J.T. Barrett‘s worst pass of the night, heck, maybe his worst pass of the season, set up his best pass of the night and definitely his biggest play of the season. An overtime touchdown toss that proved to be the game winner in one of the finest-played games of the now halfway-finished 2016 season, a classic Big Ten punching match — overcast, wet and muscular — won by second-ranked Ohio State on the road against eighth-ranked Wisconsin.
“A game like that, you just keep taking notes and keeping making adjustments and try to keep it close,” Urban Meyer said after the 30-23 win, his 20th consecutive road victory as Ohio State head coach. “When you have a quarterback like J.T. Barrett, you know those adjustments and notes are in the right hands.”
Barrett’s first big toss — the bad one — was an interception thrown in the red zone early in the second half, down 16-6 and finally showing life after having been ground to a night-long halt by Wisconsin’s defense. In a sudden downpour, Barrett rolled to his left and slung the ball in the direction of James Clark and Dontre Wilson, but it slipped in the rain and was snagged by the Badgers in the end zone.
“I’m not using the rain as an excuse on the first one. My hands are too big to make a mistake like that,” Barrett said of the interception. “But we saw things there that we knew would help us later.”
The second monumental throw — the good one — took place in much more pleasant weather conditions but much more brutal game conditions, on third-and-2 in overtime. This time there was no rollout, but rather a fake give, a zone-read option that froze the defense and was followed by a definitive rocket toss into the back right corner of the end zone. That’s where receiver Noah Brown was waiting, shedding corner Derrick Tindal off his right shoulder and extending out to the left, vacuuming in a two-handed, five-toes-down grab of a call that no one else in the stadium was anywhere near.
“We liked that matchup,” Meyer said of Brown versus Tindal. The goal was to create a situation that would isolate those two one-on-one. The zone read did that. But Brown still had to cut outside at the right moment and Barrett had to make sure the ball was there when Brown did.
“I’m not going to say we can read each other’s minds. But we’re close.”
Ohio State WR Noah Brown on his relationship with J.T. Barrett
“There’s a real unique chemistry between those two,” their coach said. “I wanted to make sure that it was Brown who was in there on that play.”
“That’s what he said?” Brown asked with a smile as he was told the coach’s words. “Well, he’s right. I’m not going to say we can read each other’s minds. But we’re close. And on a play like that it’s about trust. J.T. trusts me to be where I’m supposed to be and I trust him to have the ball there for me. We don’t even think about it, we just do it. That’s why we’re never rattled. We know we can do it. We just have to do it.”
The same mentality that allows a coach and a pair of his star players to execute a flawless game-winning fade is what allows them to stay in games that perhaps they shouldn’t. Games like Saturday night, down 10 points at the half having not cracked 100 yards in either rushing or passing, totally handcuffed on third downs, held without a touchdown in a half of football and held below 20 points in the first half for the first time this season.
Ohio State faced its first genuine test of 2016. The Buckeyes had won their first five games by an average margin of victory of 42.3 points. Their previously supposed-to-be humongous road test, a 45-24 visit to Oklahoma in Week 3, in reality felt close to over by halftime. But Wisconsin came hard and stayed there from the opening kickoff until overtime’s final play, a gang-tackle sack by the Buckeyes.
“I don’t want to oversell it or compare it to other games in other years,” Barrett said before heading to the bus after a performance that produced 17-of-29 passing for 226 yards, one TD passing, 92 rushing yards and two scores. “But yeah, being tested is important. And there’s no question we were tested tonight.”
There’s also no question they will be tested again. At the very least by a visit from currently undefeated Nebraska in three weeks, The Game with Michigan over Thanksgiving weekend, and hopeful berths in both the Big Ten championship game and the College Football Playoff. One year ago, a loss to Michigan State in a game that felt much like Wisconsin on Saturday night, torpedoed their chances at those title matchups. The ability to survive a night in Camp Randall Stadium will come in handy come November, December and January.
“We were definitely tested and we knew we would be,” Brown said. “But what’s the goal of a test? To learn and get better. I think we did that. You make mistakes or you don’t play as well as you should and then later, hopefully you get a second chance and you do what you need to do to make it work the next time.”
Like a quarterback making an adjustment on his red zone passing?
“Yes,” Brown agreed, allowing himself a little grin. “I’m just glad I was the guy who was there to help him make that adjustment.”