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What we learned from Ohio State’s comeback against Penn State

There’s a lot of unpacking to do after the Buckeyes’ 39-38 instant classic victory against the Nittany Lions.

Penn State v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

There haven’t been too many games in the Urban Meyer era that went like the one we just witnessed on Saturday afternoon. The No.6-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, who came out in gray, wolf like uniforms, were supposed to be the hunters. For the first 45 minutes, it seemed as though they had it all wrong; the Buckeyes were the hunted.

In fact, it seemed that way after the opening drive in the fourth quarter. A J.T. Barrett fumble on a read-option all but sealed the Buckeyes fate with 13:13 left in regulation. In a cruel way, a game-breaking fumble by Barrett seemed like the way it was destined to be.

At the same time, the heat—while so unjust—would be applied to Meyer, one of the winningest coaches in all of college football. Since the title win in 2015, OSU has found ways to lose the big games they played in.

The ingredients were there: a late turnover, a recent trend of high-profile losses at home, and a deficit of 15 points.

But the main ingredient wasn’t in just yet: the clock hitting all zeros.

Let’s take a look at what we learned from Ohio State’s 39-38 win against Penn State in The Horseshoe.

Ohio State is in the driver seat for a College Football Playoff spot

Destiny is whatever you want it to be. If you truly decide (notice how I didn’t say ‘want’) to end up somewhere, you’ll find a way to get there—whether you know it or not. Ohio State didn’t want to beat Penn State. They decided that they were going to beat Penn State. Then they went out and did it.

In the final 11:39 of the game, the Buckeyes scored three touchdowns. The scary note: each TD drive was at least 40 yards, and was completed in under two minutes.

The spark to the 19-point scoring spree in the fourth was ignited by Denzel Ward blocking a Blake Gillikin punt with just under 12 minutes left in the game.

Santana Moss said, “big time players make big time plays in big time games.” That quote was uttered after the Miami Hurricanes, the college team he was on, defeated Florida State in the 2000 Orange Bowl.

That quote still rings true, and was especially true when Ward blocked the punt. Ward only had two tackles in the game, but he had the biggest impact on the game.

With that being said, the Buckeyes’ ability to march down the field with J.T. Barrett slinging passes in tight windows signified that Ohio State was on the warpath. Numerous throws late in the fourth quarter were close to being picked off, but none of them were.

Was Barrett lucky or good in crunch time? Was he both?

Trick question. He wasn’t either. My hot take is that Barrett flat out proved that he’s the most prolific quarterback in school history. Our own Patrick Mayhorn says it’s time to stop doubting Barrett’s abilities. Six weeks ago, saying Barrett was a good quarterback may have been enough for someone to take you to civil court. Now, I don’t know how you can’t say he’s good.

Between Barrett, Ward making the only good special teams play on the day, the coaching staff calling plays that would actually pick up yardage, and the defense absolutely stifling Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley when it mattered most, the Buckeyes now are in control of their conference championship and playoff aspirations.

J.T. Barrett was legend.......wait for it......dary

What Barrett did in the fourth quarter was borderline magic. He marched the team down the field, and got touchdowns when they needed it most. At anytime in those final three drives, a turnover or stalled series would’ve ended the game.

The final 16 passes were completed—and I thought at least two of them were picked off because he threw them in such a tight window. It was gut check time for the Buckeyes, and Barrett made sure the offense did their part. Barrett ended the game going 33-of-39 in the air, and picked up a collective 328 yards and four scores. On the ground, the quarterback led all rushers with 95 yards.

It was a performance that’s hard to articulate, considering just a month ago the rumblings on social media were to put someone else in at QB. Can Barrett make the deep throw downfield? The jury is still out on that one. But what he can do is operate on a hurry-up offense, and pick apart the defense with either his feet or a mid-range pass.

Penn State had one of the best defenses in the nation and only gave up an average of 9.6 points per game. Ohio State scored 19 points in the fourth quarter.

Those points are scored only if J.T. takes control of the game down the stretch.

Bad penalties are, in fact, bad

Momentum was something the Buckeyes lacked in the first three quarters. Whenever they got close to getting some, self-sabotage kicked in, and manifested itself in the form of bad penalties.

In the first half, false starts were the main penalty, and were committed by Demetrius Knox, Isaiah Prince, KJ Hill. Then there was a delay of game.

Some penalties, like Sam Hubbard’s facemask pull of McSorley weren’t as bad as they sounded—McSorley ducked at the same time Hubbard tried to tackle him, and he just happened to get the facemask.

Another penalty, a Damon Arnette pass interference call, occurred on the same play where Damon Webb intercepted a pass in the endzone. Granted, there was a little bit of pushing and grabbing, but on the spectrum of PI calls, it was weak sauce at best.

In total, 10 penalties were called against the Buckeyes, costing a total of 79 yards. That amount of penalties is a tad more than we’re used to seeing, and in most cases, would’ve been the key talking point in a Buckeye loss.

Special teams: a work in progress

Right off the bat, the worse fear for Ohio State’s special teams was realized: getting exposed. Barkley housed the opening kickoff 97 yards, and gave the Nittany Lions the momentum within the first 20 seconds of the game.

