COLUMBUS, Ohio — One team had Marvin Harrison Jr. on their side. The other team didn’t. It was just that simple.
The best player in college football. The most valuable. The most dominant. Call him whatever you want. For Ohio State’s superstar wide receiver, it’s all earned and deserved. He reminded everybody on Saturday that his best is just flat-out better.
Harrison was absolutely marvelous in a 20-12 win over a No. 7 Penn State squad that had the best defense in college football going into Saturday. The Nittany Lions were only allowing 121 passing yards per game this season. The junior wideout surpassed that all by himself with a career-best 11 catches for 162 yards.
He finished it off with a fourth-quarter touchdown that clinched another top-10 triumph for the No. 3 Buckeyes and had Fox announcer Gus Johnson shout out a new nickname: Maserati Marv.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 21, 2023
On this day, Ohio State needed every single one of those catches to win. Kyle McCord threw Harrison’s way 16 times. Despite Penn State’s determined efforts, Harrison was open almost every time. He turned nine catches into first downs. Every scoring drive Ohio State put together required a key play from their go-to guy.
“I’m just doing my job,” Harrison said.
Nobody does it better, not in college football. In the aftermath, Ohio State coach Ryan Day didn’t try to delve into a debate about why his wideout deserves the Heisman Trophy, an honor handed to a quarterback in 16 of last 20 years. He didn’t need to waste time making an impassioned case. Everyone saw it on Saturday.
“I haven’t seen everybody play across the country, but it’s hard for me to find somebody who’s better in the country,” Day said. “I don’t know how he gets on these lists or doesn’t get on these lists, but to me, he’s one of the most special players in the country.”
The case can easily be made that Harrison is the most impactful non-QB in the game. If you put him on Penn State, this game might’ve gone the other way. With all due respect to Day and Ohio State’s excellent defense, that feels fair to say.
Penn State’s offense went a baffling 1 for 16 on third-down conversions on the day. Harrison went 4 for 4 by himself.
Ohio State believes it has nation’s best defense. It backed it up against Penn State.
Few are more familiar with his greatness than the Nittany Lions. Harrison burned them for 10 catches and a career-high 185 receiving yards in a 44-31 win in State College a year ago. At a school famous for first-round wideouts, Harrison is the first in Ohio State history to top 160 receiving yards five different times. In a battle of two teams that didn’t play their best and looked evenly matched in a bunch of ways, Penn State depended on whether their secondary could stop him when it mattered the most.
“I think most teams, the first thing they look at is: How do I take away Marvin Harrison?” Day said.
Harrison said he expected heavy outside leverage in man coverage entering the game. Right away, he could tell there was more safety help to his side, which made it tougher to get good looks on deep downfield shots. He had to get his job done with slants and quicker routes, trying to turn routine plays into yards-after-catch gains. For that, he praised Day and offensive coordinator Brian Hartline for everything they did to try to scheme him open.
“We went into this knowing we needed to have an awareness and limit the impact of No. 18,” Penn State coach James Franklin said, “and we had a hard time doing that.”
Harrison was doing all this against one of the top cornerbacks in the country in Kalen King. They didn’t trade much in the way of trash talking. Harrison says he has “tremendous respect” for King. But when it came to testing a future NFL corner, McCord did not hesitate. When the Buckeyes needed to convert on third-and-10 early in the second quarter, he trusted Harrison to go win a one-on-one on a slant. Twelve-yard gain. Three plays later, the Buckeyes found the end zone.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 21, 2023
It’s not just the difference Harrison makes against a very good defense that makes him special. It’s the confidence he gives to an inexperienced quarterback who was missing injured No. 2 receiver Emeka Egbuka, getting 2.3 yards per carry from the run game and not having a ton of success (11 of 19 for 124 yards) when he threw it elsewhere. Harrison has even been taking more reps in the slot lately with Egbuka out. In his last two games, he has turned those opportunities into nine catches for 132 yards. All that has done is make him even more difficult to defend.
“I think you can say a lot is on my shoulders, but that’s my job at the end of the day,” Harrison said. “My coaches and teammates count on me to kind of be the focal point of the offense. Each and every week, I know they’re gonna lean on me. The offense sometimes goes as I go. I just try to do my job and help the offense go.”
All of that ought to factor into a Heisman candidacy. Whether he should be or not, Harrison is not the frontrunner at the moment. That distinction belongs to Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. ever since his top-10 win over Oregon and USC quarterback Caleb Williams’ rough loss to Notre Dame. McCord knows where his guy belongs in that conversion.
“If it’s truly the award that goes to the best player in college football, I don’t see how he’s not in the mix,” McCord said.
Is Harrison motivated by that prize? Not at all. He understands how tough it is for a wide receiver to win over the wider national audience of voters. Yes, Alabama’s DeVonta Smith was excellent enough to pull it off three years ago. Harrison brings that up, then pauses and points out that Smith won it during the COVID-19-altered 2020 season.
“I think a lot had to go right for that to happen,” he said.
It takes unbelievable statistics. With 42 catches for 766 yards and six touchdowns through seven games, Harrison isn’t quite on pace with Smith’s production. But the spotlight on him is sure to be as bright as ever in every game going forward. A lot can still go right for him.
“But I’m not worried about that,” Harrison added. “My goal is to beat the team up north this year and get to the Big Ten championship. That’s one thing I always wanted to do, so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Michigan is another foe with a truly excellent defense. They’re a national title contender with a lot of talented, experienced players. At this point in the season, the Wolverines have every reason to believe they can defeat their rival and win the Big Ten for a third year in a row.
But they don’t have Marvin Harrison Jr.
(Photo: Jason Mowry / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)