In his 31st season coaching college football and his 16th season as a Football Bowl Subdivision head coach, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer has been a part of many memorable games.
There’s a new game right near the top of the list, however, after Ohio State’s 39-38 win over Penn State on Saturday.
"That was one of the best fourth quarters I've ever witnessed in my coaching career," Meyer said. "Of all the 31 years I've ever been (coaching), I can't remember one quite like this one."
Trailing by 15 points entering the final 15 minutes of Saturday’s game, Meyer’s team appeared to be on the verge of losing a second regular-season game for the first time in Meyer’s tenure at Ohio State and on the brink of being all but eliminated from the College Football Playoff conversation.
An epic comeback, highlighted by a near-perfect fourth quarter by Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, dominant defense and even a big special teams play, changed all of that.
“That was one of the best fourth quarters I've ever witnessed in my coaching career.”– Urban Meyer
Instead of suffering a defeat that would have led the Buckeyes to weeks more scrutiny about their ability to win big games and that would have essentially made the rest of the season irrelevant from a national perspective, Ohio State earned a victory that re-established it as the best team in the Big Ten, moved it back into playoff position and could potentially be the spark for the Buckeyes to make their second national title run in four years.
The fourth quarter got off to a inauspicious start, when Barrett fumbled the ball on what was supposed to be a handoff to running back J.K. Dobbins. Barrett bowed his head in disbelief after the Nittany Lions recovered the fumble to retain possession on Ohio State’s side of the field, making the Buckeyes’ chances to win look bleak.
"It's one of those things, like, really, J.T.? Right now?" Barrett said of his thoughts after that fumble. "That's not the best timing."
Ohio State quickly came up with a saving grace, however, when Denzel Ward blocked a punt after the defense came up with a 3-and-out. Two plays later, Barrett completed a 38-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Johnnie Dixon, which cut Penn State’s lead to eight.
Penn State responded from that jab with a 10-play, 64-yard, five-minute and eighteen-second field goal drive that appeared to be another significant body blow to the Buckeyes’ chances, as it gave the Nittany Lions a 38-27 lead with just five minutes and 42 seconds to play.
But while the Buckeyes might have been wobbly on their feet, they never allowed Penn State to hit the knockout blow.
Barrett promptly responded to Penn State’s field goal drive by completing five straight passes – and drawing penalties on two others – for a five-play, 76-yard drive, complete with a 10-yard scoring pass to Dixon, that took just 1:17 off the clock and cut Penn State’s lead to five points, even with a failed two-point conversion.
Led by a memorable 7-yard tackle for loss in which Sam Hubbard wrapped up both Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley simultaneously, Ohio State’s defense forced another 3-and-out, giving the Buckeyes three minutes and seven seconds to mount a game-winning drive.
Barrett and the Buckeyes offense only need one minute and 19 seconds to drive 58 yards in five plays, capped by a 16-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Baugh – on a play called 817 Y-Seam, which Barrett said the Buckeyes had only added to their offense this week – that put the Buckeyes up one point.
The Buckeyes failed another two-point conversion, but that didn’t matter, as the defense stopped Penn State on four straight plays, leaving Ohio State just 1:22 and one first down – which Barrett achieved with an 8-yard run – away from sealing victory.
It would have been easy for Ohio State to give up, to accept the belief of many doubters – most of whom began doubting after the Buckeyes’ loss to Oklahoma in their first big game of the season – that they were not good enough to beat the best teams in college football. But the Buckeyes said they never lost hope, and as a result, they ended the night celebrating with thousands of their fans who stormed the field immediately following the instant classic.
Fans storming the field after Ohio State's win: pic.twitter.com/DJZhmsSd0e— Dan Hope (@Dan_Hope) October 28, 2017
The Buckeyes credited their senior leaders – Barrett, center Billy Price, defensive linemen Jalyn Holmes and Tracy Sprinkle and linebacker Chris Worley among them – with making sure their team never stopped believing.
"Guys like that, they never give up," said Ohio State linebacker Jerome Baker. "You look in their eyes and you never quit, never quit and never quit, and it worked out in our favor."
Truthfully, the Buckeyes could have been defeated well before the fourth quarter. After giving up a 97-yard kickoff return touchdown on the first play of the game, Ohio State trailed for the entire touchdown until its final touchdown, and was down by as many as 18 points at multiple junctures in the first half.
Worley said he had never been in a game that the Buckeyes started as poorly – not even in last year’s 31-0 loss to Clemson – as they did on Saturday.
"I’ve never been a part of a game that just things weren’t clicking like that here," Worley said. "Even in the Clemson game, all phases weren’t that bad. But the great thing was, at halftime, we were down 11 points, and we knew we couldn’t play no worse. And we were still in that game."
The Buckeyes played substantially better in the second half, and as a result, they now sit in sole possession of first place atop the Big Ten East standings with a 5-0 conference record and a 7-1 overall record. And with the loss they handed to Penn State, as well as a loss by previously undefeated TCU on Saturday, Ohio State appears well on its way to being ranked in the top four when the first College Football Playoff standings are released Tuesday.
Ohio State’s national championship hopes were never over after the Buckeyes suffered their 31-16 loss to Oklahoma in Week 2 – after all, the Buckeyes also lost their second game of the season before going on to win the national championship in 2014 – but their potential to be a championship contender remained murky as the Buckeyes spent their last five games beating up on weak opponents.
Following Saturday’s win, however, repeating history and chasing another championship looks like a genuine possibility. And Price, who started at guard for the 2014 national championship team, said Saturday’s comeback win against a top-notch opponent was exactly the type of game that can spark a title run.
"It’s huge," Price said. "Because if you can put that on the resume and you show down 15 points and then being able to come back, it’s a huge, huge confidence builder."