Ohio State beat itself.
That was the lede I was planning to write as the Buckeyes seemed destined for their second-straight loss to Penn State. Then Ohio State outscored the Nittany Lions 19-3 in the fourth quarter behind a literal perfect performance from J.T. Barrett and a lockdown effort from the Buckeye defense.
It switched. This is my lede now:
Ohio State won, actually.
Despite miscue after miscue, and bad break after bad break, the Buckeyes fought back to beat Penn State 39-38. With the win, Ohio State is now in the front of the Big Ten title race and have a real shot to make its third College Football Playoff in four years while Barrett has officially cemented his legacy and made himself a Heisman candidate.
Fans and analysts alike were highlighting this game as the sort of midterm exam for this Ohio State offense, and it passed with flying colors. The Buckeyes racked up 529 yards of total offense and dropped 39 points on what was thought to be one the nation's top defenses.
There were issues offensively, but they really weren't scheme, play call or even execution issues. They were self-inflicted – dropped passes, fumbles, false starts and holds.
But all in all, this was an excellent offensive performance from Ohio State against a quality opponent.
Don't let the final score fool you, this Buckeye defense was stout.
Ohio State gave up 38 points to the Nittany Lions, but 14 of those come when Penn State was given a short field due to a long kickoff return or a Buckeye miscue, and seven were from Saquon Barkley's opening kickoff return.
The Silver Bullets held Penn State to just 283 yards, and bottled up Saquon Barkley most of the night, allowing him just 44 yards rushing – 36 of which came on one carry.
The defense was especially reliable when the Buckeyes needed it most, holding Penn State to negative yardage on three of its last four drives.
Offense: J.T. Barrett
J.T. Barrett played the game of his life on Saturday.
He went 33-for-39, passing for 328 yards and four touchdowns. He was also the team's leading rusher, carrying the ball 17 times for 95 yards – more yards than Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley combined.
The most amazing thing is that he seemed to get better as the game went on, and as Ohio State's situation got more dire. With the game, season and his legacy on the line, Barrett closed the game with 16-straight completions and three touchdowns, leading not one, but two clutch must-have touchdown drives.
"JOE. THOMAS. BARRETT. WHO SAYS I CAN'T WIN A BIG GAME!?!?"
Gus Johnson the goat don't @ us pic.twitter.com/fg6lfbZbvk
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 29, 2017
"I think that 'H' word is appropriate after today's game," Urban Meyer said of the Heisman chatter. "This has to be one of the best – this is one of the best (games) I've ever seen a quarterback play."
Defense: Jordan Fuller
The defense as a whole played lights out, but if we're going to give one player MVP honors, it's Jordan Fuller.
Fuller was all over the field on Saturday, helping the secondary shut down Penn State's passing attack, making tackles in the open field, and getting his nose dirty in the run game.
He finished the game with a team-high nine total tackles and eight solo tackles, and he had one crucial tackle for a loss, taking down Saquon Barkley in the backfield to keep him from getting the first down and likely a whole lot more.
What an incredible play by Jordan Fuller pic.twitter.com/Y26KO3i0so
— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) October 28, 2017
Plays of the Game
This might not have been the most impressive offensive play of the day, but I don't think any of you are going to fault my decision.
Down five points with the game on the line, J.T. Barrett found Marcus Baugh open in the middle of the field and delivered one the best balls of his career. Baugh caught it, and it was ultimately Ohio State's game-winning touchdown.
God bless you, Gus Johnson.
I'll call your "Joey Bosa Uses Human Projectile For Walk-Off Sack" and raise you a "Sam Hubbard Tackles Two Men in the Backfield at the Same Time and One of Them is Saquon Barkley."
Hubbard exploded into the backfield before the read could be made, attacked the mesh point and ate both Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley.
He finished the game with four total tackles, three solo tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss. This one didn't count as two tackles for a loss on the official stat sheet, but it sure did in our hearts.
I mean no disrespect to him when I say this, but Demetrius Knox far exceeded my expectations on Saturday. For almost everyone on the field, it was one of the biggest games of their lives. For Knox, it was also his second game as a starter, but you would have never known that from how he played.
Chalk this one up in the pleasant surprise category.
Jim Tressel's Least Favorite Moment
With the weather getting colder, the time for outdoor activities is at an end.
No matter, the Tressels enjoyed a nice fall Saturday inside the warmth of their home. Jim, having spent the past week gathering firewood, was eager to get a fire started, and his beloved wife, Ellen, was equally eager to sit in front of its toasty warmth and do some knitting.
An accomplished knitter himself, Jim was happy to join his wife in this exhilarating activity, and the pair knitted by the warmth of the fire until nearly 3:30, when it was time to watch the Buckeyes.
Just a few minutes before kickoff, Jim was hopeful. With the off week, his beloved Buckeyes had surely solved all their problems on special teams, and he expected nothing less than perfection this week. After all, it cost them the game last year.
Jim watched intently as Sean Nuernberger booted the ball on the opening kickoff, and was nothing but pleased. The kick was perfect – between the numbers and the sideline and just outside of the goal line. A smirk began to develop across his face.
Then, disaster struck.
Saquon Barkley busted the return outside, got the corner and easily outran several Buckeyes on his way to the end zone.
Ellen's eyes were full of concern as she looked at her husband. She wasn't sure how much more of this he can take.
Jim noticed her stare.
"Don't worry," he said, staring blankly at the tube television across the room. "It doesn't even hurt anymore."
Well, there was a laundry list of blunders to choose from, but picking the biggest one really wasn't all that much of a challenge.
Ohio State kicked the ball to Saquon Barkley. It did not go well.
We're done here.
Denzel Ward Did Things
It would be a shame not to mention Denzel Ward's performance. Playing man-to-man on an island for much of the game, Ward was mostly lockdown, save for the one touchdown that was also kind of an interception.
His biggest play of the game came on special teams, when he came in untouched from the outside and blocked a Penn State punt.
Hey Penn State, for future reference, you're going to want to block the fastest guy on the team instead of letting him run unimpeded to the punter.
As you may have noticed, the Buckeyes did indeed don the all-gray, wolf-themed threads on Saturday, but what was noticeably missing from the stadium atmosphere was Kanye's "Wolves," which should have played through Ohio Stadium's sound system.
I'm not saying it would have helped the team's performance, but I will say they likely would have had to call the game before it even started if they blasted it as the team was coming out of the tunnel.
It Was Over When...
Trace McSorley's pass sailed over the head of Juwan Johnson on fourth down of Penn State's final drive.
In all honesty, I had about five of these moments picked out throughout the game, and none of them would have led to Ohio State winning the game.
Biggest Question Going Forward
Can Ohio State finish the season? That was a big game – the big game – but the Buckeyes still have football to play. Can they keep this momentum going through Big Ten play and still be playing this level of football come December and January?