With thousands chanting his name after each of his four touchdowns Saturday night in the 38-10 victory over Penn State, it would be easy to crown J.T. Barrett as the overwhelming favorite to be Ohio State's starting quarterback for the remainder of the season.
Seemingly ever since Braxton Miller re-injured his shoulder in August 2014, the question has lingered over who is best suited to man the most important position on the team. Though current starter Cardale Jones played perhaps the best game of his career just one week prior against Maryland, throwing for 291 yards and two scores, Barrett was the one gaining the endorsement of the crowd inside Ohio Stadium Saturday.
The redshirt-sophomore came into the game once again tasked with leading the offense inside the opposing red zone, yet ended up playing the majority of the snaps at quarterback while the Buckeyes played their most complete game since a 38-point shutout of Hawai'i in wWeek 2. However the reason for his additional playing time is not as clear as one might think.
Jones simply missed on a number of early throws to the outside early on, but would finish the night completing 9-of-15 attempts, including a pair of big third downs throws to Braxton Miller and Michael Thomas that kept the chains moving. Yet the eventual full-time move to Barrett was not due to Jones, but was instead thanks to the effectiveness of the red zone game plan against a very aggressive Penn State defensive front.
On the game's very first play, the unit would make their presence felt, slanting all-conference tackle Anthony Zettel inside past right tackle Chase Farris and cutting off the path of Ezekiel Elliott, allowing the filling linebacker to make an easy tackle for loss. Eight Nittany Lion defenders are near the line at the snap, with only five Ohio State offensive linemen and two tight ends to block them.
With injuries to Corey Smith, Noah Brown, and Dontre Wilson hampering the depth of OSU's wide receiver group, the double-tight end look featuring Nick Vannett and Marcus Baugh has become much more common in the past few weeks. Since Jones offers little threat to run, Penn State is able to gain an additional unblocked defender to help against the run while still leaving a deep safety to help both corners in case of a pass downfield.
Meanwhile, when Jones dropped back to pass, the PSU front was there yet again, with Carl Nassib doing his best Joey Bosa impression against Farris. The former walk-on would prove to be nearly unblockable on the evening, registering eight tackles, three-and-a-half tackles for loss, and one-and-a-half sacks from his left end position.
While the ongoing quarterback derby in Columbus has looked like a sideshow at times this fall, it proved to be the difference as the Buckeyes were able to quickly trade one game plan in for another. Barrett's presence as a runner proved to be the difference entirely, changing the math for the OSU blocking schemes.
Instead of trying to block eight defenders with seven men, Ohio State would only attempt to block seven, leaving Barrett to handle the eighth man with a simple read. On the game's first touchdown, right end Curtis Cothran (#52) was intentionally left unblocked as the option man, and would make a bee-line straight for Elliott. Cothran's aggressiveness would leave his gap wide open, allowing the quarterback to waltz into the end zone behind a pair of blocks from his tight ends.
On the very next drive, the Buckeyes would call the exact same play. Though Barrett was now established as a threat to carry the ball himself, the PSU front seemed aligned to take away the 'Power' concept to the same side as the running back, a new favorite of the OSU offense, and one that sprung Elliott for multiple big runs on the evening.
But with the linebackers scooted over to the twin-tight end side, a natural 'bubble' was apparent in the 'B' gap between the right guard and tackle, which just so happened to be the exact aiming point for Elliott on a tight zone handoff.
After going unblocked, the right end chose to wait for Barrett in case of another keep instead of closing down on the running back.
After bouncing to the outside and making a pair of tacklers miss in the open field, Elliott would also find pay dirt.
As we can see from Elliott's run though, the Nittany Lion secondary began to play up on any run-action. Luckily, the Buckeyes were prepared.
Late in the first half, on the third consecutive drive in which Barrett would relieve Jones inside the red zone, OSU would go right at Nassib. Since it seemed like no one could block him, the Buckeyes wouldn't even try to, instead making him the optioned defender that would be wrong no matter what.
As Barrett would find the end zone for the second time in the quarter, Farris and Vannett run right by Nassib, letting Elliott take the brunt of his punishment. Meanwhile, Michael Thomas lets the cornerback to his side go untouched, letting the tight end kick him out on an 'arc' block, and setting a crucial block on the safety.
Jones would appear on two more drives to open the second half, both of which would see the Nittany Lions record a sack and stall any OSU progress. With the score only 21-10, it was clear that the Buckeyes' best antidote for Penn State's aggressive front seven came in the form of option football.
"When J.T. came in there we knew that the zone reads were going to work really well," Elliott added after the game. "His ability to attack them on the ground worked to our advantage."
This shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone that watched last year's overtime thriller between these same teams. In the fourth quarter and both overtime periods of that matchup, Barrett would shred the defense with option keepers, picking up 75 crucial rushing yards.
While he wouldn't have to carry the team quite as much in this year's tilt, the QB would rack up 102 of the team's 315 yards on the ground. He'd add two more touchdowns through the air, meaning he played a critical role in all five of Ohio State's trips to the end zone.
But although he didn't miss on any of his four passing attempts on the night, he was clearly not asked to execute the entirety of the game plan. Both a jump-pass to Miller and fade to Thomas were clearly only throws that we'd see near the goal-line, leaving just a 21-yard corner route to Curtis Samuel as the only big passing play to emerge with Barrett at the helm.
For Ohio State to repeat as national champions, it's clear that they'll need the quarterback to make plays in both phases of the game. Even though Barrett made a number of plays on the ground, he's yet to do so through the air this fall.
It's very likely that Barrett only received reps in the red zone package during the past two weeks of practice though, leaving the coaches with little choice of what they could call for him. Luckily, the Nittany Lions couldn't stop it anyway.
Will he receive more time with the rest of the first-team offense this week? Unfortunately, I don't think we'll know until Saturday night, just like the Rutgers defense.