COLUMBUS, Ohio — So many of the 109,302 who crammed into the famed “Horseshoe” on Saturday had to hyperventilate through both the most excruciating and the most exhilarating possibilities of fandom.
They had to watch their beloved No. 6 Ohio State try to whittle at a deficit that stood at 28-10, and 35-20, and 38-27 with 5:42 remaining, as it committed a litany of imperfections and built a pile of inconveniences. Then they got to watch that most goose-bumpy of fanatical experiences, the comeback from the edge of doom.
The comeback wrought a 39-38 win over No. 2 Penn State, which spent much of the four football hours under a brooding Big Ten sky looking as if bound for another rung on its dizzying two-year climb. The comeback came with touchdown drives of 76 and 58 yards, plus a small slew of hard defensive plays, all within the final five minutes of a loaded game already steeped in big plays. The comeback caused a mass of fans to loose themselves onto the field afterward.
Further, the comeback that pushed Ohio State (7-1, 5-0) to the top of the Big Ten East, and to the availability of all its big dreams this season, wound up giving a soaring validation to an oft-questioned quarterback, J.T. Barrett.
Barrett, who has stayed at Ohio State for four years through injuries and other hard days among many wins, not only piloted those closing two drives with some throws right out of a quarterback daydream. His numbers sang and hummed and played a string quartet. He completed 33 of 39 passes for 328 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions. He rushed 17 times for 95 yards. He completed his last 16 passes, and all 13 of his passes in the fourth quarter.
Among them, he completed a 10-yard touchdown pass to Johnnie Dixon in the right corner of the end zone with 4:20 left, making the score 38-33.
And he completed a 16-yard touchdown pass through a forest of hands and threats, to tight end Marcus Baugh, with 1:48 left.
The lead was Ohio State’s first of the game.
It had trailed from way back on an opening play that, by darkness, seemed almost days old. Ohio State kicked off, and Penn State star Saquon Barkley fielded it on the right side of the field, and once Barkley headed left and reached his own 30-yard line, it was clear a 97-yard kickoff return was in progress.
From there, Ohio State helped mount its own problems. A fumble by receiver Parris Campbell set up Penn State only 23 yards from another touchdown. Barkley went on a thrilling 36-yard romp up the middle, toward the left, then laterally leftward, then up the left sideline for a 21-3 lead. Penn State (7-1, 4-1) looked primed for its 16th win in 17 games across two seasons, its second straight win over Ohio State and a quelling of any Ohio Stadium noise.
An Ohio State interception in the end zone wound up canceled with an interference call the audience disliked. An Ohio State drive to start the third quarter, trailing 28-17, ended in a field goal because it lacked an interference call in the end zone the audience craved. Somewhere in there, in the second quarter, Penn State had helped itself to another galloping kickoff return, this one 59 yards from Koa Farmer, just for variety.
The bad vibes gathered for Ohio State. There came a touchdown on a case of wrestling in the end zone between Penn State’s DeAndre Thompkins and Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, ruled an interception, then overturned into a 35-yard touchdown for a 35-20 lead. Trace McSorley, Penn State’s plucky cowboy of a quarterback, converted just enough creative plays — a third-down scramble here, a third-and-13 pass there — that he seemed to have mustered just enough for a team that would get outgained 529-283.
It didn’t even seem to matter that Ohio State’s Ward blocked a punt with 11:39 left, and the Buckeyes pulled within 35-27, because that’s when McSorley converted the third and 13 to Mike Gesicki and roped another pass to Saeed Blacknall. Tyler Davis kicked a 24-yard field goal with 5:42 left, the score stood 38-27, and the near miss frustration stood tall for the home fans.
Yet from there, at the last minutes and the proverbial last minute, the comeback came. Barrett spent it being flawless. The 76-yard drive took 1:17. The 58-yard drive took 1:19. In between, there came an enormous moment both in yardage and symbolism. As Penn State would gather no more first downs in the game, that grew clear on first down from its 15-yard line, still ahead 38-33.
McSorley prepared either to hand to Barkley or to keep, as happens so often in Penn State’s offense. It didn’t matter which. Defensive end Sam Hubbard appeared and simply hugged them both down, with incoming help from Jalyn Holmes. They all went down, and it kind of grew clear: Even after all the grasps at all the air, Ohio State wasn’t going to let this one go.
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