“You're not supposed to win in that situation,” cornerbacks coach/special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs said. “You get caught from behind in an environment like that and then go behind in overtime going into their student section. You are not supposed to win that game.
"The only way you win that game is if the men on your team are men of incredible character and resilience, and they are, and that was a fantastic finish. Do I think it makes a difference this week? I don't know.”
The staff and the team are trying to make sure it does make a difference, looking to build off the narrow escape moving forward.
While the play was sloppy at times, there are positives to be drawn from the win over Penn State. The Buckeyes played in front of 107,895 fans Oct. 25 and nearly all of them were white-clad Nittany Lions' supporters. They won’t face an environment that hostile again this season.
Plenty of mistakes were made in the game as young players adjusted to their first true road test. There were too many penalties and quarterback J.T. Barrett made some crucial mistakes before saving the day in overtime, but those are teaching moments for the coaching staff and it’s always better to learn while winning.
"It's not a good thing, it's a great thing,” head coach Urban Meyer said of the close call. “Not just environment, but the toughness element that you just were in a street fight, and you're winning. You started getting your tail kicked and you came back and won. That builds toughness.”
Ohio State entered the game at Penn State heavy favorites. They’d scored 50 points in each of their previous four games while rolling Big Ten and nonconference opponents alike. The Nittany Lions entered having lost back-to-back games to Northwestern and a floundering Michigan team. But Penn State tested the Buckeyes in a way they hadn’t been challenged since the loss to Virginia Tech in the second week of the season. This time Ohio State was up for it.
“I think it was one of those deals, learn from the past,” Barrett said. “Virginia Tech, it was one of those type of deals where we were down, we didn’t make plays. I didn’t make plays, offense didn’t make plays, defense didn’t make plays. The whole team didn’t make plays for us to win that game. So using that and learning from that, I think it was just how Penn State was. We were up, they came back then we were down so using that experience from Virginia Tech and using that to win a game.”
Not Looking Past Illini
Despite the scare in State College, Ohio State fans have been looking to the Nov. 8 showdown with Michigan State for virtually the entire season as that game is seen as a play-in game for the Big Ten East’s spot in the conference championship game.
By all accounts the team isn’t worried about the Spartans yet, instead keeping fully focused on a 4-4 Illinois team that comes to Columbus Nov. 1.
“You take every game seriously because when you don’t, when you think you’re just going to go in there and slap somebody, that’s when you get in a fight,” safety Tyvis Powell said. “Nobody’s mind-set should even be thinking about Michigan State at this time. We got Illinois up right now and Illinois just beat Minnesota so they are definitely a good team.”
As the sophomore said, the Illini are coming off a surprising 28-24 win over what had been a 6-1 Minnesota team. That victory came with Illinois back-up quarterback Reilly O’Toole getting the start for Wes Lunt, who is out with a broken leg. It was the Illini’s first conference win since October of 2011.
Illinois got the win despite being outgained by the Gophers by a 411-263 margin, winning the turnover battle 3-1. Still, Meyer said he isn’t worried about the Buckeyes looking past a team with a 1-3 conference mark.
“If they were lousy, then you'd have a problem, and the good thing is for our conference and them, Illinois won,” Meyer said. “Illinois is much better. I know they lost their quarterback, but they're playing much better. I just spent all morning watching their defense, and they're much better than a year ago on defense.”
Despite the coach’s insistence, the Illinois scoring defense is second to last in the conference and their total defense is last, allowing 475.4 yards per game.
The Illini fair better on the offensive side of the ball, as they check in at seventh in the league in scoring and first in passing offense. The latter number is less significant as most of their yards in the air came off the arm of Lunt who was passing for nearly 314 yards a game before his injury.
Coombs, however, feels that while O’Toole isn’t the passer that Lunt was, the senior gives the Illinois offense another dimension with his ability to run the ball.
“I think it actually expanded their offense rather than shrunk it,” he said of the Lunt injury. “So I think for us we've got to defend, it's not that you throw out the early tape, you've got to defend the things that they've put on film, but there's got to be a greater emphasis for what they're doing right now.”
Barrett Good To Go After Knee Sprain
While the Illini have been forced to go to their backup quarterback, the Buckeyes are relieved they don’t have to.
Barrett sprained his left MCL late in the second quarter against Penn State. He was able to finish that game and though he has been somewhat limited in practice since the sprain, he expects to be full-go against the Illini.
Meyer left State College impressed by his quarterback’s toughness.
“We were down by seven points after blowing the lead, and to see him lead an offense as a redshirt freshman into the student section,” the coach said. “I'll probably never forget that look when I saw our offense taking the field against the whiteout of the student section, down by seven, against the defense that really kind of shut us down in the second half.”
Barrett is wearing a brace on his left knee and said it was still sore and a little stiff when he addressed the media Oct. 29, though he said something drastic would have to happen for him not to play against Illinois. Any limitations he has in practice may be more the decision of the coaching staff than the quarterback.
“He's going to probably be a guy that you won't tell that he's limited,” Meyer said. “We're just going to make sure he’s limited. Not on throwing. It's on running.”
Barrett completed just five passes for 22 yards with two interceptions after sustaining the injury. He was able to run the ball six times for 36 yards and two scores.
Defensive back Cam Burrows (shoulder) and defensive lineman Rashad Frazier (ankle) are both expected to be back in action for the game against Illinois. Defensive back Ron Tanner, a special teams contributors, will be game-time decisions, Meyer said, while running back Bri'onte Dunn is out with a hamstring injury.
Senior running back Rod Smith was dismissed from the team Oct. 28 for a reported failed drug test. Meyer said that he will remain on scholarship, but not return to the team. The coach released the following statement Oct. 28: “Rod Smith has left the Ohio State football team in order to deal with some personal issues. We will continue to support Rod and we wish him the best.”
When Ohio State faces Illinois Nov. 1 it will be the sixth time Meyer has faced a former assistant. Tim Beckman coached under Meyer at Bowling Green. The Buckeye head coach is 4-1 against his disciples.