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How Ohio State’s game-winning play vs. Penn State worked

With a sleight of hand, the Buckeyes beat the Nittany Lions.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State beat Penn State, 39-38, at home in a massive, flag-planting win. In the fourth quarter, much-maligned QB J.T. Barrett gave us a masterclass in operating at tempo with a comeback on the line. He went 13-for-13 in the final stanza and was flawless.

His final completion won the game, and it is just a dastardly play call by Urban Meyer. Here’s why.

Don’t look at the actual pass here yet (although it is mighty pretty).

Watch the backfield. This is the evolution of the play-action pass and the spread offense all rolled into one.

A play-action pass is more than just a QB faking to a running back. Consider the literal interpretation of the phrase “play-action.” Ohio State runs the action of a power play, but not even the standard power play.

The regular power run pulls a backside guard. The power Ohio State pantomimes here is with a center. Watch as the center moves left, along with the running back, really selling the run fake.

You don't get double teams with this scheme but the angles on the DL are all usually quite favorable. When you are running a spread with pass options on the outside it just becomes a matter of blocking five with five in whatever fashion comes most easily for a given OL against a given front.

In essence what's happening here is that spread teams are learning how to run power no matter what kind of line they have or whether they have good ancillary blockers at fullback or tight end or not. With that kind of timeless, universal application it's easy to see why [power] is God's play.

Barrett’s fake, combined with the center’s action, sucks up two of Penn State’s linebackers several steps toward the line of scrimmage. They’re expecting a run because, well, why else would you pull the center?

Alright, fine, now you can look at the actual pass.

Barrett absolutely drops this ball to Marcus Baugh exactly where it needs to be. He can’t drill this ball; he’s gotta clear the linebacker’s vert while also getting the ball down by the time it reaches his tight end. Think of it like a free kick in soccer; you’ve gotta get the ball up and over the wall, but you also have to get the ball under the goal’s crossbar.

As Baugh saw the ball coming toward him, he thought of this:

“I have to catch it,” he said in postgame. “It was a good ball, great position, just had to catch it and make up big for when I dropped the first one.”

But, how is Baugh so wide open?

For that, we have to go back to the power play-action. Consider the fact that Ohio State put a trips set of receivers to the short side of the field (the right side, in this case). That means there’s a whole lot of open space on the single-receiver side of the field. Someone has to account for it, and that someone is safety Troy Apke (white arrow).

In theory, he’s responsible for that wide swath of the field, if something happens over there. Apke takes a few steps because of the run fake before realizing the pass was on.

By then, it’s too late.

The power play-action did its job, and so did Barrett.

Thanks to it, the Buckeyes got the win.