One of the biggest questions surrounding the Ohio State football team all season has been whether the Buckeyes can make plays in the deep passing game.
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett believes it’s time for those questions to stop.
"I’m really just shocked why we keep on talking about it," Barrett said Tuesday, his voice rising to a higher pitch than usual, after receiving four straight questions about the deep ball during an interview session. "How many did we complete the other day, like three or four? So it’s like, what’s up?"
While Barrett and the Buckeyes had minimal success in the deep passing game in their first few games of the season – particularly in their 31-16 loss to Oklahoma in their second game for the season – they had their best deep passing performance of the season to date in Saturday’s 56-0 win at Rutgers, where Barrett completed 14 of 22 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns, including numerous completions on long downfield throws.
Even so, questions about Ohio State’s ability to complete the deep ball will likely linger until the Buckeyes prove they can do so consistently against a top opponent such as Penn State, who they play on Oct. 28. While statistics show that Ohio State’s passing offense – including the deep passing offense – has improved over the last three games, skeptics point to the fact that those games were against inferior competition in Army, UNLV and Rutgers.
Even Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has acknowledged that the Buckeyes still have to prove their improvement against better teams, saying Monday that he was optimistic but realistic about his offense’s improvement in the passing game.
For Ohio State fans who won’t believe any improvement they see until the Penn State game, there isn’t much the Buckeyes can do about that; they can only play the games that are on their schedule, which continues on Saturday against another team they are heavily favored to beat in Maryland. Barrett is confident, though, that the improvements Ohio State has made in recent works will carry forward to playing tougher competition.
"Is it going to work against Penn State? I have all the confidence in the world that we’re going to make plays when it’s time for that," Barrett said. "But we’re not worried about Penn State. We’re talking about Maryland, and focused on Maryland. We have to make those plays against Maryland."
Barrett’s confidence stems from the Buckeyes being able to complete more deep passes in practice against their own defense, which has had its own struggles this season but certainly does not lack talent. Barrett believes that, not necessarily that the Buckeyes have faced weaker opponents in games, is the main reason why their results in the deep passing game have improved.
"In the past, we didn’t complete it in practice. In practice, it was awful. So in the game, we didn’t call it, because it was awful in practice," Barrett said. "We’ve gotten a lot better, so the success is happening in practice against our DBs, which I think is one of the top defensive backs in the country. So now we’re making the plays in practice, calling it in a game and we’ll continue to call those things in the game."
“Is it going to work against Penn State? I have all the confidence in the world that we’re going to make plays when it’s time for that.”– J.T. Barrett
Skeptics will point to the fact that even against Rutgers, Barrett missed a number of downfield throws – perhaps most notably, one that he criticized himself for after Saturday’s game, when he overshot Terry McLaurin on a deep ball as his receiver got open up the right sideline. Neither Barrett nor quarterbacks coach Ryan Day is overly concerned about the missed throws, however, because they say it’s unrealistic to complete every pass when taking downfield shots.
"Our goal was to hit 50 percent of our deep balls," Day said. "More realistic is probably closer to 40 percent. If we’re hitting on 50 percent, that’s a heck of a day, but that’s our goal."
Both Barrett and Day also said, though, that everyone involved – the quarterbacks, the receivers and the coaches – are continuing to work on improving the deep passing game so that they will be ready to make plays when the bigger games on the schedule come.
"It’s not something that just happens overnight. it’s something we’ve been working on for a long time," Day said. "So we’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re making progress."