If Ohio State manages to sneak into the inaugural College Football Playoff, a certain punt may go down in Buckeyes’ lore. And a certain punt return, too.
Trailing Indiana 20-14 late in the third quarter, No. 6 Ohio State stalled on its eighth consecutive drive, forcing a punt from midfield. Cameron Johnston uncorked a brilliant boot that bounced before dying at the Indiana one-yard line. Hoosiers quarterback Zander Diamont threw an incomplete pass on first down. After a bad snap nearly led to a safety, Diamont threw incomplete again on second down. A miscommunication sent Diamont diving for a three-yard gain on third down, and the Hoosiers punted from their own end zone. That’s when Jalin Marshall took over.
The Ohio State speedster took Erich Toth’s short kick and darted up the middle, hitting holes before escaping into open field and racing 54 yards for a touchdown. The Buckeyes never trailed again, pulling away late for a 42-27 victory.
After Ohio State mustered only 14 points through nearly three quarters against an Indiana defense that allowed 33.6 points per game entering Saturday, Marshall’s punt return awoke the Buckeyes. He capped an 11-play, 76-yard drive on Ohio State’s next possession with a six-yard touchdown catch. Marshall then added the exclamation point with a one-handed touchdown grab and a 54-yard catch-and-run score. He finished with four total touchdowns, while quarterback J.T. Barrett went 25-of-35 for 302 yards with four scores and two interceptions. Indiana tailback Tevin Coleman rushed for 228 yards with three touchdowns in a losing effort.
The Buckeyes’ comfortable margin of victory in a mostly uncomfortable game will provide another interesting twist for the playoff selection committee. There were certainly style points in the win, but almost exclusively in the final five minutes. Ohio State largely lacked the game control element Jeff Long mentioned when explaining the latest playoff rankings on Tuesday night.
Ohio State’s win, which clinched the Big Ten East Division title, resembled many of Florida State’s comeback victories this fall that, while preserving the Seminoles’ playoff hopes, have sent them down two spots in the rankings behind teams with a loss. The Buckeyes have a smaller margin for error, as they remain outside the top four as a result of their 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 6.
With only one quality win (over Michigan State) -- and another opportunity looming in the Big Ten championship game -- Ohio State’s best method to prove it belongs in the field is to dominate every foe in its path. The Buckeyes took too long to accomplish that on Saturday. All wins are not the same in the committee’s eyes, and two late touchdowns, though padding the margin, can’t mask two-plus quarters of sloppiness -- no matter how impressive that punt and punt return were.
at Penn State
W, 31-24 (2OT)
at Michigan State