Ohio State needed big plays early from its defense and another monster game from quarterback CJ Stroud to outlast a surprisingly game Penn State squad 33-24 in their primetime showdown Saturday night in Columbus.

The No. 20 Nittany Lions, coming off a crushing, embarrassing 9-OT loss to Illinois a week earlier, proved to be a seriously worthy challenger to the No. 5 Buckeyes with Sean Clifford playing at full strength as promised.

But the redshirt freshman Stroud matched the veteran Clifford throw for throw as both defenses forced the teams into a mostly aerial battle until TreVeyon Henderson got going late in the game.

Ohio State (7-1) persevered at home to keep its path clear to a Big Ten championship and CFP berth, but that run is just getting started. A visit from unbeaten Michigan State awaits in 3 weeks, followed by a trip to Michigan to close the regular season. And Buckeyes fans probably aren’t feeling totally comfortable about games at Nebraska and vs. Purdue the next couple Saturdays after watching their team barely hang on against the 18.5-point underdog Lions.

Penn State looked like at least OSU equal much of the night, and was still in range with 7 minutes left in the game, down 30-24. Ohio State had the edge at that time because it led in turnover margin (3-1) and sacks (4-0), and was finally getting its ground game going.

But it also settled for field goals on 3 second-half red zone trips and failed on fourth down on another, failing to pull away. Kicker Noah Ruggles proved to be one of the heroes, extending his career-opening run of perfection to 11 FGs and 47 extra points. His last chip shot finally put Penn State away with 2:41 remaining.

Henderson, held to 6 rushing yards in the first half, finished with 152 on 28 carries. Penn State (5-3) never did get its ground game untracked, finishing with less than 40 rushing yards.

The tone was set in the first half, as each team managed only 19 rushing yards and shut down the other’s top receiver. Sensational Ohio State true freshman Henderson, who came in averaging almost 9 yards per carry, gained just 6 on 9 attempts before halftime.

It was an amazing turnaround for the Penn State defense, which gave up 357 rushing yards to the Illini in a 20-18 loss at home.

But the Ohio State defense matched that effort, and also added in 3 sacks in the first 30 minutes — including one that resulted in a 57-yard touchdown for a 300-plus-pound defensive tackle.

That was the key play of an otherwise evenly played first half.

Immediately after Jahan Dotson’s catch gave Penn State a third first down in as many plays, disaster struck for the Lions. Disaster went by the name of Jerron Cage, who ran 57 yards with a scoop-and-score after a strip sack by Tyreke Smith. The sight of the massive defensive tackle romping to the end zone had to give Penn State fans a bad flashback to Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon romping for a similar score (though on an INT) last season against the Lions.

The play gave Ohio State a 17-7 lead as it rallied from a 7-0 first-quarter deficit.

Clifford, who left a loss to Iowa 3 weeks prior and appeared limited in the loss to Illinois, looked as healthy as he promised he was during the week. He connected on 5 of 6 passes on a 13-play, 89-yard drive, capping it with a 5-yard TD throw to tight end Brenton Strange.

He later led a drive to a half-ending field goal, and finished the first 2 periods 17-of-24 for 190 yards. By the end of the night, he had reached 361 yards on 35-of-52 passing with 1 TD and 1 INT.

Stroud matched up just fine, going 15-of-24 for 170 in the first half, including a TD strike to Chris Olave. By the finish, Stroud had 305 yards on 22-for-34 passing with 1 TD.

Up until 4 minutes remained in the first half, Penn State had completely shut down Olave and Henderson, and contained Stroud. But the explosive Buckeyes offense finally struck with Stroud lofting a touch pass to Olave for a 38-yard score. It was Olave’s only catch of the half and capped a 5-play, 69-yard drive to give OSU its first lead at 10-7.

Any thought that Penn State would roll over went away on the first drive after halftime. The Lions went 75 yards in 12 plays, as Clifford hit 7 of 9 passes for 67 yards. Dotson capped the drive with a 2-yard run off a direct snap, following a block by TE Tyler Warren and extending the ball inside the left pylon.

Ohio State responded by driving 69 yards for a field goal, but Henderson was stuffed twice and then false started after the Buckeyes got to the PSU 1-yard line.

Ohio State’s defense got off the field on the next drive with its 4th sack of the game.

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes offensive line kept Stoud clean and upright, allowing him to keep answering Clifford’s best efforts.

And finally, late in the third quarter, Henderson broke one, going 68 yards to set up his own 1-yard TD run 2 plays later.