COLUMBUS, Ohio — None of it seemed possible with 5:42 remaining.
None of it. Not Ohio State assistant coaches packing into elevator, smiling, hugging, screaming “Just battle! Just battle!” as the doors closed and their feet slammed into the floor. Not the chorus of “Sweet Caroline” ringing in the late-October air of Ohio Stadium behind a crowd of 109,302 screaming “So good! So good! So good!” into the deep blue night. Not with No. 2 Penn State taking control of No. 6 Ohio State for a 38-27 late in the fourth quarter of what became the thriller that sends college football into the final month of the regular season.
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That’s how Ohio State coach Urban Meyer opened his postgame news conference about a half-hour after a thrilling 39-38 victory against the Nittany Lions. It’s a game he admitted was one of a kind in his 31 years of coaching. Then, Meyer asked the question everybody might still be asking Monday.
“What the heck happened?”
Meyer knows the answer. We all do now. Fifth-year senior quarterback J.T. Barrett happened.
He provided the answer with back-to-back touchdown drives in that final 5:42 that put Ohio State (7-1, 5-0 Big Ten) in the driver’s seat of the East division race heading into the November and left Penn State (7-1, 4-1) in disbelief, just like No. 3 Michigan in the 2016 regular season finale. It’s another great escape, maybe even more unbelievable than last year’s victory against the Wolverines.
Barrett (33 of 39, 328 yards, four touchdowns) completed a school-record 16 straight passes. He finished 13 of 13 for 170 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. He added 17 carries for 98 yards. He silenced the doubters by improving to 6-3 against top-10 opponents for his career, and likely put Ohio State in the top four of the first set of College Football Playoff rankings, which will be unveiled Tuesday.
That’s what happened. Barrett made this incredible comeback possible with a moment that typically invokes a conversation involving a certain trophy.
“I think that ‘H word’ is appropriate after today’s game,” Meyer said. “I can think some of great (Barrett performances). I’d probably put this one 1A or 1B. I remember Michigan State in ’14 was one of those days.”
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That was the last time Barrett was in front of the “H word” conversation, and it has taken one of the longest-winding career paths possible to get back to this point. Barrett went from backup-turned-starter to starter-turned-backup. When he became starter again, he faced an unprecedented level of scrutiny after losses to Clemson in the 2016 College Football Playoff and Oklahoma earlier this season.
The Nittany Lions were the next obstacle in his path. After all, incoming Heisman Trophy front runner Saquon Barkley opened the game with a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Penn State led 28-17 at halftime and seemingly put the game away with a 24-yard field goal with 5:42 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Barrett has answered every question. Taken every criticism. Faced every possible situation through a highly decorated career that still somehow needs validation. What’s going through his head at that point?
“What was going through my head was, ‘I’m going to go try and win the game,'” Barrett said. “That’s something where we’ve been that in that position before. It was a great thing for us to go out and execute.”
Barrett recalled a conversation with new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, who taught him that leadership is like a set of golf clubs: There’s a different club for each situation, and Barrett needed more than one for the last two drives while the Buckeyes played follow the leader. He used every iron.
“Sometimes I come across as aggressive and intense and get our guys motivated,” Barrett said. “There are other times where I need to use poise and let everybody know everything will be OK.”
Barrett chose that second set at first. He rattled off 5 of 5 passes in a drive that took just 1:17 for the first touchdown, a 10-yard back-shoulder fade to Johnnie Dixon that cut the lead to 38-33. At that point, Barrett started talking to teammates on the sideline. Tight end Marcus Baugh heard his quarterback repeating the same things over and over.
“We got this. Keep your head in it. We’re going to score.”
“We knew we when we get the ball we’re going to win,” Baugh said. “We were going to go down and score.”
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Ohio State forced a three-and-out, and needed 58 yards with 3:07 remaining to take the lead. Barrett made it look easy, peppering three more passes to the 16-yard line. That’s when Wilson called a play the Buckeyes installed Wednesday that’s destined to be the next T-shirt in local bookstores: “817 Y-Seam.” Barrett saw the safety cheat on the under route and talked to himself this time.
“I saw the linebacker, I think it was ‘43′ and I was like, ‘Hey J, just put it over the linebacker and we’ll score,'” Barrett said. “I was able to do that, but that was about it. He was getting depth. I think he saw me looking at him. I was able to put in a great spot.”
As the linebacker and safety split, Baugh popped wide open in the end zone and made the catch that gave Ohio State its dramatic victory at home and touched off all those improbable reactions. From the elevator beams to the Neil Diamond screams, Barrett kept Ohio State’s championship dreams alive, and put himself in the Heisman conversation.
Barrett isn’t just in that conversation. He’s the front runner for the Heisman Trophy now.
He didn’t just beat Barkley head-to-head. Barrett outperformed Barkley — outperformed everybody else on the field. Now, including his game against Penn State, Barrett has completed 171 of 246 passes this season (69.5 completion percentage) for 2,166 yards and 25 touchdowns to just one interception. He has 454 yards and five touchdowns on the ground as well.
“(Meyer) said the ‘H word’ but I’m going to say the same thing about that ‘H word,'” Barrett said. “I’m not really focused on that. We have to win at Iowa next week.”
In the meantime, Barrett can settle for a different “H word.”
How about “Hero.” That’s one that fits after Wilson, Meyer and teammates gushed about the leadership qualities Barrett displayed down that incredible stretch. That’s why Ohio State controls its destiny in the Big Ten East race — something that led to the program’s last national championship in 2014.
There’s a reason Meyer dropped that Michigan State reference. That’s what Ohio State has been waiting for, and for 5:42 Barrett looked like that guy again. If that continues, then Barrett will have a chance to win a Big Ten championship as a starter and end all those conversations for good.
Now, everything is possible for these Buckeyes. That’s what’s happening now.
“I’ve never had a kid play perfect, but damn he was close tonight,” Meyer said. “(Barrett finished) 33 of 39. I can count four drops off the top of my head and two penalties that kept him from big completions. He’ll be the first to tell you he’s a product of those around him, which he is.”