J.T. Barrett would not let his team lose.
The Ohio State senior quarterback, much-maligned for inconsistent play early in the season, put the No. 6 Buckeyes on his back on Saturday in Columbus. The Buckeyes trailed No. 2 Penn State by double-digits — 14-0, 28-10, 35-20 and 38-27 — throughout the ballgame, but Barrett and the Buckeyes kept chipping away.
When the dust finally settled, Ohio State emerged with an enormous 39-38 win to put itself in prime position for a Big Ten East title and, more importantly, a College Football Playoff berth.
Penn State looked like it was in the driver’s seat when it led 35-20 with under 13 minutes to go after a crazy touchdown catch. Barrett had just fumbled near midfield on a botched exchange with a running back, and Penn State recovered. But the Penn State offense, which had moved the ball well for most of the game, went three-and-out, setting up a punt.
The OSU special teams gave up two big kickoff returns — including a Saquon Barkley touchdown on the opening kickoff — up to that point. But this time the special teams came through.
OSU came in and blocked the Penn State punt and recovered the ball at the Penn State 41.
From there, it was all Buckeyes, and the exhausted Nittany Lions defense had no answer for Barrett.
Two plays after the punt block, Barrett hit Johnnie Dixon for a 38-yard score, cutting PSU’s lead to 35-27 with 11:05 to go.
Penn State, to its credit, responded with a gutsy drive when it got the ball back. Trace McSorley, who finished with three total touchdowns, brought his offense inside the Ohio State 10 and took more than five minutes off the clock in the process, but the Buckeyes’ defense held strong and forced PSU to settle for a short field goal.
It proved to be a big stop because Barrett was in the zone.
On OSU’s next drive, Barrett completed five straight passes for a total of 76 yards. The last of those completions, a 10-yard strike to Dixon, cut the PSU lead to 38-33 with 4:20 remaining.
With Ohio Stadium ignited, the Penn State offense went into a shell. The Nittany Lions had a chance to run out the clock and seal an enormous win, but OSU’s defense — the front four especially — seemed virtually unblockable. PSU went three-and-out, losing four yards in the process, and punted back to the Buckeyes with 3:07 remaining.
It was plenty of time for Barrett. With Penn State’s defense on its heels and looking completely exhausted, Barrett again only needed five plays to give his team the lead. After a short run by Barrett, he completed four straight for gains of 20, six, 14 and 16 yards. That final completion, a 16-yarder to tight end Marcus Baugh, proved to be the game-winner.
Penn State still had plenty of time, but it wouldn’t matter. Even after Ohio State gifted PSU great field position with a botched squib kick, the Penn State line just could not block OSU’s ferocious defense. This time, McSorley and company turned the ball over on downs without getting a first, and the Buckeyes emerged with a thrilling 39-38 victory.
Barrett has played in a lot of big games during his Ohio State career, but it’d be hard to find a better performance than he put together on Saturday. The fifth-year senior finished 33-of-39 for 328 yards and four touchdowns, three of which came in the fourth quarter. Barrett also was the game’s leading rusher with 95 yards.
With the win, Ohio State improved to a perfect 5-0 in Big Ten play, giving it the edge over Penn State and Michigan State, both 4-1 after losses Saturday. The Buckeyes will surely be highly-ranked in the first edition of the College Football Playoff committee’s rankings when they debut on Tuesday.
Better yet, OSU controls its own destiny, possessing a clear path to the division title. A division title would set up a likely Big Ten championship matchup with undefeated Wisconsin with a CFP berth on the line.
The loss is a devastating one for Penn State, especially after leading the game from the jump. PSU led from the Barkley’s kickoff return until Barrett’s connection with Baugh at the 1:42 mark in the fourth. But as the game went on, the Nittany Lions, which had the No. 1 scoring defense in the country (9.6 ppg), just could not stop Barrett and the Buckeyes.
Now at 7-1, Penn State is going to need some serious help to have a chance to squeak in the CFP at the end of the year. It’s looking very likely it will be on the outside looking in for the second year in a row.
More college football coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Wild play: OSU interception turns into Penn State TD
• Giant-killer Iowa State upsets No. 4 TCU
• Tulsa WR has TD taken away for high-stepping
• Quarterback change coming for Michigan?
– – – – – – –