Dwayne Haskins walked into Beaver Stadium like a heavyweight boxer walking into a ring.
With a camera in front of his face, Ohio State’s redshirt sophomore quarterback threw punches, hyping himself up, displaying confidence. Ohio State hadn’t really seen this before from its starter, as Haskins carried himself in the same way Penn State redshirt senior quarterback Trace McSorley has done his entire career, and did against the Buckeyes on Saturday.
After lining up for the first time in a shotgun set, Haskins showed that confidence, rolling out to the right and finding junior wide receiver Austin Mack on an outside curl route, giving him a quick first down and, seemingly, momentum.
Haskins sped up the pace, getting to the 30-yard line for the second play. The ball was snapped and he quickly fired one towards redshirt senior Parris Campbell on the left side for a screen pass.
The ball was dropped. The momentum was gone. Haskins started to slump.
For the first time in his Ohio State career, Haskins faced adversity. He had the opportunity to define what his response to that adversity would be, what play-calling he would lean to in those times of high pressure.
Against Penn State, the adversity did not begin because of Haskins.
Reminiscent of Mack’s performance against TCU, Ohio State receivers dropped three passes in the first quarter, including a ball off the hands of redshirt junior tight end Rashod Berry that ended up being Haskins’ second interception of the season.
With the combination of mistakes from Ohio State receivers and a consistent pass rush by the Penn State defensive line, a unit averaging 3.2 sacks per game, the confidence that Haskins came into the stadium with was not there.
From there, Ohio State recorded five three-and-outs on its first eight drives.
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day said he had to encourage Haskins as he struggled in the first half.
“It’s his first time going through it. Just talking to him, ‘Hey, you are playing good.’ I thought the ball to Rashod [Berry] was a good throw,” Day said. “I thought he was managing the game well even though it didn’t feel like it at the time.”
Going into his final drive of the first half, Haskins completed 6-of-13 pass attempts for 36 yards and an interception.
WIth a deficit to make up, Haskins was not going to go the route of former Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett: running the ball for an average of 5.6 yards per carry in last year’s win over the Nittany Lions.
Instead, with what Day described as poise and maturity, Haskins threw a screen pass to J.K. Dobbins, watching as the sophomore running back ran 26 yards into the end zone for Ohio State’s first score of the game.
This was the major part of the offensive adjustments made in the locker room during halftime. Haskins’ goal, Day said, was to take advantage of the blitzing front and use his accuracy and blockers, either from the offensive line or the wide receivers on the outside, to continue to move the ball downfield.
That’s exactly what Haskins did. In the second half, he completed 15-of-23 pass attempts for 208 yards and two touchdowns, both coming off screens.
After leading Ohio State to a 27-26 win over then-No. 9 Penn State, Haskins earned his second-straight Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week award and his third of the season.
Haskins found his niche for moving the ball downfield when playing from behind: getting the ball into the hands of playmakers as quickly and as often as he could.
“I know one thing that seems very comfortable is seeing those screens coming out of his hands so fast and seeing his pinpoint accuracy,” head coach Urban Meyer said.
Day said Haskins’ confidence returned as skill players on the outside, like junior receiver Binjimen Victor and redshirt junior receiver K.J. Hill, got the ball, taking advantage of the open space and blockers down field to score.
Victor and Hill both scored touchdowns for the Buckeyes in the fourth quarter to give Ohio State the win.
Ohio State will not be facing as consistent of a pass rush on Saturday. Haskins will face an Indiana defense that has averaged two sacks per game, ranked No. 9 in the Big Ten.
However, when playing from behind and under pressure, Haskins did not rely on himself. He brought in his supporting cast, involving everyone in what Meyer considered “the greatest drive in Ohio State history.”
Moving forward, this is the formula that Meyer sees Haskins using when facing adversity.
“We are throwing for 340 a game or something like that and we are winning games. That’s our job,” Meyer said. “We are taking care of the football and we are throwing the ball. We are utilizing some very good players and he’s a very good player.”