Ohio State beat Penn State 39-38 Saturday in an absolutely epic comeback. According to one model, the Buckeyes had just a 2.7-percent chance of winning the game with barely over seven minutes left.
But let’s be clear about something: the better team won the game.
There were so many things that went right for Penn State in this game, from perfectly timed pass interference or facemask calls to nullify crucial turnovers or strong defensive plays, to converting third down after third down by just a few scant inches, to Ohio State’s atrocious kickoff coverage, to miracle catches. And yet, Ohio State won.
The Buckeyes outgained the Nittany Lions by 247 yards. But total yards is not always a good stat, due to field position.
So let’s look at yards per play. Ohio State still crushed the Nittany Lions, racking up 7 per play compared to 4.5 for Penn State. That’s 56 percent more. That is domination on a play-to-play basis.
Field position via turnovers and special teams was the major thing that kept this game close. Taking out the kneel-down drives to end the halves, Penn State’s starting field position was 9.5 yards better, on average, over the course of 13 drives. That’s a 124-yard advantage, and essentially a first down better every time the Nittany Lions touched it.
Once Penn State had to run plays, however, it was clear Ohio State was the better team.
Saquon Barkley is amazing, but he wasn’t enough to overcome Ohio State’s talent advantage.
Every time Barkley touches the ball, you have to stop what you’re doing and watch. He had the biggest play of the game on the first play, a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. And his 36-yard touchdown run was an amazing blend of vision, balance, and wiggle.
But on his other 24 touches (20 runs, four catches), he had just 31 yards. The reason? Penn State could not block Ohio State. Barkley was consistently hit in the backfield and smothered. Ohio State had 13 tackles for loss.
Barkley might have been the most talented player on the field, but the vast majority of the best players in the game were on Ohio State.
The Buckeyes have one of the most talented defenses in the nation. They made Penn State earn every single yard. Some of Penn State’s best plays were still highly contested.
Eventually, the miracle catches for Penn State ran out. QB Trace McSorley completed just four of his final nine throws, for 50 yards.
I had an evaluator tell me over the summer that Penn State didn’t have a player who could start for Ohio State’s defense. I’m not sure I agree with that, but after watching the Buckeyes today, it’s a point well taken.
J.T. Barrett has had an overrated career, but an awesome afternoon.
I’m guilty of thinking that Ohio State QB Barrett is undeserving of the praise. Quarterbacks are frequently given credit for team wins, even if they were not the driver of those wins. And over the last few years, it seemed that the Buckeyes often won in spite of Barrett.
Early Saturday, Barrett did not look all that good. He was late on some deep shots, and at the half, had thrown it 17 times for just 96 yards, an awful 5.6 yards per pass. Over his career, Barrett has not been a great passer without the benefit of play action. And with the Buckeyes down two or three scores for much of the afternoon, Barrett was being forced to drop back and throw a lot without play action.
And he did it brilliantly. He started hitting throws over the middle, deep throws, and throws of all kinds. And nowhere was he better than down the stretch, finishing 16-of-16 for 188 yards, including three touchdowns, nine first downs, and the game-winner.
I thought Penn State’s defense was much more suspect than its season-long numbers had suggested, but I never thought Barrett, playing from behind, would be the one to expose it. He finished 33-of-39 for 328 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. And Ohio State had at least two clear drops.
Oh, and he added 95 yards on the ground.
If Ohio State can throw effectively, the Buckeyes are a legitimate title contender.
Ohio State has an amazing front seven. It has a deadly run game. But the passing game has been the weakness for the last few years. If Ohio State and Barrett can throw it anything like this going forward, they will be a team nobody wants to play in the Playoff.
And what’s more, if this keeps up, Ohio State might have one of the better passing games among the Playoff contenders. Think about it: Do Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Notre Dame, Miami, or Wisconsin really throw it better than Ohio State? A few of the Big 12 schools do, as we saw with Oklahoma in Columbus last month, but this isn’t necessarily a year in which a team has to be able to throw for 300-plus to win a Playoff game.
Ohio State still has to play Iowa, Michigan State, and Michigan, but there isn’t a team left on its schedule capable of putting up points in bunches like Penn State can.
And Ohio State just beat Penn State without playing its best game.