COLUMBUS, Ohio — Marcus Baugh had only one thought going through his head as he slipped behind the Penn State secondary in the moment before the biggest moment of his football-playing career to date: Catch the ball.
Baugh dropped a pass early in the first quarter when No. 2 Penn State was building a sizable lead on the Buckeyes’ home field. He missed a block on the following play, and he spent much of the rest of the first half kicking himself over his mistakes.
The embattled and at times doubted senior tight end would not have cast himself in the hero role for this game, or any other for that matter. He didn’t see himself as the guy who would be on the receiving end of maybe the most significant touchdown pass during the storied career of his oddly embattled and at times doubted senior quarterback, J.T. Barrett.
“Who would’ve thought they would call my name for the game winner?” Baugh said. “Things change. We’re rolling right now.”
Things had changed significantly from the first quarter to the fourth at Ohio Stadium. Penn State had managed to keep the Buckeyes a comfortable arm’s length from the lead for 55 minutes in the Big Ten’s biggest game of the year. But with 1:48 left on the clock, Barrett and his offense found themselves on the Nittany Lions’ 16-yard line trailing by five points with a full set of downs and a tired defense in front of them.
The call from the sideline was 817 Y-Seam Lookback. Ohio State had two weeks to prepare for its stiffest conference competition, but it hadn’t stuck 817 Y-Seam Lookback in the game plan until a few days before kickoff. It was designed to be a complementary play, not a game winner, offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson would say later.
When he saw Penn State’s defense, Wilson knew the play had a chance to be open. He held his breath. The offensive line still had to block.
Ohio State’s group up front has weathered its own share of criticism over the course of the past year. Jamarco Jones, also a senior, would be lying if he said he hadn’t heard it. He said that was one of the first things that popped into his mind as he slid off of a double-team block and saw Baugh pulling in the pass in the end zone.
“After the talk about our line all last season, and the talk all offseason about whether we’d be better, to show how hard we worked, it was just a great feeling,” Jones said. “Words can’t really explain how that felt.”
Wilson said the call was set up by the quick, horizontal passes the Buckeyes had thrown through much of the game. Wide receiver Terry McLaurin, split out wide near the Ohio State sideline, took one step after the snap and turned to look for the ball. That, combined with a play-action fake, was a decoy to pull the linebackers and safeties closer to the line of scrimmage.
Baugh and receiver K.J. Hill were packed tightly between McLaurin and the offensive line. They ran routes to either side of the safety responsible for covering a deep half of the field on that side of the ball.
“I’m looking at the safety to see which one he picks, because whatever he does, he’s wrong,” Barrett said.
Barrett saw the safety cheat toward Hill. And why wouldn’t he? Hill was the one with 12 catches and 102 yards in the game. Baugh had 12 catches all year at that point. Hill said he saw the gap in the middle of the field as soon as the ball was snapped and knew the ball was headed to his teammate. Barrett saw it almost as quickly.
“I was like ‘Hey, J, just put it over the linebacker and we score,'” Barrett said. “And so I was able to do that. That was about it. He was getting depth. He saw me looking at him and I was able to put it in a good spot and Marcus made a great catch.”
It hasn’t been that simple all year for Barrett. The veteran has written his name all over the Ohio State and Big Ten record books in a career that Penn State coach James Franklin said feels like it has lasted about 20 years. But after a Week 2 loss to Oklahoma, questions started to swirl about his ability to win a big game. He filled up stat sheets against lesser opponents. Was he capable of adding some indelible moments and important wins to that legacy?
Barrett had completed his past 15 pass attempts when Baugh broke into the end zone, a dozen of them in the fourth quarter.
He had thrown hundreds more this summer with new quarterbacks coach Ryan Day. Day said the touchdown pass was one of the “one-inch throws” that Barrett had worked on tirelessly in the past year.
On a regular basis, Day drags a baseball hitting net onto the practice field and tells his quarterback to stand some 10 yards away. It’s supposed to mimic a linebacker, and Barrett is supposed to drop a pass just over the net and into the arms of a receiver.
“That’s really the ball you saw that went to Marcus,” Day said. “He faked it, and he got it right over the defender’s fingers right to Marcus.”
Months in the making, Barrett’s indelible moment finally arrived. It came during a fourth-quarter comeback victory in which he set multiple records and his Buckeyes posted 39 points on the top-scoring defense in the nation. In the process, he kept the door open for a Big Ten championship and whatever may lie on the other side of that.
“We have a lot of people on our team that have a burning desire to go make those plays,” Barrett said. “That’s what you want in a team. … People stepped up and had confidence in themselves. At the end of the day, that’s what you really want.”
Baugh said he can’t remember the moment right after he pulled in the catch and walked out the back of the end zone. His first coherent thoughts when he finally had a chance to collect them were that things had changed. Among the Buckeyes’ offense and about the Buckeyes’ offense, there’s no more doubt.