Coming into the 2017 season, the Ohio State Buckeyes were ranked No. 2 in the polls, which garnered both negative and positive reactions. Some eyebrows were raised due to the fact the Buckeyes had been obliterated 31-0 in the 2016 College Football Playoff and were seemingly rewarded based on their namesake alone, while fans argued that despite their embarrassing loss, they lost to the eventual national champion Clemson. Not even almighty Alabama could defeat them. Also, if it wasn’t for a few fortunate opportunities that went Penn State’s way, they would’ve won that game and advanced to the Big Ten Championship game as the presumed favorites versus Wisconsin. Whatever your position was, it was a fortuitous spot to be ranked ahead of the reigning Big Ten champs Penn State and put the pressure on Ohio State to prove their worth.
In their first battle or “test” of the season against Oklahoma, the Buckeyes, seven-point favorites in Columbus, suffered their biggest loss at home since 1999 (46-20 loss to Illinois) and were mocked as overrated. J.T. Barrett was just 19 of 35 for 183 yards as the passing game was wildly inconsistent and below average. It appeared the naysayers were right and much to their delight, the Nittany Lions leapfrogged the Buckeyes in the rankings.
Since that time heading into last Saturday, Ohio State had been playing very good, fundamentally sound football. Yes, the opposition wasn’t exactly challenging but their offense had looked like a well-oiled machine and the defense hadn’t surrendered many points. Sometimes all you need is a few solid games to build momentum and confidence and regain your swagger.
Last weekend before the epic showdown, I was asked the question several times who was the best team in conference and I said Ohio State. Some gave me interesting looks while others laughed and said good luck versus Penn State. Others said I was a traitor for not saying my alma mater, Wisconsin. However, as hard as it is to support Ohio State, I had predicted much earlier this year, Wisconsin would meet Ohio State in the title game and I had to stay true to my word.
Also, I just had this premonition the Buckeyes would get the job done. The game was in Columbus and it’s not the easiest place to play. It’s like meeting a rabid animal in its very own den – its possible to survive but its no simple task either. Second, these teams were only separated by four spots in the rankings. It seemed everyone was already writing the Silver Bullets off much too soon and media outlets criticized Barrett for failing to show up in big games but you can never count out a Buckeye squad that has been written off too early.
We’ve seen this story before in 2014 when Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech only to come back and win the national title. Just when they appear dead to rights, they come back and shock you. To me, it’s simple: Hell hath no fury like a scorned Urban Meyer. Besides Nick Saban, no one plans, prepares, adjusts and responds in the face of adversity better than Meyer.
Things didn’t look great early on for the Buckeyes as Penn State raced out to a 21-3 advantage and although they closed the gap 28-17 by halftime, the Nittany Lions were in control as they built a 35-20 lead in the fourth quarter and appeared they would knock Ohio State out of playoff contention.
Yet, in spite of the big lead, turnovers, poor special teams, and questionable calls, Barrett rose to the occasion. All the qualities people said he didn’t have, he displayed: leadership, poise, resolve and a strong, accurate arm capable of leading his team to victory. The sign of a great leader is how he reacts and responds to adversity and all Barrett did was calmly throw 13 for 13 in the final quarter for 170 yards and three touchdowns including the game-sealing pass to Marcus Baugh with 1:48 left. It was the most impressive performance of his collegiate career in a classic game and showed once again the power of never giving up.
Yes, the jury is still out on Barrett and the Buckeyes as they are far from the being the top contender but the critics have been silenced, at least for moment. The takeaway here is really quite simple: Barrett vaulted himself back into the Heisman race as a front-runner and cemented Ohio State’s spot in the middle of the playoffs, though the initial rankings surprisingly did not place them in the top four. The Buckeyes are peaking at the right time and Barrett is a dangerous man. If they can fix their special team problems, it could be 2014 all over again and that is downright scary.