see more of five-star freshman Drew Allar, threw three touchdown passes to become Penn State's career leader with 78, passing Trace McSorley. He also committed four turnovers.
The final one went for Tuimoloau's 14-yard interception return touchdown to make it 44-24 with 2:42 left.
“We knew we were going to have to play four quarters today,” Day said.
TreVeyon Henderson scored twice in Ohio State's fourth-quarter outburst, including a 41-yard run 35 seconds after Penn State took the lead. He added a 7-yard touchdown run with 2:52 left to make it 37-24.
“The game starts and ends with the turnovers,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. "They’re explosive on the offensive side of the ball, they’re explosive on the defensive side of the ball. We played our tails off, just made too many mistakes.”
Ohio State: A few days before the first College Football Playoff rankings are released, the Buckeyes faced their toughest test of the season so far — by far — and passed. Only a major upset over the next three weeks will keep the Buckeyes from rolling into the Michigan finale unbeaten.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions limped out of the Big House after allowing more than 400 yards rushing, but their athletic defense seemed to be a better match-up for the Buckeyes. At least for a while. Penn State heads into the final month of the season still hoping for a 10-win season, but with a Big Ten title out of reach.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes are on the road again at Northwestern.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions start the closing stretch at Indiana.
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