Taking a look back at six key games on Ohio State's path to the playoffs

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Taking a look back at six key games on Ohio State's path to the playoffs

Way back on Sept. 6, things didn’t look good for Ohio State. That day, the Buckeyes got dropped at home, 35-21, by an unranked Virginia Tech that would go on to finish 6-6. Was Ohio State really a playoff team?

Three months later, that answer is “yes.” The loss to the Hokies helped forge the steely will of Ohio State. It was one of six key games for the Buckeyes on their path to earning a No. 4 seed and game vs. No. 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Virginia Tech, 35, Ohio State 21 – Sept. 6. The 35-21 loss in the Shoe shook the team to its core. Was this really a Big Ten title contender, let alone a national championship contender? Doubt had to be running through the minds of Ohio State players after the program suffered its first non-conference home loss since 1978. J.T. Barrett struggled in his second start in place of Braxton Miller, hitting just 9-of-29 passes for 219 yards with a touchdown and three picks. Was the redshirt freshman really up to replacing Miller, who was lost for the season in August with a shoulder injury? The jury remained very much out, as OSU stood 1-1.

“It’s not the last game of the season,” Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman said. “There’s a long way to go to finish out. Coach Meyer’s message after the game is there’s a lot to accomplish but we have to accomplish it at 11-1.”

***

Ohio State 31, Penn State 24 (2 OT) – Oct. 25. The Buckeyes arrived in State College riding a four-game winning streak in which they outscored Kent State, Cincinnati, Maryland and Rutgers, 224-69. That comes out to an average score of 56-17. There was little reason to think the Buckeyes would face a close call at Penn State. But Ohio State saw a 17-0 halftime lead vanish, as the Nittany Lions kicked a 31-yard field goal with nine seconds left to forge a 17-17 tie and overtime. The Buckeyes eventually prevailed in the second overtime, with Joey Bosa ending the night with a fourth-down sack of Christian Hackenberg to seal a 31-24 triumph.

“I was so tired I didn’t even know it was a sack,” said Bosa, who had 2 1/2 sacks and finished with six tackles. “The guys started hugging me and I just went to the ground. This might have been a double-overtime win, but it doesn’t make it any less important, winning in a crazy environment like this.”

***

Ohio State 49, Michigan State 37 – Nov. 8. This was billed as the “Game of the Year” in the Big Ten, a clash that had been anticipated since last spring. No doubt, these were the two best teams in the conference. And Ohio State showed it was king by taking a 49-37 win in East Lansing vs. the No. 8 Spartans. J.T. Barrett showed he is an elite quarterback on this night, completing 16-of-26 passes for 300 yards and three touchdowns and running for 86 yards and two scores in what may have been his most impressive effort of the season.

“This is one for the ages,” said Urban Meyer, whose team notched 568 yards vs. MSU’s vaunted defense. “That’s how much respect we had for our opponent going into it. We saw what they did. They had one loss and they were actually winning that one game until it kind of got away from them somehow at Oregon. We played a top-10 team and really played our best on the road.”

***

Ohio State 31, Minnesota 24 – Nov. 15. Ohio State had to battle the snowy elements and a hot Golden Gophers squad that had won five of six and was dreaming of a Big Ten West title. The Buckeyes held a 17-14 halftime edge and built a 31-14 third-quarter lead before No. 25 Minnesota closed to 31-24 at the final gun. J.T. Barrett continued to impress, completing 15-of-25 passes for 200 yards with three touchdowns and a pick to go with 189 yards rushing and a score. The highlight: an 89-yard touchdown run, which set an Ohio State quarterback record.

“I had no idea that this is who J.T. Barrett is,” Urban Meyer said. “Very clear picture of who he is now.”

***

Ohio State 42, Michigan 28 – Nov. 29. It was business as usual for Ohio State in the sense that it beat the Wolverines, 45-28, for its 12th win in the last 14 games vs. Michigan. But the Buckeyes had to deal with emotions of missing teammate Kosta Karageorge, who was found dead the following day. Then, OSU saw J.T. Barrett suffer what would prove to be a season-ending broken right ankle in the second half.

Cardale Jones took over and salted away the win. It was his offense now. Was the redshirt sophomore up to the task of keeping the Buckeyes on course? Could he replace Barrett, who had hit 13-of-21 passes for 176 yards and a score and ran for 89 yards and two touchdowns vs. Michigan? No one was sure.

“You hate to see any player get hurt, especially a guy like him,” said Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner.” A great guy, a hard worker. A guy who was called upon and he’s executed and done it humbly.”

***

Ohio State 59, Wisconsin 0 – Dec 6. The College Football Playoff Committee admitted it was blown away by the Buckeyes’ resounding 59-0 win vs. Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. The victory was thorough and complete in every facet, resonating nationally. To think Ohio State could do this with a third-string quarter vs. a defense that ranked among the best in the nation was impossible to ignore, as Cardale Jones earned game MVP honors by completing 12-of-17 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns with no turnovers. It was victory No. 11 in a row. And it officially stamped OSU’s ticket to the playoff.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt we’re one of the top four teams in America,” said Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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