It only takes one play to see why people are excited about the potential of Ohio State’s 2018 passing offense.
If you’re an Ohio State fan, it’s a play that will probably shine bright in your memory for many years to come.
With less than four minutes to play in the third quarter, starting quarterback J.T. Barrett sidelined by an injury and Ohio State trailing its rivals by six in Ann Arbor, backup quarterback Dwayne Haskins made the throw of the Buckeyes’ 2017 season. Facing 3rd-and-13, Haskins rifled a throw between two defensive backs up the right side of the field to Austin Mack for a 27-yard completion that proved to be the turning point of Ohio State’s eventual 31-20 win.
Haskins’ relief effort at Michigan was the only playing time with a game on the line that he saw last season, and for that matter, in his Ohio State career to date. But as Haskins prepares to take over as Ohio State’s starting quarterback for the 2018 season, his performance in that game – and even more specifically, that throw to Mack – is serving as a source of confidence for this year’s Buckeyes offense, particularly the receivers who will catch passes from Haskins.
"Dwayne, he got a little bit of action against The Team Up North, and I think where it all started was that connection between him and Austin, that big play, just because when Dwayne came in that position, he really wasn’t experienced," Ohio State wide receiver Parris Campbell said while meeting with reporters at last week’s team job fair. "And I think that was something that gave him confidence making a play in that game at that setting."
While Ohio State held a three-way quarterback competition between Haskins, Joe Burrow and Tate Martell this spring, and coaches contended that all three quarterbacks had a fair shot to win the job, the widespread expectation all along was that Haskins would win the job, with his performance in last year’s edition of The Game giving him a leg up on his peers.
Although Ohio State’s wide receivers said they believed they could be successful with any of the three quarterbacks – and still believe that with Martell, who is now the No. 2 quarterback with Burrow having transferred to LSU – Campbell said he believes Haskins’ comeback effort in Ann Arbor was a factor in the redshirt sophomore ultimately finishing the spring in front.
"I think it played a huge role, honestly," Campbell said. "Just because certain things that Dwayne had on his résumé, others didn’t. He played in a big-time game on a big-time stage and he came out and won the game. So I think that definitely played a role. I’m not saying that Dwayne was ultimately better than everyone else, but that definitely gave him a step up."
Haskins acknowledged this spring that his performance in that game at Michigan – in which he completed six of seven passing attempts for 94 yards and ran three times for 24 yards – had elevated his confidence as he competed for the job this spring.
"Just having the opportunity to play in the biggest rivalry in all of sports, and just being able to go in there and not really worry," Haskins said in March. "Just being able to go out and win, puts a lot of confidence in you, just because your team saw you do it, the world saw you do it, and it gives you a lot of confidence going forward."
“He played in a big-time game on a big-time stage and he came out and won the game. So I think that definitely played a role. I’m not saying that Dwayne was ultimately better than everyone else, but that definitely gave him a step up.”– Parris Campbell on Dwayne Haskins winning the starting quarterback job
Haskins’ signature play from that game wouldn’t have been possible, of course, without an equally great effort from Mack, who leaped up to make the catch then held on through a hard hit from Michigan safety Tyree Kinnel. And Mack, who started for the Buckeyes at wide receiver last season but caught only 24 passes for 343 yards, said that play has given him more confidence, too.
"It’s a huge confidence-booster," Mack said. "But being in that situation, knowing where it was at in the game, if it was me or if it was anybody else, I know we was going to come down with that ball. If it was Terry (McLaurin), if it was Johnnie (Dixon), whoever that was was going to come down with that ball. Because after that play, you see that confidence in Dwayne, and that’s all we needed. So it was a great booster for me, but more importantly, it was for the team."
As the Buckeyes now prepare for a season in which they will be expecting Haskins to make plays all year long, that confidence seems to have radiated through Ohio State’s entire team and its fanbase. And a lot of that confidence stems from the arm talent Haskins showed on that throw – a throw that, quite frankly, not every quarterback can make.
"He kind of has that approach to whatever route, he doesn’t care what the concept is that we’re running on that play, you’re live and you can get the ball at any moment," McLaurin said. "And the fact that he has that trust in us, that puts even more confidence with us."
That’s not to say that the Buckeyes don’t have still have some concerns about Haskins. Urban Meyer said last week that he still wants to see Haskins assert himself more as a leader, a capacity in which Barrett thrived, and McLaurin echoed that sentiment.
"His problem’s not going to be his arm talent, at all," McLaurin said. "We’re just looking forward to him developing more of a vocal leader and being a commander of our offense. That’s one thing you didn’t have to challenge with J.T., but a guy who hasn’t really played a lot, he kind of has to thrust himself into that leadership role. So he’s getting there, but it’s going to be a work in progress."
All in all, though, the Buckeyes feel good about the potential for their passing game this upcoming season, and what happened last November in Ann Arbor is a big reason why.
"Everybody remembers that game correctly," McLaurin said. "We were kind of sputtering a little bit, and then that was a turning point in the game, with him and Austin making that big play. So that’s what you expect at Ohio State."