The score was 35-20, and there was just 13:13 left in the game. At seemingly the worst time, quarterback J.T. Barrett fumbled the football.
It was an unlucky play at an unlucky time that nearly resulted in the game-sealing drive as Penn State began its drive with the ball at the Ohio State 42-yard line.
Then something happened.
Barrett was handed the football trailing by five points after leading his team on back-to-back touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. After four plays and with 1:48 remaining in the game, he found redshirt senior Marcus Baugh open in the end zone and hit him with a perfect pass over leaping linebackers Manny Bowen and Jason Cabinda to put Ohio State on top 39-38.
In 12 minutes, Barrett went from being the goat of the game to having his Heisman-candidate moment and leading the Buckeyes to a miraculous comeback victory.
And as head coach Urban Meyer stood answering questions at his postgame press conference with fans chanting “O-H,” “I-O” in the background as they exited the stadium, Meyer had nothing but the highest praise to levy on his three-time captain.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had more respect for a human being and as a person, because you earn respect and you witness people in very dire straits at times, tough situations,” he said. “I’ve never had a kid play perfect, but damn, he was close tonight.”
The fourth quarter proved a tumultuous one for the Ohio State quarterback.
In an attempt to hand the football off to freshman running back J.K. Dobbins, Barrett mishandled the snap, losing his grip on the football and costing his team possession.
The fumble could have changed the narrative of this story entirely. Penn State could have capitalized on the opportunity, scoring a touchdown to make the game 42-27 and putting Ohio State’s championship hopes in the rearview mirror.
“It’s one of those things, like, really J.T.? Right now? That’s not the best timing,” Barrett said after the game.
At that moment, doubt began to creep into Meyer’s mind as the game was getting late and the Buckeyes were still down two scores.
“The one fumble, I kind of thought, ‘uh-oh,’” Meyer said.
That moment could have defined Barrett’s performance in one of the most important games of his career. He did not let that happen.
Just after fumbling the football, Barrett was aided by Ohio State’s special teams, as cornerback Denzel Ward blocked a punt and linebacker Dante Booker recovered it at the Penn State 41-yard line. One play later, Barrett turned the excellent field position into seven points with a 38-yard pass to redshirt junior wide receiver Johnnie Dixon.
The next Penn State drive saw the Nittany Lions march 64 yards down the field before being held to a field goal. Barrett responded by leading his team down the field for a 76-yard drive that resulted in seven points.
A three-and-out by Penn State forced a punt, setting Barrett up for his game-winning drive.
On the play, Baugh found himself wide open in the end zone with only a linebacker several yards away standing between him and his quarterback. Barrett delivered a perfect pass just over the leaping hands of the defenders to find his man and redefine his performance in the game.
“I was like, ‘Just put it over the linebacker and we score.’ And so I was able to do that,” Barrett said.
Barrett made it sound easy, and throughout the game, he made his success look easy. He completed 33-of-39 passes, threw for 328 yards — including four touchdowns — and had rushed for 95 yards on 17 carries against a defense Meyer called, “the No. 1 defense in America.”
Though the fourth quarter was Barrett’s shining moment, his teammates saw the same player all throughout the game — a leader, just as calm and composed trailing by 14 as he was ahead by one.
“J.T. is the same all four quarters. He’s a smooth dude and he has a lot of confidence in us as playmakers and in himself,” redshirt junior wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. “He’s the epitome of a leader. He never got too high, never got too low. Even when we scored a touchdown and we needed another stop to score another touchdown, it was the same demeanor from him and that’s what made him great.”
This game will prompt many superlatives to be lauded on him, and early award predictions to be made. Heisman Trophy candidate was thrown out by Meyer, Barrett’s teammates and Barrett himself. Meyer went so far as to call Barrett’s performance “one of the best I’ve ever seen a quarterback play.”
In the team’s loss Week 2 against Oklahoma, fans were calling for Barrett to be replaced and questions arose as to whether he was capable of winning a big game.
Behind closed doors, there was never any doubt to the players about whom their leader was.
“With all due respect, people who had that opinion, in the Woody Hayes facility there wasn’t any opinion. There was zero conversation about that topic,” Meyer said. “When I hear people say, ‘Oh, there’s a lot of people thought —’ that’s not one time I’ve walked into a staff meeting saying, what do you guys think? What do the fans and media think about J.T.? We don’t talk about that.”
Seven weeks ago, those fans chanting “O-H,” “I-O” were calling for Barrett to be benched.
Now those same fans might be calling for him to win the Heisman Trophy.