COLUMBUS, Ohio — It’s not even November. We are three days from the first College Football Playoff ranking and 36 days from the last. There’s so much we are yet to know.
But in the delirium of Ohio Stadium on Saturday night, as the Victory Bell pealed and the fans, glassy-eyed in their joy and disbelief, spilled over the waist-high fence and dropped onto the field, of this there could be little doubt: No. 6 Ohio State’s 39-38 comeback victory over No. 2 Penn State will live in the collective Buckeye memory for as long as scarlet goes with gray.
So much of the buildup to the game focused on the ramifications that the result would have on the Big Ten East race, the playoff rankings that will be released Tuesday and the Heisman Trophy race led by Nittany Lion tailback Saquon Barkley. That is the essence of the sport’s appeal: the constant discussion that serves as the game’s Sunday-to-Saturday soundtrack.
But the way this game unfolded and the giddy feeling that overtook the 109,302 fans and even head coach Urban Meyer overshadowed all of the yammering. All anyone could talk about in the Buckeyes’ interview room was the wonder of what just happened. The Nittany Lions were left to wonder what just happened.
“Of all the 31 years I’ve ever been [coaching], I can’t remember one quite like this one,” Meyer said.
When J.T. Barrett threw his third touchdown of the fourth quarter, a 16-yard strike to Marcus Baugh with 1:48 to play, the Buckeyes took the lead for the first time. This had been not so much a comeback as an escape, an homage to Houdini on the eve of his favorite holiday. Ohio State spotted Penn State two touchdowns in the first 3:24. The Buckeyes trailed 35-20 with less than 12:00 to play. Ohio State continually stopped itself with penalties. The Big Ten replay official turned a third-quarter interception and touchback into a Penn State touchdown.
The Buckeyes had ample opportunity to decide that the football gods would not allow them to win. But they kept their composure, which could have something to do with that rarest of college football antiques: the fifth-year quarterback.
“I’ve never had a kid play perfect,” Meyer said, “but, damn, he was close tonight: 33-of-39.”
Barrett played one of the best games any quarterback who has ever won the Ohio State uniform — including the all-grays the Buckeyes donned for the first time Saturday — has ever played. In the fourth quarter, against a team ranked No. 1 in scoring defense, Barrett went 13-of-13 for 170 yards and three touchdowns. He completed his last 17 attempts, finishing with 328 yards passing and 95 yards rushing.
“What was going through my head was Coach Meyer saying, ‘Go win the game,'” Barrett said. “He says that all the time, ‘Go win the game.’ And that’s something that we’ve been in that position before. And it was a great thing for our guys to go out there and execute it, and all 11 guys did their part.”
So did the 11 guys on the Ohio State defense. The Penn State offensive line waned as the Buckeyes’ defensive front waxed the FieldTurf with Barkley.
The Heisman favorite opened the game with a 97-yard kickoff return, and it was the second time he has done that this season. Barkley went through the Buckeyes as if he had a Secret Service escort. The only would-be tackler who got close enough to see the color of his eyes (they’re brown) was kicker Sean Nuernberger.
Meyer took care of that. Barkley didn’t field another kickoff until a squib in the fourth quarter bounded all the way to him inside the 10.
His rushing game went pretty much the same way. He added a nifty, 36-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter that lifted Penn State’s lead to 21-3. From that point on, Barkley carried 18 times for a total of 10 yards. Eight of his 15 carries in the second half lost yardage. He finished with 21 carries for 44 yards.
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley made some remarkable plays in the first three quarters. His first touchdown pass, converting an early Ohio State fumble, came on third-and-goal from the 13. His second, midway through the third quarter, looked as if would turn the game to the Nittany Lions for good.
On second-and-11 from the Buckeyes’ 37, McSorley threw an arching pass to wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins — and Ohio State safety Damon Webb. They crashed to the ground with the ball between them. The official, blocked by Thompkins’ body, came over, peered down and saw Webb with the ball. He ruled interception.
The replay showed that Thompkins had caught it (not to mention that, just as the tie goes to the runner, joint possession goes to the receiver). The Buckeyes had cut an 18-point deficit to eight and had created a momentum-stopping play, only to have the play — and the momentum — reversed. It was enough to make the ghost of Woody Hayes shred a down marker.
“One of the biggest things we talk about is to play with emotion. Don’t let emotion play with you,” quarterback coach Ryan Day said. “… [Meyer] talked to us [Day and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson] going into the game, ‘Let this thing go. Don’t play it close to the vest. So we didn’t. When things weren’t going well, we kept pushing the thing down the field.”
“A lot of times I’m the only one panicking out there,” Meyer said. “And I’m not proud of that.”
Just as Barrett got hot, McSorley found trouble. In the fourth quarter, McSorley rarely had the chance to set his feet. Ohio State sacked him only twice, but the Buckeyes constantly pressured him with only four rushers.
By then, the Buckeyes, the most heavily penalized team in the Big Ten, had overcome their 10 penalties for 79 yards. They had overcome their two lost fumbles. They had overcome Meyer’s first-quarter decision to not attempt a 42-yard field goal and instead try to convert fourth-and-8.
Ohio State kept pushing down the field. The Buckeyes pulled within 38-33 with 4:20 to play and failed to convert the two-point attempt that would have left them a field goal away. No matter. After a three-and-out, the Buckeyes traveled 58 yards for the winning touchdown in only five plays. Baugh, wide open when he caught Barrett’s final pass, set off a celebration that will be remembered for decades.
That Ohio State put itself in firm control of the division race, made itself a prime candidate to move into the playoff committee’s initial top four and forced the Heisman engraver to put down his tools for another week or two will be discussed in the days to come.
“Wow,” Meyer said. “What the heck just happened?”