Down 15 points to No. 2 Penn State (7-1, 4-1) in the fourth quarter, No. 6 Ohio State (7-1, 5-0) looked finished. Quarterback J.T. Barrett fumbled the ball, turning it over with 13:13 remaining as the Columbus crowd’s screams turned to dulcet tones.
But the Buckeyes never panicked. Cornerback Denzel Ward blocked a punt and two plays later, Barrett hit wideout Johnnie Dixon for a 38-yard touchdown. Ohio State held the Nittany Lions to a field goal and responded as Barrett once again found Dixon, this time for a 10-yard touchdown.
And after Penn State went three-and-out, Barrett put the finishing touches on what head coach Urban Meyer called the best comeback of his career. He dropped back and delivered a strike to tight end Marcus Baugh in the end zone to give the Buckeyes a one-point lead, their first of the game, with 1:48 remaining in the final quarter. The advantage would hold as Ohio State survived, winning 39-38 Saturday at Ohio Stadium and remaining in contention for the College Football Playoff.
“Honestly, we’ve been in those situations quite a bit, whether it be spring ball or fall camp,” Barrett said. “What was going through my head was Coach Meyer saying go win the game. He says that all the time, go win the game.”
Barrett followed up five weeks of increasingly impressive play with the best game of his career which potentially thrust him into Heisman Trophy contention, completing 33-of-39 passes for 328 yards and four touchdowns. He also raced for 95 carries on 17 yards, succeeding taking multiple zone reads for 10-plus yards.
“I’ve never had a kid play perfect, but damn he was close tonight — 33 of 39,” Meyer said. “I can count four drops off the top of my head and two penalties that kept him from big completions.”
Though the Buckeyes outgained Penn State through the air (328-192) and on the ground (204-91), they trailed for the first 58 minutes of the game due to many special teams blunders which have plagued them throughout the season.
It took just 15 seconds for Ohio State to seemingly realize its nightmare scenario as Penn State running back Saquon Barkley caught a well-placed kickoff and raced 97 yards, giving the Nittany Lions the early lead, which they nearly never relinquished.
The Nittany Lions capitalized on a multitude of Ohio State mistakes as the home team seemingly could not get out of its own way at times.
The Buckeyes committed 10 penalties for 79 yards, including four false starts. Safety Damon Webb intercepted a pass in the end zone, but cornerback Damon Arnette was flagged for pass interference which set the Nittany Lions up at the 6-yard line and quarterback Trace McSorley ran in for a touchdown on the next play.
Ohio State’s defensive front managed to bottle up the Nittany Lion rushing attack for much of the game, but Barkley broke free for a 36-yard touchdown early in the second quarter and finished with just 21 rushes for 44 yards and four catches for 23 yards.
“My biggest concern was not just the fact he’s a great running back, but he had 21 carries for 44 yards, if I’m reading that right. Is that right?” Meyer said, incredulous.
McSorley finished the game 17-of-29 for 192 yards and two touchdowns. He made his most prominent impact in the rushing game as he carried the ball 13 times for 49 yards. He had a crucial 10-yard rush on 3rd and 10 early in the third quarter, which extended a drive, leading to Penn State scoring its fifth touchdown and taking a 35-20 lead.
In the third quarter, Ward nearly pulled off an interception, but due to both he and wideout DeAndre Thompkins having possession, the Nittany Lions scored a touchdown.
Freshman running back J.K. Dobbins exploded for four carries for 50 yards in the first quarter, but was conspicuously absent from the game in the second quarter. He returned to the game in the third quarter and finished with 13 carries for 88 yards. While Dobbins was out, the Buckeyes relied heavily on redshirt sophomore running back Mike Weber, who ran the ball seven times for 21 yards and scored a 2-yard touchdown up the gut in the second quarter.
Wideout K.J. Hill set a career high in receptions as he led Ohio State with 12 catches for 102 yards, often acting as Barrett’s short-range target.
Ohio State will be back in action Saturday afternoon in Iowa City, Iowa, taking on the Hawkeyes.