COLUMBUS, Ohio — They had treated their nerves and their stomachs to that common excruciation of fandom, that of witnessing a beloved team slipping and climbing and whittling and slipping at a deficit that spent all day long howling and menacing. Then they had treated the backs of their necks to that uncommon exhilaration, that of the comeback that occurs after doom has been half-digested, the comeback from harsh scores such as 21-3 and 28-10 and 35-20 and then 38-27 with 5:42 left.
Yet as so many of the 109,302 here Saturday left their seats and their senses and streamed out onto the field in a big, delirious blob under a brooding Big Ten sky, after No. 6 Ohio State overcame No. 2 Penn State, 39-38, they had seen something else, beyond even a reminder that American college football is one of the most kaleidoscopic damned things extant. In a four-hour fray stuffed senseless with pivotal plays, they had seen a brilliance calm enough to look almost unnatural.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had more respect for a human being,” Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer said, before sorting back quickly through 31 coaching years and 202 head-coaching games to call it “one of the best [games] I’ve ever seen a quarterback play.”
That senior quarterback, J.T. Barrett, caused some numbers that looked as if from some dumb daydream. Ten months after his offense looked so hopeless in the national semifinal against Clemson, and seven weeks after it looked so hapless in a home loss to Oklahoma, and six weeks after — don’t be shocked — some fans recommended his ouster, he completed 33 of 39 passes for 328 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions. He rushed 17 times for 95 more yards.
He completed his last 16 passes.
He completed all 13 of his fourth-quarter passes, with accuracy that could make you gasp if you wanted.
Second-most importantly, he steered a 5-for-5, five-play, 76-yard drive in 77 seconds that made the score 38-33 with 4:20 left, on a precise 10-yard touchdown to wide receiver Johnnie Dixon at the right edge of the end zone.
Most importantly, he steered a 4-for-4, five-play, 58-yard drive in 82 seconds that made the score 39-38 with 1:48 left, on a precise 16-yard touchdown pass to tight end Marcus Baugh that cascaded its way over a small forest of hands.
That provided the Buckeyes’ first lead of the game.
Then, while Meyer and everyone else tried to describe the whole thing, so that Meyer said, “Wow,” and, “What the heck just happened?” and, “I can’t remember one like this one,” Barrett said he kept thinking only, “Go win the game,” and said, “I’m just a little cat from Wichita Falls, Texas. People don’t even know that’s on the map.”
He’s — correction — a big cat with realistic Heisman Trophy hopes, and the leader of a team at 7-1 with all its dreams freshly resuscitated, in the Big Ten East, the Big Ten, potentially the College Football Playoff. He even went out to encourage the defense, “Go win the game.”
It did, in its way, with a play right out of a cartoon.
Before that, Ohio State had spent the game amassing a pile of inconveniences. They started on an opening play that, by the time of darkness, seemed almost days old. Ohio State kicked off, and the fearsome 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 everyone was seeing a virtuoso 97-yard kickoff return.
Inconveniences: A fumble by wide receiver Parris Campbell set up Penn State only 23 yards from its second 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. 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, with the Buckeyes 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. Somewhere later in there, Ohio State leaked a fourth-quarter fumble that made Meyer think, Uh oh.
Inconveniences: Penn State got a 37-yard touchdown on an episode of wrestling between its DeAndre Thompkins and Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, ruled an interception, then overturned for a 35-20 lead. Penn State got the usual gritty, plucky play from its cowboy of a quarterback, Trace McSorley, whose creativity — a third-down scramble here, a third-and-13 pass there — seemed to have squeezed out just enough for a team outgained 529 yards to 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 doom shouted.
Still, something rare was happening in the undercurrent. Even with that 36-yard run, Barkley was getting only 44 yards on 21 carries, numbers that made Meyer stare at them and say, “Is that right?” And as Penn State tried to hang on, getting the ball with the 38-33 lead, Ohio State’s defensive line had gone into some sort of supercharged state, such that Meyer would note “as good defensive line play as I’ve ever seen,” and say, “My gosh, they were all over the place.”
Starting off at its own 15-yard line, the tempest nearing its height, Penn State ran the kind of play from which its offense churns, McSorley placing the ball in Barkley’s gut with option of retrieving it and taking off. Defensive end Sam Hubbard appeared and simply hugged them both down. He said, “We knew what they were going to do; I just went for it and took them both down.” He joked, “I hope I set a new standard.”
As the loss totaled a brutal seven yards, and as Penn State’s first downs for the day had ended, it had grown clear: Even after all the grasps at all the air, Ohio State just couldn’t let it go.