COLUMBUS, Ohio – The pre-game festivities began with J.T. Barrett on the Ohio Stadium turf. And he stayed there once the game began.
Barrett was pushed around by fellow quarterback Cardale Jones in the fan-favorite circle drill, then fell victim to the strip sack by Rashad Frazier on Gray’s first offensive play. Frazier beat offensive lineman Antonio Underwood, knocked the ball loose and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown.
It was the most exciting play in an offensively challenged game that saw 11 Ohio State starters sit out – five on offense, six on defense – including Braxton Miller. Gray topped Scarlet 17-7 in front of 61,058 fans, as the teams combined for 447 yards, eight tackles for loss and five sacks.
“The execution of the offense was not what you like,” head coach Urban Meyer said. “The offense line, we got a lot of work to do. I kept Taylor Decker out because he played over a thousand snaps last year, same thing with our four starting D-linemen. That's not what spring ball is for. It’s to keep beating on people, so I would be disappointed if we weren’t one of the better defensive lines with those four guys. They have had a good spring, their coach has really been coaching them.”
With Miller, Decker, Pat Elflein and the entire starting defensive line spectating, the Buckeyes looked nothing like the team that will take the field in late August in Baltimore. Barrett and Jones were both lackluster on the big stage.
Barrett completed 17 of 33 passes for 151 yards and had an additional 21 yards rushing. Jones’s numbers were similar – 14 of 31 for 126 yards and 28 yards rushing. Barrett was sacked three times and Jones twice. Corey Smith was the leading receiver with 72 yards. Michael Thomas had 64.
Miller’s injury history could thrust Barrett or Jones into a game this season. Based on the March and April performances, neither has approached Kenny Guiton status.
“Cardale was disappointing. I thought he made some misses today, but I'm not going to let that ruin his spring,” Meyer said. “He’s had a good spring for us.”
The day could have represented the emergence of future stars. Redshirt freshman linebacker Chris Worley recorded a game-high nine tackles and one tackle for loss, Tyquan Lewis had five tackles and two sacks and Frazier, a Purdue transfer, tallied two sacks.
“The D-line, they have pretty good depth,” Underwood said. “Younger guys got a chance to get in and show what they can do. Depth is not a problem.”
Team Gray’s two touchdowns came on the ground via short yardage runs from Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball. True freshman place-kicker Sean Nuernberger also connected on a 43-yard field goal. Dunn and Ball are in position to help smooth over Carlos Hyde’s absence. Presumptive starter Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 16 yards on three carries, while Ball (55) and Dunn (35) combined for 90 yards. The teams totaled 170 yards rushing.
“It is very competitive. Nothing is concrete and everyone’s role is up in the air,” Ball said. “We are all working hard to find playing time on the field.”
Both of Gray’s touchdown drives came in the second half, with Barrett engineering a 15-play, 80-yard drive and nine-play, 80-yard drive.
“I have always been told the backup quarterback is the most important position on the team,” Jones said. “As far as a gap between Braxton and myself, or Braxton and J.T., that is for the coaches to decide. I have to keep getting better off the field and improving my game.”
Scarlet was stuffed on a goal-line stand in the third quarter. It had 1st-and-goal from the 3 and couldn’t score, getting stopped on a pass and three rushing attempts. True freshman Curtis Samuel was denied on all three running plays, including a fourth-down stop by Lewis and Raekwon McMillan, who finished with a crowd-pleasing five tackles.
The diminished offensive returns gave way to a Cameron Johnston show. He punted six times for 269 yards, an average of 44.8 yards. Three were downed inside the 20.
Before the season-opener at Navy, Ohio State is tasked with finding replacements for six offensive starters and four defensive starters. They were part of a group that won a school-record 24 consecutive games until hitting “a couple speed bumps,” as Meyer put it.
“There are some great story lines,” he said. “I would say we are faster and more athletic in a lot of positions.”
Meyer then walked out of the room, another spring practice complete. But it won’t be a summer away from the office. The Buckeyes have holes to fill on an offensive line that could form a bridge to Dallas.