BALTIMORE – Who knows how long the J.T. Barrett era will last at Ohio State, but it started on a warm and cloudy Saturday off the Inner Harbor. And for a kid who hadn’t played a down of competitive football since Oct. 2012, Barrett, a redshirt freshman, was pretty good in his collegiate debut.
For weeks, the loss of star quarterback Braxton Miller has cast a spell of unease over Central Ohio. It might have eased up a bit after the Buckeyes beat Navy 34-17 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
“It seems like we’ve been working on this thing forever,” Meyer said of game-planning for the Midshipmen. “And what you saw a little bit throughout the course of the game is what I saw through practice. Every once in a while, they’re going to get one out of you because they execute so well … Obviously with the team we’re playing next, we have a lot of work to do. But we’ll take this win.”
And besides, for all the glaring weaknesses that remain, there were encouraging things to be gleaned. The first was Barrett’s poise.
He wasn’t perfect, but he seemed cool and collected under pressure. He was 12-of-15 for 226 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. The lowlight was the aforementioned pick near the goal line in which Barrett threw into double coverage.
“I was like, ‘J.T. you know you shouldn’t have thrown it, but you still threw it.’ Now you gotta make up for it.”
The highlight was an 80-yard bomb to senior wide receiver Devin Smith that more or less broke open a previously competitive contest.
“I was trying not to miss him, he was so open. 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.”
Guys like Smith, Dontre Wilson, Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith and a supposed cache of weapons in the passing game need to keep getting open like that. Because the less Ohio State asks Barrett to do the better. He’s not Braxton Miller, and he’ll be the first to tell you that.
“You’re coming in after Braxton, people expect you to do some crazy stuff. I told myself, I’m not Braxton. I’m J.T. So I just go out there and play my game and it definitely helped me.”
Before that, Barrett said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman told him the same thing.
“Coach Herman, he looked me in my eyes and was like, ‘Hey: just don’t try to be something you’re not. Just go out there and play with confidence’ and I feel like I did that today. That definitely helped me settle down.”
Because when you’re charged with replacing Miller, the back-to-back Big Ten Player of the Year and a Heisman candidate, you’re going to be a cocktail of emotions. Welcome to J.T. Barrett’s life since it was announced Miller would miss the season after re-tearing the labrum in his throwing shoulder.
“It definitely hurt us emotionally as far as when Braxton went down, but what are we gonna do? Just sit there and start losing? (I just) tried to grab the reigns and keep on going … We’re not gonna look at each other and just lose, I guess.”
After all, with or without Miller, the Buckeyes have talent on both sides of the ball. Few would question that. The issue at hand is a matter of experience and what happens when you lose arguably the best running back since Eddie George and four multi-year starters on an offensive line that’s regarded as one of the best in school history.
For weeks, we wondered if Miller’s shoes would be too big for Barrett to fill. It’s a valid and open question, but maybe concern is more appropriately directed at Ohio State offensive line, which looked pedestrian (and sometimes worse) for the better part of three quarters. Meyer was critical of the unit post-game.
“I was very disappointed, there’s a standard set of offensive line play for many many years and it’s really been enhanced by our line coach Ed Warinner the last two years and it didn’t resemble an offensive line at Ohio State the first two quarters and I’m being hard on them but I think they played much better second half. We’ll evaluate the film, we have to settle in on a starting five and we have to play much better if we’re gonna make a dent in the Big Ten conference. I just think we expected the offensive line to play much better.”
To state the obvious, the offensive line will determine a lot about the kind of J.T. Barrett we see on Saturdays. When Barrett had time to step into the pocket and make his reads, he looked pretty decent. Ohio State didn’t ask him to throw downfield that much, and that’s to be expected. But when the offensive line collapsed, Barrett was rendered ineffective and lacks Miller’s forte for running the football to, as Meyer said last week, “make bad plays good.”
It was the kind of sequences that made you wonder what would happen with No. 5 behind center. Meyer was asked if he missed Miller.
“A lot of times great players like that will pull out of something, but yeah. I didn’t physically think about that during the course of the game but you miss great players and obviously Braxton’s a great player.”
Plus, it hampered the team’s play-calling.
“We wanted to open it up a little bit more in the first half and we did. It wasn’t because of him, it was because our offensive line … It wasn’t lack of confidence in J.T. it was lack of confidence in protection.”
Meanwhile, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said his team made some unusual errors Saturday.
“Hats off to Coach Meyer and Ohio State. They did a really great job of battling and finishing us off at the end of the game. I am super proud of our kids and how we battled. We had some uncharacteristic mistakes that we normally don't make and against a team like Ohio State, you can’t do that. We knew coming into the game that we had to play perfectly.”
The Midshipmen kept the Buckeyes on the ropes for most of the game before fading down the stretch. They were athletically overmatched compared to Ohio State, but should be a formidable squad this season. Star quarterback Keenan Reynolds took solace in the way the Mids played.
“I’m proud of the way guys fought. Defensively, I thought those guys battled it out. The offensive line played really well. I think we did some good things and some bad things, certainly things that I wish I could go back and change.”