COLUMBUS, Ohio — One team’s vindication is another’s heartbreak.
No. 6 Ohio State’s improbable 39-38 comeback victory Saturday night over No. 2 Penn State at Ohio Stadium left the Nittany Lions in a state of shock, a sort of payback, if you will, for last year’s 24-21 upset victory in Happy Valley.
Leading from the first play of the game, a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Saquon Barkley, to the 1:48 mark of the fourth quarter, James Franklin’s team threw everything it had at the upstart Buckeyes to only see it slip away.
“You got to give Ohio State, the crowd, the environment, the stadium, Coach (Urban) Meyer, his team credit,” said Franklin, who moves to 1-3 against his conference rival from Columbus. “They’re obviously a very, very good football team, (and) it’s a tough place to come and get a win.”
That ruckus environment rose to life in the final minutes of the game, uplifting the host Buckeyes to a late game-winning drive that was capped off with a 16-yard touchdown pass from J.T. Barrett to Marcus Baugh. Barrett’s final scoring throw of four on the day delivered the dagger to a Penn State team that was outscored, 19-3, in the fourth quarter.
“In no way shape or form should anyone have their head down,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “Obviously, we didn’t have the outcome we wanted, but playing on the road in this kind of atmosphere, to come up that short, we can fix the mistakes, we’ll bounce back.”
Though the Buckeyes faced two 18-point deficits, they managed to set a record for the largest deficit a team coached by Meyer has overcome. Ohio State’s victory came in a game that witnessed two turnovers committed by the home team, one of which led to a Penn State touchdown.
Despite the deficits and the turnovers, though, the No. 6 Buckeyes reversed their fortunes by tightening the clamps on star running back Barkley, moving the ball thanks to a monstrous performance by Barrett (33 for 39, 328 yards, 4 TDs), and a blocked punt with 11:39 remaining in the fourth quarter that for all intents and purposes, changed the complexion of the game.
“The margin of error is very small when you play these types of games,” Franklin said. “I thought the blocked punt was a huge play in the game.”
Additionally, Ohio State’s man coverage allowed the Buckeyes to be more aggressive on defense, sending men at quarterback Trace McSorley from different directions. The Ohio State defense sniffed out the visiting team’s read-option with containment on the edges while sacking McSorley twice.
“They did a good job,” McSorley said. “Especially with that opportunity we had to ice it. They made the plays and we didn’t.”
The opportunity McSorley refers to is a 10-play, 64-yard drive that resulted in a Tyler Davis 24-yard field goal to give Penn State an 11-point lead with 5:42 left in regulation, instead of a touchdown.
“They did some different stuff,” said Barkley after turning in a 172 all-purpose yard day with a pair of touchdowns. “They blitzed us a lot more than they usually did, they stopped the run — we just gotta find a way to run the ball.”
Locked in on arguably the country’s best player, Ohio State’s defense contained Barkley to 80 yards on 21 carries, but 36 of those yards came on his only rushing touchdown of the day.
With only seven days to prepare for a second straight road game, this one against a 6-2 Michigan State team, Franklin wants to see his team improve in the crucial areas that cost them Saturday.
“Our offense has got to sustain drives longer," Franklin said, "but our defense needs to create three-and-outs and get off the field by creating turnovers."