STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Ohio State defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau had already produced an incredible performance, easily the best of his college career. But the sophomore had one more magic moment to deliver.
With 2:47 left and Ohio State leading Penn State 37-24, Tuimoloau pushed offensive lineman Bryce Effner to the turf, leaped and caught Sean Clifford‘s pass, and then strolled into the end zone.
“The play happens and I just blacked out,” Tuimoloau said.
The pick-six capped one of the best single-game performances in Ohio State history and one of the best nationally, as the second-ranked Buckeyes rallied to beat No. 13 Penn State 44-31. According to ESPN Stats and Information research, Tuimoloau became one of three FBS players in the past 15 seasons to record two sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, an interception and a touchdown in a single game, joining Appalachian State‘s Demetrius Taylor (2019 at North Carolina) and UCLA‘s Keisean Lucier-South (2018 at Cal).
Tuimoloau, a five-star recruit and ESPN’s No. 4 overall prospect in the 2021 class, entered Saturday with only nine tackles, four for loss, and one sack — recorded the previous week against Iowa.
“To intercept balls like that as a defensive end and get a defensive score, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that before,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “That’s big time. JTT has put so much hard work into this. He’s an unbelievable player, but he’s a better person, and you can see his talent.
“This was kind of his coming-out party today.”
Senior defensive end Zach Harrison, the beneficiary of Tuimoloau’s tipped pass that led to Clifford’s first interception, saw Tuimoloau had several interceptions in practice leading into the Penn State game. But Tuimoloau saved the best for game day.
“He had two picks, bro, at D-end, and a pick-six,” Harrison said. “I’ve never seen that.”
Tuimoloau said he last recorded an interception as a high school sophomore for Eastside Catholic School against Seattle Prep. His last touchdown also occurred in high school.
He attributed his ball skills to also playing tight end in high school as well as basketball. Tuimoloau had scholarship offers to play basketball from major programs.
“Basketball allowed me to move laterally and be quick enough,” he said.
Day had seen Tuimoloau come close to several sacks this season before getting his first against Iowa. He had 2.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss last season.
“He’s been getting better every week,” Day said. “He’s wanted it. He’ll probably tell you he’s pressed a little bit at times. He’s wanted to get there. He’s believed in [defensive line coach Larry Johnson], he’s believed in the scheme, and believes in his teammates.”
Ohio State needed the lift from Tuimoloau in a game it trailed at halftime and then with 9:26 to play after an exhaustive Penn State series — prolonged by an Ohio State pass interference penalty on third-and-16 and a Buckeyes illegal formation penalty after a missed field-goal attempt — ended with a 1-yard Katron Allen touchdown. But Ohio State’s offense then came alive, driving 75 yards on three plays and scoring on a 41-yard TreVeyon Henderson run.
After Tuimoloau’s strip, sack and recovery of a Clifford fumble, quarterback C.J. Stroud found tight end Cade Stover, who broke three tackles to reach the end zone. Day said Stover’s run reminded him of Binjimen Victor’s 47-yard touchdown against Penn State in 2018.
“Every game has its own story, and this is one that will be told for a while,” Day said. “They believed. We don’t always have to play four quarters. We knew we were going to have to play four quarters today.”
After collecting only 16 points and 263 yards in the first three quarters, Ohio State exploded for 28 points and 189 yards in the fourth. Penn State squandered a lead of five points or more against Ohio State for the third time since 2017.
“We responded today, and that’s why it’s so satisfying,” Day said. “Can we clean things up? Yeah, but that’s football. And you see it every single week. You see games go back and forth. This environment, this is a hard place to play, and it always is, so for us to do that, that locker room was on fire afterwards.”
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