COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio State had spent a majority of the brisk afternoon and early evening undermining itself with self-induced blunders. They began the day with Saquon Barkley returning the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown and most of the afternoon unfolded like Urban Meyer’s nightmare therapy session – pre-snap penalties, dropped passes, short fields, a critical fumble and special teams breakdowns.
But just when Ohio State looked like it was headed for another season of looking up at Penn State in the Big Ten standings, the Buckeyes authored a comeback for the ages in front of 109,302 at Ohio State. J.T. Barrett thrust himself to the forefront of the Heisman Trophy conversation with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Baugh with 1:48 remaining to deliver No. 6 Ohio State a 39-38 victory over No. 2 Penn State.
After an early-season loss to Oklahoma here, Ohio State put itself back in control of its College Football Playoff aspirations by overcoming a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit with three touchdown drives in the game’s final 11:05. And the victory can be directly tied to the brilliance of Barrett, who went 13-for-13 in the fourth quarter and TD passes on all three of Ohio State’s fourth-quarter scores. He finished the game 33-for-39 with four touchdown passes, and watched with glee as the the Ohio State fans stormed the field and serenaded the chilly night with the chorus of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” “So good! So good! So good!”
The feeling was distinctly different on the Penn State sideline, as they dominated the game for three quarters, exploiting the litany of Buckeye mistakes and putting themselves on the cusp of shifting the balance of power in the Big Ten.
But everything turned with a blocked Penn State punt by Denzel Ward midway through the fourth quarter, shaking the stadium, turning the momentum and paving the way for Ohio State to score on a pair of touchdowns in the game’s final 4:20.
2) Before the furious final run by Ohio State, the game appeared to turn in the third quarter on a controversial call that underscored just how fickle college football can be.
Meyer is known to remark just how fragile dominance is in college football, as a bad Friday night, injuries or the whims of recruits can turn the direction of the program. The momentum turn in the Big Ten was almost traced to one moment, a pass from Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley that hung in the chilly fall air midway through the third quarter on Saturday night. With Penn State attempting to extend its 8-point lead, Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward came down with what officials ruled was an interception in the end zone. The play went under review for five tense minutes, with seemingly the fate of the game, conference supremacy and a potential spot in the College Football Playoff hanging in the balance. With the sell-out crowd sitting in nervous silence, replays flashed on the Jumbotron in high definition.
Soon enough, the officials confirmed what the replay suspected, and the 37-yard touchdown to DeAndre Thompkins gave Penn State a 15-point lead that appeared to vanquish any hope of an Ohio State comeback.
“What happened, the offensive receiver had full possession of the ball, brought the ball down and completed the process of a catch,” said referee John O’Neill when asked about the ruling after the game. “He then rolled over and at that point, the Ohio State defender came on him. By rule, joint possession belongs to the offense.”
“The Penn State receiver had the ball first. He brought the ball down, completed the process of a catch, rolled over at which point the Ohio State defender came down on him.”
So instead of an 8-point deficit and more than 22 minutes to overcome it, Penn State led by 15 points. Instead of a defining moment in the season, though, it turns out to be a footnote.
3) Barkley finished the game with 44 rushing yards on 21 carries, and his struggles in the fourth quarter hurt Penn State’s ability to run out the clock. He may have some company in the Heisman Trophy race, as J.T. Barrett’s 33-for-39 passing performance has to put him neck-and-neck with Barkley atop the voting. Barrett has 24 touchdowns and just one interception, with the entire fourth quarter registering as a Heisman moment.
It’s hard to say the night significantly damaged Barkley’s candidacy, as he finished with 172 total yards and a signature moment on the opening kickoff. But it looked for most of the day like he could well have just kept running to New York to collect the Heisman. He spent the day in the middle of the action, knocking back defenders between the tackles, catching four passes out of the backfield and authoring the type of performance you’d have expected a player who entered the game leading the nation in total yards. (He ended up below his average of 211.)
Barkley did have a 36-yard touchdown run where he shed an arm tackle from Ohio State defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis at the line of scrimmage and darted 36 yards around the left end for a touchdown. But skeptics may point to his inability to convert a first down on Penn State’s final drive with the lead in the fourth quarter, as Ohio State’s defensive line fenced in Barkley and he lost nine yards on his first two carries of the drive. Penn State ended up punting, and Barrett led the Buckeyes on the game-sealing drive.
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