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J.T. Barrett Keeps Coming Back, This Time to Save Ohio State’s Season

The Buckeyes needed perfection from their senior quarterback against the Nittany Lions, and they got it

Penn State v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Put J.T. Barrett’s back against the wall, and he will become perfect.

On Saturday, Ohio State trailed Penn State all day and looked destined for a loss that would all but eliminate the Buckeyes from College Football Playoff contention. Heisman Trophy favorite Saquon Barkley returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown; the Nittany Lions scored three minutes later to take a 14-0 lead. The Buckeyes trailed 21-3 and 28-10.

Then, Barrett decided to become unstoppable. He completed his final 16 passes, going 13-for-13 for 170 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to give sixth-ranked Ohio State a 39-38 win, the first loss for the second-ranked Nittany Lions. Here’s the game winner, a toss to tight end Marcus Baugh that earned every one of its Gus Johnson decibels:

No Ohio State QB had ever completed more than 12 passes in a row. Barrett managed that and more against one of the best passing defenses in the nation with his team’s season on the line.

The Nittany Lions had allowed just three passing touchdowns in their first seven games, tied for the fewest in college football; Barrett doubled that in the fourth quarter alone, finishing the game with four passing touchdowns. The Nittany Lions had allowed only 5.2 yards per attempt, also tied for the lowest in college football; Barrett averaged 8.4 yards per attempt. The Nittany Lions had allowed only 167.6 yards per game, seventh in the nation; Barrett nearly doubled that with 328 yards, his most in a Big Ten game. (He threw for 349 in a 77-10 win against Bowling Green last year, but you’d expect there to be a big difference between the quality of Bowling Green and Penn State.) Barrett did throw six incompletions before the fourth quarter started, but we can blame half of those on three drops by wide receivers. He threw flames for four quarters against a team that typically cools quarterbacks, and somehow burned brightest in the game’s critical moments.

Barrett should take the title of Heisman favorite from Barkley, who finished the night with just 44 yards on 21 carries. Ohio State’s defensive line bullied a weak Penn State offensive line, leaving Barkley feeling for perhaps the first time in his life that he couldn’t escape defenders—nine of his 21 carries were for losses. Penn State did score 38 points, but it did so thanks to great special teams play and a pair of Ohio State turnovers. OSU outgained the Nittany Lions 529 yards to 283.

Ohio State’s comeback serves as a microcosm for Barrett’s winding, odd career. There have been times when it’s made sense to doubt him, and yet he’s now the Big Ten’s career passing touchdowns leader—he passed Drew Brees during Saturday’s game.

As a freshman, Barrett was forced into action after an injury to Braxton Miller. He got his team to the brink of the playoff—only to suffer an injury of his own, leaving him on the sideline while Cardale Jones won OSU the national championship. Barrett battled Jones for playing time as a sophomore, but often lost, riding the bench through large portions of the 2015 season. Last season he was the undisputed starter, but played worse as a junior than he did as a freshman.

He bottomed out this year against Oklahoma, going 19-for-35 for 183 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. I worried he was suffering from Benjamin Button syndrome, a rare quarterback who turned from spectacular freshman to shook senior.

Since that game? Barrett has thrown 22 touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s averaging 9.5 yards per attempt and completing 75 percent of his passes. That’s almost two months of near-perfect quarterback play. I say “near-perfect” because Saturday night we saw that Barrett can actually be perfect.

The comeback win was huge for the Buckeyes. With Penn State’s defeat, and a loss by previously undefeated TCU, the Buckeyes will probably climb into the top four when the College Football Playoff committee releases its first rankings of the season Tuesday night. They’re in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten championship—with the head-to-head win over Penn State, they’d likely need to lose two games of their final four to miss out on a trip to the conference championship game.

But their earlier loss to Oklahoma means they’re still playing with almost no margin for error. Any loss, and they’d have a very similar résumé to the one Penn State had last year when it won the Big Ten and missed out on the playoff. They’ll likely still need to win out.

But that’s a good thing for J.T. Barrett. Just when you think it’s reasonable to count him out, he shows his brilliance.