In the tunnel at Ohio Stadium that leads from locker room to the field, J.T. Barrett was posing for pictures with friends, receiving handshakes and hugs and thanking one older man with a scratchy voice for screaming himself hoarse.
Barrett smiled and laughed. Apparently, the Ohio State quarterback even busted out some moves in the locker room celebration. The stoic fifth-year senior doesn’t show much emotion on the field. And if he gained any particular gratification from playing the best game of his decorated career seven weeks after a lot of Buckeyes fans were wondering if he should be benched, he was not about to let on.
This is certain: When Barrett said goodbye to his friends and left the Horseshoe on Saturday night he did so as a Heisman Trophy candidate with absolutely nothing left to prove.
Barrett was near flawless against No. 2 Penn State, capping a brilliant performance with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Baugh with 1:48 left in the fourth quarter that gave No. 6 Ohio State a 39-38 victory.
Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer called it one of the best games he has ever seen a quarterback play.
“I’ve never had a kid play perfect, but damn he was close tonight,” Meyer said.
Barrett was 33 for 39 for 328 yards and four touchdown passes, three in the fourth quarter after the Buckeyes (7-1, 5-0 Big Ten) were down 35-20. He also ran for 95 yards on 17 carries. In the fourth quarter, he was 13 for 13 for 170 yards.
“We don’t care about what anyone else thinks about J.T. because we know what we think about J.T. and what he brings to the table,” said Terry McLaurin, who caught Barrett’s first TD pass of the game, which gave the quarterback 91 in his career to break Drew Brees’ Big Ten record.
Penn State led 38-27 with 5:42 left and it looked as if the Nittany Lions (7-1, 4-1) were going to knock the Buckeyes out of the College Football Playoff race.
“What was going through my head was Coach Meyer saying go win the game. He says that all the time, go win the game,” Barrett said.
Saquon Barkley scored two long touchdowns for Penn State, but it was Barrett who surged into the Heisman race in what was billed as the Big Ten game of the year and lived up to the hype.
“I think the H-word is appropriate after today’s game,” Meyer said.
Barrett and the Buckeyes got the ball back down five with 3:20 left. They quickly marched to the 16 and then Barrett found his big tight end Baugh for the lead.
“I didn’t manage the game well,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “There’s enough blame to spread around.”
The blackout crowd at the Horseshoe poured onto the field to celebrate after Barrett took a final knee. He calmly wandered through the mayhem.
Barrett had been the target for much criticism after the Buckeyes’ offense struggled in a September loss to Oklahoma. He said he just tried to get better. Barrett went 19 of 35 with no TDs and an interception against the Sooners. He looked like a different player Saturday, but he wasn’t buying that.
“When you say like I’m different I feel like I would have to be thinking different in order to feel different, but I really don’t feel any different because I’m thinking the same,” he said. “It’s not like I’m telling myself anything new.”
Receiver K.J. Hill said Barrett’s calmness keeps the Buckeyes cool, and, yes, he does cut loose sometimes.
“We definitely got a smile out of him. A little dance moves in the locker room,” Hill said.
Barkley was held to 44 yards on 21 carries, and that included a 36-yard touchdown run in the first half. And the Nittany Lions had trouble pass blocking Ohio State’s talented defensive line, with Nick Bosa and Tyquan Lewis, especially after tackle Ryan Bates went out with an injury. On their final drive, quarterback Trace McSorley got pressured on each play, was sacked one and threw three incomplete passes.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions will need some upsets to get back in the playoff and Big Ten race.
“We played a hell of a football game,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “In no way, shape or form should anybody on our team have their head down, be disappointed. ”
Ohio State: The Buckeyes’ now control the Big Ten East and they paid back the Nittany Lions for the loss last year in Happy Valley that kept Ohio State out of the conference title game. The Buckeyes’ path to the playoff might still be muddled by that loss to Oklahoma, but right now they are the Big Ten’s best shot.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions face a third straight ranked opponent when they go to No. 16 Michigan State.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes go to Iowa next week.