Second guess? How about third…
That’s where most of us are after Ohio State beat Penn State 39-38 on Saturday afternoon at Ohio Stadium.
You know what? Maybe third is wrong, too.
Forgive me if I lost count. Been that kind of day.
It doesn’t matter anyway.
Ohio State is in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten East.
However the Buckeyes got there, they are in pole position with a month go to in the 2017 season.
And the guys leading them, well, they’re the ones we expected all along.
Except for that period of time we wondered if Urban Meyer and J.T. Barrett could do it anymore.
Well, while we’re counting things, I should probably make that plural, too. I’ve already doubted them more than once this season.
My first column from Saturday was much less kind than I suspect this one will turn out to be.
There was praise for the Ohio State offense, but that was about it.
J.T. Barrett might have gotten himself back into the good graces of Ohio State fans, but it would have been a pyrrhic victory.
While Barrett was the focus of plenty of scorn — and with good cause — after big game flops against Oklahoma and Clemson, he would not have been to blame if the Buckeyes’ comeback ended up incomplete against Penn State.
Even before he connected with Marcus Baugh for a 16-yard touchdown pass that gave the Buckeyes a one-point lead with 1:48 to go, Barrett had put together a pretty good day.
He was outplaying counterpart Trace McSorley but lacking the help he needed to get the Buckeyes over the top.
So, lo and behold, Barrett took matters into his own hands.
That fourth quarter was the stuff of legends.
Like, literally. J.T. Barrett is an Ohio State legend, and that’s something he did.
And it’s a good thing, too, because it bailed out his head coach, who is headed to the College Football Hall of Fame one day but was enduring a pretty bad run of things lately, at least for him.
Of course everything with Meyer has to be viewed through the prism of his nearly unprecedented success as a coach, but the fact remains for most of the afternoon it looked like he was headed toward his third straight loss against a ranked team.
That qualifies as a crisis for a guy who is supposed to be at his best in the brightest lights.
Not only that, it would be the third one in which mistakes were a big part, not with Ohio State simply being outplayed by a superior opponent.
Even the great ones lose their mojo. Meyer himself did once before, though even as his team has endured some ups and downs there’s no indication he is anywhere near that dark place he was at the end of his tenure at Florida.
Anyway, we’re getting off track now.
College football is a game of narratives.
When there are only a dozen or so games for each team every year and they only play one of those a week, it’s just unavoidable.
The narratives got quite a workout Saturday.
I’ve never had to run the stairs at Ohio Stadium, but I suspect that might be what it is like.
Exhausting, trying, terrifying.
But Barrett led the Buckeyes back from the brink.
He heeded Meyer’s simple advice — “Go win the game” — and just executed all that stuff they’ve been working on since the aforementioned Oklahoma game.
Did the work they put in thrashing Army and UNLV and Rutgers, Maryland and Nebraska pay off? You bet it did.
Even when the going got tough, Barrett pulled through. And his guys came through for him, too.
And guess what? Meyer is smart again!
Hey, but he’s good enough he can have a sense of humor about himself, too.
The coach of the Buckeyes said he was the only one panicking when Penn State went out to a 14-0 lead.
He didn’t want to talk about the struggles of the kicking game, and that’s understandable. He has to own those mistakes because they are trying to carry out a strategy of his choosing (pinning teams in the corner and preventing a return beyond the 25, where the ball would go on a touchback).
The pre-snap penalties on the offense? Fair or not, those often fall on the head coach, too.
Despite his sterling record with more than a week between games (now 46-4 according to Ohio State), the Buckeyes just did not look prepared for Penn State in the early going.
The Nittany Lions offense was hitting big plays, and the defense was pouncing on passes installed with an eye on this game.
But ultimately a big decision, the kind Meyer is paid millions to make, paid off big time for him.
That would be sticking with Barrett in the fallout from the Oklahoma debacle.
After that night in September, many fans were calling for the premature end of one of the most decorated careers in Ohio State football history, preferring instead to see what redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins Jr. could do.
The faithful were so over Barrett, some were more impressed with Haskins’ performance in mop-up duty than they were with what Barrett did against Army’s starters.
At a crossroads weeks ago, Meyer did what anyone who knows how much he respects Barrett knew he would: He doubled down on the senior’s abilities both as a player and a leader.
Rather than start over, assistants Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day reworked the offense around Barrett’s talents, tweaking this and added that.
They were rewarded in the fourth quarter against Penn State as the Nittany Lions defense wilted after being stretched far and wide all afternoon.
Barrett and the Buckeyes took the blows, but they did it their way — and not against Rutgers, either.
Now everything is back on the table.
A season that looked to be on the brink of disaster as the sun set over Ohio Stadium shone brightly with potential in the lights of early evening.
Fans rushed the field. They danced and sang.
It certainly felt as much like a Michigan game as is probably possible, but the job is far from finished.
The next challenge is for Meyer, Barrett, et al, to refocus and finish out this season on a high note.
They can’t afford a blemish if they want to get a shot at the national title that has eluded them the last two years, to make up for the dismal showing in the College Football Playoff last year.
Meyer and Barrett buried the Penn State demons Saturday.
They turned the page completely on the offensive foibles from those losses to Clemson and Oklahoma, too.
There are plenty of things to be fixed, but the offense isn’t one of them. They know who is the guy. They know how to use him. And his supporting cast gets better and bigger every week.
Everything else is bound to come around. Just look who’s in charge!
Never a doubt, right?
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