COLUMBUS, Ohio – Entering the fourth-quarter of No. 6 Ohio State’s game with No. 2 Penn State on Saturday night, a feeling of dread filled Ohio Stadium. The 109,302 sat in stunned silence after three quarters of self-induced mistakes, Trace McSorley spirals and two majestic Saquon Barkley dashes into the end zone. Penn State controlled the game, the role of Big Ten alpha dog and its fate for the College Football Playoff. The Nittany Lions spent three unflinching quarters completely unaffected by one of the most notorious cauldrons in college football, needing only to nurse a 15-point lead for the game’s final 15 minutes.
But a violent momentum shift that began with a blocked punt by Ohio State’s Denzel Ward ended with a stunning fourth-quarter run that changed the scope of the entire college football season. Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett threw three touchdown passes in the game’s final 11:05 to secure a 39-38 victory and the school’s biggest comeback since 1989. The victory flipped the script of the Big Ten, College Football Playoff and (maybe) the Heisman Trophy races and indelibly altered Barrett’s career narrative in Columbus. Barrett played a near-perfect quarter, atoning for a fumble on the first drive by completing 13-of-13 passes for 170 yards, including the game-winner to Marcus Baugh with 1:48 remaining.
Dread yielded to delirium at Ohio Stadium, as the game ended with a sea of red oozing from the stands and into a mosh pit of ecstasy on the turf. Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline echoed the vibe of the stadium and state: “SO GOOD! SO GOOD! SO GOOD!”
The frenetic night encapsulated J.T. Barrett’s career arc at Ohio State – anonymous start, brilliance interspersed with setbacks and, finally it appears, a chance at a flawless finish. Against the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense, Barrett set a school record with 423 total yards, completed his final 16 passes and leap-frogged Drew Brees on the Big Ten’s all-time touchdown pass list (94 and counting).
And as Barrett checked plays at the line, threaded balls through Penn State’s zone defense and sashayed away from Penn State defenders, he summed up the magnificent fragility of high-stakes college football. Barrett’s career has been spent tip-toeing on the high-wire between brilliance (33-5 as a starter) and infamy (calls to be relieved as a starter), and this marks the night where perhaps his spot in Buckeye lore is forever secured. “That was as good of a performance,” a dazed Urban Meyer told Yahoo Sports, “that I can ever remember a player having.”
As Barkley disappeared into a sea wall of Ohio State defensive linemen – finishing with just 44 yards on 21 carries – Barrett simply forgot how to throw incompletions. He went 33-of-39 for 328 yards, ran for 95 more and essentially executed two two-minute drives in the game’s final five minutes to bring Ohio State all the way back from an 18-point deficit to win the game. “I’ve never had a kid play perfect,” Meyer said, “but damn he was close tonight.”
The flurry started with a blocked punt by Ward, which Ohio State converted to a touchdown two plays later when Barrett sailed a perfect pass down the seam to Johnnie Dixon for a 38-yard touchdown. OSU trailed 35-27 with 11:05 remaining, and hope played peek-a-boo with dread among the Buckeye masses.
After Penn State answered with a 24-yard field goal by Tyler Davis, Barrett led two touchdown drives in the final 5:23. He hit five straight passes to complete a 64-yard drive, capped by a 10-yard strike to Dixon with 4:20 remaining. “He was almost in a zone,” said Ohio State co-offensive coordinator Ryan Day. “It didn’t really matter what the play is, he’ll go make one.”
Then Ohio State’s defense, whose 4.4 yards per play better indicated their play than the 38 points suggested, came up with its hallmark moment of the night. They forced Penn State on a three-and-out that began with Barkley running the ball twice for minus-9 yards, with star end Sam Hubbard and reserve lineman Robert Landers making the key plays. “That’s as good of defensive line play as I’ve seen,” Meyer said of coordinator Greg Schiano’s unit.
The only criticism of Ohio State’s game-winning drive is that Barrett may have led the scoring drive too fast, as Ohio State traversed 58 yards in just five plays and 1:22. Barrett capped the drive with a 16-yard touch throw to tight end Marcus Baugh – who’d had one of the four OSU drops on the night – that sailed inches over the hand of Penn State linebacker Manny Bowen. Meyer realized the significance of the play, even giving out the name — 817 Y Seam Look Back – so it can properly be remembered in Buckeye history. (It’s easy to imagine some intramural basketball teams and fantasy football teams named it in its honor). “I’ve always visualized and put myself in situations like this since I was a little kid – going out and making the game-winning play,” Barrett said in a quiet moment after the game. “To be in one of those moments tonight, it all worked out. It’s never losing faith in what we do as an offense and my own confidence.”
Less than two months ago on this field, Barrett walked off as the losing quarterback and a lightning rod. He completed just 19-of-35 passes in a blowout loss to Oklahoma, threw an interception and it marked the third time in Ohio State’s previous four outings that the offense disappeared against stout competition. In a town where quarterback controversies have become a cottage industry the past few years, there was a relentless drumbeat for another. Former five-star recruit Dwayne Haskins, a redshirt freshman quarterback, became the most popular player on campus. “How quickly things change,” chuckled Day.
Barrett, stoic through good times and bad, simply went back to work. The internal conversation at Ohio State didn’t change, as Meyer said there was never a conversation about replacing Barrett. The external narrative seems foolish in retrospect, as Barrett got comfortable in Ohio State’s offense in a string of blowout victories over Army, UNLV, Rutgers, Maryland and Nebraska. With a newfound tempo came success, as Barrett has 22 touchdowns and no interceptions since Oklahoma.
But skepticism followed until Saturday, when the stakes, opponent and improbability of the comeback all set up the grandest stage. Barrett was all the things critics said he wasn’t – confident in his reads, calm in the pocket and poised for the biggest moments against the best competition. And the conversation around Barrett has undergone a U-turn, as Barkley sputtered in the run game and Barrett just kept completing passes. “I think the H-word is appropriate after today’s game,” Meyer said.
Barrett’s whole career has been about coming a long way. He arrived here from Wichita Falls, Texas, as an anonymous recruit and became an accidental starter after the injury to Braxton Miller. He never had Miller’s speed or Cardale Jones’ arm, but he may just leave as the greatest winner Ohio State has ever seen at quarterback. He’s three wins from tying Art Schlichter, one more niche in Buckeye history.
With an invitation to the Heisman ceremony becoming a probability, Barrett was asked by Yahoo Sports late Saturday if he’d ever been to New York before. He broke character for a moment, chuckling before retreating into the night. “I haven’t been to New York City,” he said.
Barrett then retreated down a set of back stairs at Ohio Stadium, into a raucous night to face a boundless horizon.