COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State's final performance before the first College Football Playoff rankings are unveiled featured more grit than glitz.
The fifth-ranked Buckeyes trailed at the end of the first quarter to No. 20 Penn State, never led by more than 10 points and needed a 58-yard touchdown from fifth-year defensive tackle Jerron Cage and four field goals from Noah Ruggles to prevail 33-24 on Saturday at Ohio Stadium.
After winning the previous four games by a combined score of 231-44 and eclipsing 50 points in each one, Ohio State struggled to gash a formidable Penn State defense, especially in Nittany Lions territory, and drew a season-high 10 penalties.
"The goal is just to win the game," coach Ryan Day said. "We're not trying to get style points in the game against Penn State. That's not how it works. You got to just win the game, and we did that kicking field goals."
The question is, how will the selection committee view the Buckeyes in Tuesday's initial rankings? Ohio State has a loss on its ledger, unlike Georgia, Cincinnati, Michigan State, Oklahoma and Wake Forest. The Buckeyes' lone defeat came against Oregon, a one-loss team that ranked behind them in the polls before Saturday's 52-29 win over Colorado.
"Penn State, to me, is one of the better defenses in the country and a really strong team year in and year out, and I think this was a gritty win," Day said. "To win the way we did, not even playing our best ball and converting down in the red zone, it says a lot about where we are, and how well we've played over the last month.
"You can see this thing building."
Ohio State had a season-low 466 yards but reached Penn State territory on 10 consecutive possessions after fumbling on its opening drive. But the Buckeyes had to settle for field goals four times in the Nittany Lions' red zone.
Penn State came in leading the Big Ten and ranking seventh nationally in red-zone defense, allowing scores on 65.2 percent of opponent possessions. Star freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson finished with 152 rushing yards and a touchdown, but he started slowly and drew a false start penalty on fourth-and-goal from the Penn State 1-yard line, forcing a field-goal attempt.
Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud praised Penn State's defense, noting that the Nittany Lions were even calling out some of Ohio State's plays before the snap.
"These types of games are definitely needed," Stroud said. "Going into this Big Ten play, especially this year, a lot of Big Ten teams are great, and have great defense. To have this type of grit win and just know we can do anything we put our minds to."
Although Ohio State handed Penn State its third loss Saturday, the Buckeyes still have opportunities to improve their playoff profile. Michigan State, which likely will debut in the top-4 of the initial CFP rankings, visits Ohio Stadium on Nov. 20. The following week, Ohio State visits Michigan, which was undefeated and ranked No. 6 before falling at Michigan State earlier Saturday.
Day likened this portion of the season to the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
"When we look at the college football right now, it's about surviving and moving on," Day said. "Especially look with the teams that we're playing. That's all we can worry about. ... It's one-game seasons. It's March Madness. You win, you survive, you move on.
"That's where we're at right now."
Stroud thinks Ohio State handled adversity better against Penn State than it did early in the season, especially in the Oregon loss.
"We needed Oregon to happen," Stroud said. "It sucks to say that we lost, but we've learned so much through that. I feel like that's the best teacher, losing."
Day credited Ohio State's defense for winning the Penn State game. The Buckeyes' defense struggled early on, prompting Day to change playcalling duties from coordinator Kerry Coombs to secondary coach Matt Barnes.
According to Day, several schematic changes have allowed Ohio State to generate more playmaking opportunities, like Cage's scoop and score. The Buckeyes had four sacks and eight tackles for loss Saturday.
"Just one of those games where the defense has had to make a little more plays," defensive end Zach Harrison said. "That's just something we've been preaching all year, just trying to get better every single week."