BALTIMORE – One by one, members of the Ohio State football team trickled into the bowels of M&T Bank Stadium and toward the locker room.
Most jogged through its door with wide smiles. They were the ones who chirped and howled and trumpeted the rapper Rae Sremmurd’s “No Flex Zone” next-door to a room full of reporters waiting for head coach Urban Meyer’s post-game press conference.
After all, there was some sense of joy and – perhaps more importantly – relief to be had here.
Following a 34-17 win against Navy Saturday in Baltimore, the Buckeyes had survived the persistent Midshipmen and the first expedition into a brave, new world without star quarterback Braxton Miller.
The first pass J.T. Barrett – the redshirt freshman whom Meyer has called upon to step into Miller’s oversized shoes – threw was a 14-yard completion. The second was not. And in the end, Ohio State’s first drive without Miller, the back-to-back Big Ten Player of the Year and Heisman candidate, in what feels like forever stalled. The Buckeyes punted. This is the sequence they repeated for much of the first half.
Welcome to life sans Miller, former running back Carlos Hyde and all but one starting offensive lineman from a year ago.
“We didn’t resemble what we expect to be,” Meyer said. “Whether it’s lack of Carlos Hyde, lack of offensive line.”
Running backs sophomore Ezekiel Elliott and freshman Curtis Samuel combined 99 yards and a touchdown, but they were a far cry from the production and power of Hyde. The offensive line improved in the second half, but it didn’t "resemble an offensive line at Ohio State" before that, according to Meyer.
Added Meyer: "We had nine new starters on offense, that’s not a normal transition. First half was tough."
To be sure, both groups were valid concerns heading into Saturday’s game in Baltimore, and both remain glaring defects on an Ohio State team that ultimately overpowered the overmatched Midshipmen.
"Obviously with the team we’re playing next," Meyer said of a looming nighttime bout with Virginia Tech, "we have a lot of work to do. But we’ll take this win."
Because it did not come easy. After trailing 7-6 at intermission, redshirt freshman linebacker Darron Lee returned a fumble 61 yards for a touchdown to kindle a sorely-needed surge.
Junior quarterback Keenan Reynolds and Navy countered, but Barrett found wide-open senior receiver Devin Smith for 80 yards near the end of the third quarter to seize the game’s lead and momentum.
“I was trying not to miss him, he was so open,” Barrett said. “They bit so hard on the play-action so I was just trying not to miss him. He made a great catch and just ran away from them.”
And then the Buckeyes ran away from the Midshipmen.
Meanwhile, Barrett settled into the pocket and seemingly his role as the fulcrum of Ohio State’s once high-powered offense. It had to kick, bite, scratch and claw for every yard. Big, thrilling plays, at least for now, won't come as easily anymore. Barrett was no Braxton Miller, but he didn’t need to be.
"You coming in after Braxton, people expect you to do some crazy stuff," Barrett said. "I told myself, 'I’m not Braxton, I’m J.T.'"
He completed 12-of-15 passes for 226 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He wasn't perfect, but he was good enough to lead the Buckeyes on this day and the supporting cast was serviceable.
"I told him, 'Do you. Don’t try to go out there and do nothing that you don’t do and try to be like (Braxton) or anything,'" sophomore Dontre Wilson said. "'Just go out there and do you.' When you do you, that’s when you’re the most comfortable so that’s what I told him."
It's why an oppressive sense of unease that’s been cast over Columbus lifted, even if just a bit, Saturday. Barrett seems capable of leading Ohio State on a quest that was once draped in championship hopes.
Whether or not he and the Buckeyes are capable of actually fulfilling such lofty ambitions is less certain.