Twelve days before Ohio State’s season-opener against Navy, a spell of uncertainty lingered over Columbus after learning it would be without Braxton Miller, its star quarterback and preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, for the rest of the season
In a campaign with championship aspirations, the Buckeyes found themselves scrambling to keep such hopes afloat before they’d even played a down of football.
A chief priority was to replace Miller, a three-year starter and two-time Big Ten Player of the Year, who tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder.
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As such, head coach Urban Meyer and Ohio State turned toward J.T. Barrett, a relatively unheralded redshirt freshman from Wichita Falls, Texas, to guide an inexperienced squad through a major transition. And with unproven commodities at just about every position except the defensive line, questions remained over whether Ohio State could compete at the highest of levels without Miller, who had always sort of been a safety net for the Buckeyes in years past.
Player of the Game: J.T. Barrett
Considering the gravity of the moment, Barrett is an obvious answer. In his first-career start, he passed 226 yards and two touchdowns on 12-of-15 passes. He also ran for 59 yards on nine attempts. Which, relatively speaking, aren't numbers to sneeze at for a 19-year-old given 12 days to prepare to take over as a starting quarterback for one of college football's preeminent programs.
Concerning Barrett, though, the "what he did" is as important as the "how he did it."
Barrett was calm, cool and collected for a kid who had just inherited such a monumental task. Though he struggled in the first half, his steady hand kept Ohio State at ease against the Midshipmen, which flustered the Buckeyes in the first half.
After the game, he met with reporters for the first time as the starting quarterback and handled each question like a professional who'd been doing interviews for a long time. There was something decidedly interesting about Barret, whether it was his Texas accent or the way he phrased certain things. Barrett also helped man Ohio State through a shaky three quarterbacks before the Buckeyes pulled away from the Midshipmen.
Critical Play of the Game: Darron Lee’s fumble return for a touchdown
Before Lee scooped and scored on the first series of the second half, Navy had managed to push around Ohio State despite its athletic superiority.
All week leading up to the contest, the Buckeyes talked of how they needed to be tough and disciplined to beat the Midshipmen. Yet in the first half, they looked sloppy and confused. Trailing, 7-6, at intermission, a spark of life was needed and Ohio State's once-maligned defense provided the flames.
As Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds sprinted to his left and attempted to pitch the ball on an option (a play that had worked time and again earlier in the day), Joey Bosa slammed into him like a freight train and jarred the ball loose. Lee swooped in, snatched the ball and sprinted 61 yards down the sideline into the end zone to put Ohio State up, 13-7, in the third quarter.
"The turning point, I think, was the Darron Lee fumble return," Meyer said after the game. "The fact that our defense kept everything in check ... we were just playing good defense and giving us the change to go take the lead."
At the time, Lee, who finished the afternoon with seven tackles, two tackles-for-loss and a fumble recovery for a touchdown, was a kid trying to make a name for himself. Now, we know him as one of Ohio State's top linebackers and a budding star.
And plays like that? More of them came as the season rolled on.
What it Meant
At the time, a trip to Baltimore against a scrappy and tricky Navy team that's notoriously given opponents problems in the past was a success in and of itself. While the Buckeyes won, 34-17, after pulling away in the second half, they were far from impressive in doing so.
Navy Game Coverage
For example: Ohio State's run game, which was so powerful in 2013, struggled thanks to an offensive line that couldn't push Navy's smaller defensive line backward. The wide receivers weren't anything special. The defense, at times, looked confused by Navy's triple option (but then again, who isn't).
But the triumph was a collective exhale for a team faced with life without Miller.
Barrett had passed his first test.
“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," he said.
In the locker room after the game, players celebrated with pounding music that was so loud you could hear through the walls during Meyer's postgame press conference. There was a certain sense of relief to be had at M&T Bank Stadium. It didn't last long.
“It seems like we’ve been working on this thing forever,” Meyer said of game-planning for Navy and the turmoil that edged such preparations. But now, he said, the page turned to a night game against Virginia Tech at home.
"Obviously with the team we’re playing next, we have a lot of work to do. But we’ll take this win.”