However Urban Meyer imagined his No. 6 Ohio State team would begin Saturday’s crucial matchup with No. 2 Penn State, it wasn’t what actually took place. Neither the Buckeyes offense or defense had taken the field before Nittany Lions star Saquon Barkley was brushing off a desperate tackle attempt from junior place kicker Sean Nuernberger and flying down the sideline, having knifed through shoddy special teams coverage to run back the opening kick 97 yards for a touchdown. A few minutes later, the Nittany Lions went up 14-0 after capitalizing on the short field created by a fumble with a 13-yard touchdown pass.
Those two scores turned the most highly anticipated game of this college football season so far into an imminent rout. Ohio State had blundered its way into a big early hole against a formidable foe with the talent and depth to keep it there. Penn State tacked on 14 more points before the half, but the Buckeyes rallied to win, 39-38, on the strength of a reputation-warping performance from veteran quarterback J.T. Barrett. In the process, Ohio State improved its record to 7-1, took out its biggest challenger in the Big Ten at home a year after losing to it on the road and asserted its status as the conference’s top College Football Playoff contender.
Nearly two months after coming under heavy scrutiny following an underwhelming showing in a 31-16 loss to Oklahoma in Columbus, Barrett brought his A-Game at an opportune moment, roasting Penn State’s defense to guide the Buckeyes back from a 15-point deficit midway through the third quarter. Barrett went 13-for-13 with three touchdowns in the fourth quarter as part of a streak of 16 consecutive completions. He finished with 318 yards and four scores on 33-of-39 passing, as well as 95 rushing yards on 17 carries. In what amounted to a firm rebuttal of the charge that Ohio State couldn’t win big games with him under center, Barrett upstaged Barkley and potentially catapulted himself to the front of the Heisman Trophy chase.
One controversial call seemed to cripple the Buckeyes’ comeback bid. Ohio State had scored on a two-yard touchdown run from Mike Weber Jr. to narrow the deficit to 11 with about five minutes remaining before the half, and a 36-yard field goal from Nuernberger early in the third quarter made it a one-score game. Penn State counterpunched a few minutes later, when junior quarterback Trace McSorley found junior wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins on a 37-yard touchdown pass. The play, which culminated with Thompkins and Ohio State defensive back Denzel Ward jostling for the ball on the end zone turf, was initially ruled an interception, but it was overturned upon review, putting the Nittany Lions up 35-20.
Barrett took over from there, and the Buckeyes’ defense deserves credit for keeping in check a Penn State offense that rung up 8.30 yards per play against a stout Michigan D a week ago. On Saturday, the Nittany Lions managed only 4.4 YPP, compared to 6.8 for Ohio State, and Barkley totaled only 44 rushing yards on 21 carries.
This game offered the Buckeyes an opportunity to avenge a 24-21 upset in State College last season. They bounced back from that loss to make the playoff, but entering Saturday it was clear that another defeat to the Nittany Lions would incinerate their chances of getting to the Final Four again. Unlike last season, when it notched a double-digit win at Oklahoma in mid-September, Ohio State dropped its only non-conference tilt of consequence, a rematch with the Sooners in Columbus. Since then, the Buckeyes had coasted against weak competition while rising up the polls. Had it fallen short on Saturday, Ohio State wouldn’t have been anywhere near the top four when the selection committee put out its first set of rankings on Tuesday.
Now it has a legitimate case for being placed in that range. Ohio State has lost only once, to a top-five opponent (Oklahoma), and it has downed its chief conference competitor. In all likelihood, a league championship is a prerequisite for the Big Ten’s CFP representative, and the Buckeyes now have the inside track on getting to Indianapolis out of the East. Remaining trips to Iowa and Michigan present challenges, the latter in particular, but before this weekend Football Study Hall gave Ohio State an 89% and 85% chance to win those games, respectively. Their win probabilities in intervening home bouts against Michigan State and Illinois are 87% and 99%.
This will go down as one of the most valuable wins any team records this season. Ohio State fought back to knock off an offensive juggernaut powered by maybe the best player in the sport and quash any doubt about its status as a real-deal national title contender.