Another kickoff, this time in the second quarter, was brought back 59 yards. That’s a pretty damaging return, but it’s even worse if the initial kickoff only went 52 yards. The approach/strategy/whatever you want to call the kickoff display was erratic at best.

Penn State v Ohio State
There Goes That Man: Saquon Barkley’s kickoff return altered the way Ohio State’s special teams operated
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

(I believe at one point, the announcers suggested kicking the ball out of bounds just to mitigate the risk of another kick getting brought back for big yards.)

Like the penalties, special teams is having miscues, too. One kick even involved an offsides!

Late last season, the concern around OSU was the offense’s ability to move down the field. That concern was brought into the limelight in the Fiesta Bowl—and we all know how that went.

This season, it’s a combination of penalties and special teams executing plays that have become the concern heading into the final month of the regular season. Penn State may be the toughest team Ohio State plays this season, but road matches with Iowa and Michigan are still on the docket, as well as a home meeting with Michigan State.

Sean Nuernberger connected on both of his field goals, but none of them were from beyond 38 yards. As a matter of fact, he walked into the game 7-for-9 on FG attempts, and none of the makes were beyond 40 yards.

In the first quarter, Meyer went for it on fourth-and-eight from the PSU 25. To go for it that early in the game, and with that kind of distance, looks like a brazen thing to do. But when you really look into it, that was the only viable option he had.

Realistically, I think OSU can survive the rest of the regular season with this special teams unit. They can keep playing this game of pooch kicks, kicks out of bounds, and not having a field goal kicker that can consistently split the uprights from 45-50 yards out.

But come playoff time, there needs to be some sort of solution to this problem.

K.J. Hill shined as the No. 1 receiver

After the fumble on the first series, the Buckeye receiving corps took a depth hit, as it was reported that Parris Campbell was taken to the locker room with an apparent injury.

Campbell was Barrett’s No. 1 receiving target entering the game. With him out, someone needed to step up to make some plays.

The person to step up was K.J. Hill. Entering the Penn State game, Hill had 274 receiving yards—the third most on the team behind Campbell and Johnnie Dixon. Against the Nittany Lions, Hill led all receivers on the field with 12 catches for 102 yards.

On kickoffs, Hill collected some real estate, too. He fielded the ball five times, and had a total of 120 yards. However, on a punt in the third quarter, Hill muffed it, nearly causing another Buckeye turnover. Also in the same quarter, a pass was dropped by Hill.

But all things considered, Hill was the breakout star on the receiving end. Barrett was his go-to guy for the game, and he didn’t disappoint.

To have that kind of game on one of the biggest stages of the regular season is not only a confidence boost, but now defenses have to be prepared for either Campbell or Hill to be the main receiving target.

Bonus! What did we learn about Penn State?

Penn State is the bridesmaid, and never the bride

Since joining the Big Ten in 1993, the biggest bugaboos in Penn State’s quest for a national championship have always been Ohio State and Michigan.

Whether it was Joe Paterno, Bill O’Brien or James Franklin, beating both the Buckeyes and Wolverines in the same season was next to impossible. And when they did beat both, something funky happened that kept them out of the title picture. In ‘94, the Nittany Lions beat both teams and went undefeated, but didn’t get the national championship because the Big Ten wasn’t part of the Bowl Coalition.

In 2008, PSU cruised past OSU and UM, only to lose by a point to Iowa on the road late in the season. That loss took them out of the BCS Championship hunt, and put them into a Rose Bowl—which they lost.

I don’t know which one is worse: Beating Ohio State and Michigan, but you get gypped of a championship; beating both OSU and UM, only to lose to an unranked team on the road; or getting beat by either OSU and UM on a last second/minute comeback.

Twelve years ago, Penn State beat a No.6-ranked Ohio State team, and followed that up with a road trip to Michigan. That’s the game where “Henne to Manningham” happened.

A PSU national championship was ruined on that play.

Then you go back and look at Saturday. Penn State had a double-digit lead, and squandered it by playing not to lose. Franklin parked the bus and utilized prevent defense, which did everything but prevent Barrett and the offense from moving down the field. Then the Nittany Lions offense stalled out. In the final two drives, Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes consistently blew past the PSU offensive line, halting any chance for Barkley to break off a huge run or McSorley to connect on a big pass.

That avalanche of problems came, and wiped out Penn State’s ability to control their own destiny heading into November.

Penn State has watched Michigan split a title, Ohio State go to four of them (winning two), and Michigan State making the playoff.

The Nittany Lions are truly the bridesmaid of the Big Ten.

Saquon Barkley has the Heisman wrapped up

If there is a silver lining to come out of the loss to the Buckeyes, it’s that Saquon Barkley is still the most electrifying player in college football—and all but has the Heisman sealed up.

On the opening kickoff, he charged past the Ohio State kicking unit for a 97-yard TD. Then on offense, his biggest rush of the day was a 36-yard TD carry that had half the Buckeye defense caught trying to change directions.

Even though he ended the game with just 44 rushing yards, Barkley was a big reason for why Penn State had the lead for as long as they did. He may have lost some ground in the Heisman race to Baker Mayfield and Barrett, but he’s still the frontrunner.

Barring injury, I don’t see how Barkley doesn’t end the season with the Heisman Trophy.