COLUMBUS (AP) – J.T. Barrett hasn’t been playing at Ohio State forever. It just seems like it to Penn State coach James Franklin.
Barrett helped lead the Buckeyes to a national championship in 2014, Franklin’s first year in Happy Valley. That year’s game between the Big Ten rivals became one of Barrett’s first signature wins as he scored twice in overtime to help the Buckeyes escape Beaver Stadium with a 31-24 win.
And Franklin knows the fifth-year senior quarterback is playing as well as ever, and his supporting cast again is typical Ohio State star quality. That makes the Buckeyes dangerous.
“You’re talking about a guy who’s had an unbelievable college career. He’s probably playing his best football right now,” Franklin said.
The No. 2 Nittany Lions (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) visit No. 6 Ohio State (6-1, 4-0) on Saturday in what could be the Big Ten game of the year.
There is as much respect on the Ohio State side for Penn State’s junior quarterback Trace McSorley , also playing his gritty best. He has shown he can move the offense and score on elite defenses. Last week against Michigan , he threw for 282 yards and a score and ran for 76 yards and three more touchdowns.
“His competitive spirit is off the charts,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “He’s not the biggest guy, but he competes so damn hard. That’s what makes J.T. Barrett so special, that’s what made Alex Smith so special, Tebow, etc., they’re all different sizes, shapes and forms, yet the common trait of winners is competitive spirit.”
And like Barrett, McSorley has elite athletes playing around him, namely dynamic tailback Saquon Barkley . One more big performance out of Barkley this weekend could make him the clear Heisman Trophy front-runner down the stretch.
Some other things to watch for on Saturday:
SO MUCH AT STAKE: A loss Saturday would have the biggest consequences for Ohio State, whose hopes of returning to the College Football Playoff would be dashed with a second defeat. If the Buckeyes beat Penn State and win out, they will be a serious playoff contender.
Walking away from Columbus with a defeat wouldn’t be fatal to Penn State’s championship hopes, but it would drop them down into a knot of one-loss teams vying to get noticed by the committee, likely without another chance to beat a highly ranked team in the Big Ten Championship Game.
BUCKS BOLSTERED BY BYE WEEK? The script is flipped from last year’s meeting between these two teams. Penn State was coming off a bye week when they got Ohio State at home in 2016. The Buckeyes didn’t see the 24-21 upset coming.
This time it’s the Buckeyes who are rested and ready from the off week, as Penn State visits Columbus. The Ohio State players got the weekend off, but Meyer said they’ve also practiced hard, even playing an intense scrimmage near the end of last week.
Franklin said the bye week gives Ohio State an advantage.
“I think it helps a lot,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it. You just have more time for everything. More time to recover, more time to get healthy, more time to watch film and plan. It’s valuable.”
Meyer’s teams, going back to his days as coach at Bowling Green, are 21-1 coming off a bye week.
HOW GOOD IS OHIO STATE? The Buckeyes have smoked their last five opponents since the unexpected loss to Oklahoma in week two. Barrett has piled up the yards and touchdowns against badly out-manned teams, including Army and UNLV. Naturally, there are lingering doubts about whether the Buckeyes can do it against the likes of Penn State.
Meyer said the communication and execution are sharp, and he insists Barrett is better than seven weeks ago. And the receiving corps has come into its own, too.
“I think what’s better right now is the chemistry between the offensive line, the receivers, the running backs, and J.T. and the offensive line,” center Billy Price said. That allows for quicker adjustments.
“It’s not two or three conversations, it’s one conversation, here’s the plan, lets rock and roll,” the fifth-year senior said. “In this world, you don’t want conversations, you want solutions.”