COLUMBUS – It looked like there was no way. No way at all.
But there was a way.
No. 6 Ohio State was behind for all but the last one minute, 48 seconds of its 39-38 win over No. 2 Penn State on Saturday at Ohio Stadium.
The Buckeyes fell behind 21-3 early in the second quarter. They were down 35-20 with 12 minutes left in the game.
And all of that came after Penn State’s Heisman Trophy candidate Saquon Barkley had delivered a stunning blow when he ran the opening kickoff back 97 yards for a touchdown that started the Nittany Lions on their way to their dominance of the scoreboard until the final two minutes.
Somehow. Some way, Ohio State found a way to win a game that had a huge impact on its hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff and on the Big Ten East Division race.
Ohio State (7-1, 5-0 Big Ten) is all alone at the top of the East Division. Penn State (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten) would need OSU to lose twice to go around the Buckeyes for a spot in the Big Ten championship game. Michigan State, with one loss, is the only other team in the East with fewer than two Big Ten losses.
Even OSU coach Urban Meyer was a little amazed at the turnaround that produced maybe the best comeback of his coaching career.
“Wow. What the heck just happened?” Meyer said after the game. “That was one of the best fourth quarters I’ve ever watched in my career. In 31 years I can’t remember one quite like this.”
Quarterback J.T. Barrett was 13 of 13 and threw three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter. He was 33 of 39 for 328 yards and four touchdowns overall and was Ohio State’s leading rusher with 95 yards on 17 carries.
He threw touchdown passes of 38 yards and 10 yards to Johnnie Dixon in the fourth quarter, then hit Marcus Baugh with a 16-yard scoring pass with 1:48 to play to put OSU up 39-38.
Penn State, whose only points in the fourth quarter came on a chip shot 24-yard field goal, fielded a short kickoff at its own 41-yard line after Baugh’s touchdown.
But with its defensive line leading the way, OSU pressured Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley into incompletions on first, third and fourth downs and dropped him for a 5-yard loss on a sack by Jalyn Holmes on second down to wrap up the win.
“I think we just played dominant up front. They couldn’t get anything going. As a defense, we played great. Those last four plays really sums up what we’ve got – four of the best defensive linemen in the country,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “We knew if we got them in that situation we were going to close the game.”
Statistically, Ohio State dominated throughout the game. It had 529 yards of total offense, nearly twice the 283 yards Penn State had.
What created the discrepancy between those numbers and what the scoreboard showed for most of the afternoon was a series of mistakes early in the game by OSU.
It started with Barkley returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown and continued with four false starts by offensive players, two interceptions in the end zone that were nullified by a penalty and a replay and a fumble and a second instance of poor kickoff coverage that set Penn State up deep in Ohio State territory.
While special teams were a weak link on kick coverage, they produced the play that might have turned the game around.
Penn State led 35-20 when Denzel Ward blocked a punt at Penn State’s 41-yard line in a play Meyer described as “the play that might have save the game.”
Ohio State’s defense kept Penn State’s biggest weapons in check most of the game.
Barkley had a net overall gain of 44 yards on 21 carries. He had a 36-yard touchdown run but also was thrown for 36 yards in losses. McSorley threw for 192 yards and two touchdowns but had only 49 yards rushing.
“We held probably the No. 1 tailback in America to 40 yards. The offense was moving the ball. I kept looking at the stats and it was overwhelming. We really didn’t get stopped,” Meyer said.
And once it was over, it was time to celebrate.
“It was like a party in the locker room,” linebacker Jerome Baker said. “We’re going to celebrate this one.”
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.