When was it that you first started to believe?
There is something deeply unsettling about feeling your faith in something grow in real time. You're not sure what it will do to you if you find out you're wrong; you're not even sure you're ready to handle being right. The tension within you builds to a fever pitch, and at the end of it all, your faith rewarded, you celebrate at least in part that you're still able to feel anything at all.
Of late I have occasionally felt silly for putting so much time and mental energy into football, when the world has so many bigger fish to fry. But Saturday was a perfect reminder of why any of us started caring in the first place: to share in heartbreak and joy with others, to feel like part of something bigger than ourselves, and, every so often, to bear witness to something transcendent.
That's what J.T. Barrett was on Saturday afternoon—transcendent. These are the kinds of games that can make or break legacies; it feels safe to say that Barrett firmly cemented his own against Penn State. The greatest quarterback in Ohio State history—yes—played a game worthy of that title against the No. 2 team in the country.
He was damn near perfect.
Blue chip stocks
J.T. Barrett, QB: Barrett's final line from the win was 33/39 for 328 yards and four TDs, with 95 yards rushing on 17 carries. Those passing numbers are even more eye-popping when you consider that his targets dropped three passes—J.T. never missed by much.
It's not as though he was puffing up his stats against a middling defense, either. Penn State entered Saturday as the nation's fifth-best passing D. Barrett picked them apart, progressing from (head-scratching) swing screens to deep throws in the seam and to the sidelines. He's got an impressive repertoire of throws, a phrase that would've been unthinkable to associate with Barrett's name a few months ago. That "can't throw" narrative is dead and buried now. RIP.
J.T. Barrett since the Oklahoma loss: 132-for-176 (75.0%) for 1,679 yards (9.5/attempt, 279/game) with 22 touchdowns and no picks.— Rodger Sherman (@rodger_sherman) October 28, 2017
Johnnie Dixon, WR: Dixon had himself an impressive day. His has been a career marred by injury and the waiting game, and it's been incredible to see him bloom into a crisp route-runner with hands and focus. He had three catches for 56 yards against the Nittany Lions and found the end zone twice, including a toe-tapping grab in blanket coverage to bring the Buckeyes within five points late.
Jordan Fuller, DB: Fuller was everywhere against Penn State, totaling nine tackles and a TFL as part of an effort that held Trace McSorley and co. to less than 200 yards through the air. Despite all the headaches and the few high-profile missteps, it was a smothering defensive performance by the Buckeyes all around; it feels like some of the questions about the secondary have been answered now.
Sam Hubbard, DE: It's hard to single out any one of Ohio State's front seven, given what they were able to do to Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley (21 carries, 44 yards, 1 TD). But Hubbard played like a man possessed, finding his way into the backfield again and again, forcing Trace McSorley to throw on the run or attempt to take it himself. Hubbard finished with four total tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss.
K.J. Hill, WR: Hill was the guilty party in a baaaad one of the aforementioned drops, but otherwise, he had a day worth remembering. His 12 grabs for 102 yards moved the chains time and time again for the Buckeyes, and he hung tough despite taking a real beating just about every time he got tackled. Hill didn't find the end zone, but his contributions to the offense's performance were huge.
All three LBs: The Booker, the Baker, and the Candlestick Maker (that's what we're calling Chris Worley now, deal with it) were rock solid against the run and the pass, Baker's questionable pass-interference call notwithstanding. The three starting LBs were in on 17 total tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss, helping contain Saquon Barkley and limiting Penn State through the air.
The kickoff unit: This has been a head-scratcher all season. The Buckeyes have been either unable or unwilling to just boot the ball out the back of the end zone, instead trying to funnel opposing teams to one half of the field with targeted kicks. It's gone out of bounds countless times already this season, and even when placed properly doesn't make for an entire special teams game plan. See: Saquon Barkley taking the opening kick back 97-yards.
The follow-up strategy, high kicks that landed between the 30 and 35, worked slightly better. But it also resulted in some cushy starting field position for the Nittany Lions—you're better off just drilling it out of bounds if the alternative is spotting your opponent the ball at the 42. This is an area the Buckeyes need to figure out in a bad way as they look toward postseason play.
Penalties, penalties, penalties: The Buckeyes were flagged 10 times for a total of 79 yards on Saturday. While 30 of those yards came on a pair of phantom pass-interference calls that gifted the Nittany Lions scoring position, there's no getting around that the Buckeyes have a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot. On one occasion—in front of a home crowd—Ohio State committed two penalties before taking their first down snap. Facing down a 25-yard gap is hardly an auspicious way to make a drive.
SELL: The officiating. My word. It was a maddeningly inconsistent game from the officials, who managed to a) call two pass interference penalties on Ohio State that were not PI by any stretch of the imagination, removing an interception from the board; b) fail to call two blatant instances of pass interference against Penn State, one on a crucial third down in the end zone, the other in the seconds leading to the now-infamous interception-turned-TD for PSU; and c) not provide any meaningful explanation in-game as to why the call was overturned. It's a hard job and a thankless one, but to mess up the calls in the same important category over and over again in one game is troubling.
SELL: The swing screen to the flat. WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY
BUY: This sexy, sexy graph.