Forget what you knew when Penn State was the team with a knack for thrilling comebacks, including one against Ohio State. Forget what you knew when J.T. Barrett was the quarterback criticized for inconsistent play in big games.
It's a new season, and roles have changed.
Barrett played the game of his life on Saturday afternoon in Columbus, leading No. 6 Ohio State back from an 18-point deficit to beat No. 2 Penn State 39-38. Penn State started fast and struggled to finish. Barrett proved unflappable, making countless big throws in a flawless fourth-quarter performance to pull off a comeback that looked like something the 2016 Nittany Lions would have done.
The Lions have been fast starters rather than comeback artists most of this year -- last-play winning TD at Iowa, aside -- and that script played out again this week. Star tailback Saquon Barkley returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. Then, Ohio State lost a fumble and Trace McSorley found DaeSean Hamilton for a 13-yard touchdown. Penn State jumped out to a 14-0 lead in just 3 minutes, 24 seconds, even faster than it did in a blowout win over Michigan last week.
Ohio State made numerous mistakes, and Penn State caught several breaks. Touchdowns by Barkley and McSorley -- the latter after a controversial pass interference penalty negated an interception -- put the Lions ahead 28-10 in the second quarter, but Ohio State kept hanging around, kept moving the ball, and it cut the lead to 28-20 early in the third quarter.
What followed was what seemed, at the time, to be the key sequence of the game: Midway through the third quarter, McSorley launched a 37-yard deep ball into the end zone. DeAndre Thompkins was covered, and the officials initially ruled that Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward intercepted the pass. Upon review, it was determined that Thompkins had actually possessed the ball first, and the call went from a Buckeyes interception to a touchdown that put the Nittany Lions ahead 35-20.
Penn State kicked a field goal in the fourth quarter, but that's all it would score the rest of the way. For most of the fourth quarter, two things stole the show: Barrett's passing and Ohio State's disruptive defensive line. Ohio State stopped making mistakes and overwhelmed the Lions, who ran out of gas on both sides of the ball.
Barrett completed 13 of 13 passes for 170 yards and three touchdowns in the final period alone. The first touchdown was a 38-yarder to Johnnie Dixon after a Penn State fumble recovery was followed by an Ohio State blocked punt. The second was a 10-yarder pass to Dixon to cap a breezy five-play, 76-yard drive that cut the lead to five and gave the Buckeyes a chance to win.
After his early heroics, Barkley struggled to find any room to run as Ohio State's star-studded defensive line dominated the Penn State offensive line and repeatedly hit Barkley soon after he got the ball. Despite a 36-yard TD run, Barkley finished with 44 yards on 21 carries, and most of Penn State's offense came from McSorley. Little worked down the stretch, and needing a drive to run clock with a five-point lead, the Lions lost four yards in three plays and quickly punted back to Ohio State.
Again, Barrett led a masterful drive: five plays, 58 yards, capped by a gorgeous 16-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Baugh for a one-point lead and, ultimately, the win.
Last year, Penn State beat Ohio State with a blocked field goal return touchdown late. In September, Penn State went on a 12-play, 65-yard touchdown to drive to win on the last play at Iowa. On Saturday, there was no magic left: Penn State's final possession followed the script of most of the rest of the fourth quarter, as the Buckeyes defense rose to the occasion and took everything away.
A Heisman candidate as a redshirt freshman in 2014, Barrett struggled with inconsistent accuracy and an inability to push the ball downfield the past two seasons. He struggled again to start this season under new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, even leading to questions about whether he should be benched. But after a loss to Oklahoma, a switch flipped, and Barrett dominated a relatively easy run of opponents.
On Saturday, he answered any lingering questions, torching an undefeated Penn State team that entered the game ranked No. 1 in defensive passer rating.
Penn State pass defense entering today:- Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB) October 28, 2017
54.2%, 167.6 YPG, 3 TDs, 9 INTs, 5.2 YPA
JT Barrett today:
33/39, 328 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, 8.4 YPA
At 7-1 with a one-point loss at Ohio State, Penn State's playoff chances can't be entirely dismissed. In fact, if the Buckeyes lose a game in November and Penn State wins out, the two teams could see another role reversal: Ohio State as a two-loss Big Ten champion and Penn State as the 11-1 team that lost the head-to-head game. The playoff debates would cause all of our heads to spin.
That's merely a possibility, however, because Ohio State is back in control. Facing tremendous first-half adversity, giving up big plays and also repeatedly shooting itself in the foot, Ohio State rallied to beat a team ranked No. 2, vault to the top of the Big Ten East race and position itself for a possible playoff run.
We knew Ohio State's defensive line was capable of a dominant performance like this. Barrett, meanwhile, played like the Barrett he was expected to become after his freshman campaign, and then some. He erased doubts and played like a Heisman candidate and a quarterback ready for redemption after the way 2016 ended.
Despite the criticism, Barrett has accomplished a lot in his college career. And when Barrett plays a game like he did to beat Penn State, it's easy to move forward and focus on all that he and the Buckeyes can still accomplish in 2017.
Views from Columbus pic.twitter.com/PznVlEQ9jZ- FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 28, 2017