Throwing for only 74 yards last week in Happy Valley, Barrett more than doubled that total in the first half against Illinois by going 15 of 24 for 167 yards in the first two quarters. He also threw a pair of touchdowns to Devin Smith while getting the Buckeyes out to a 31-0 lead after the first 30 minutes. That would be all Barrett would play as Cardale Jones took over behind center for the rest of the game.
It was the type of performance one would hope for after a subpar game and leading up to the biggest game of the season.
Nursing a sprained MCL that was suffered against the Nittany Lions, Barrett looked calm in the pocket and was rarely flushed out. He tied his season-low in rushes with seven for 38 yards.
His most impressive throw came on Ohio State’s third drive of the game. With a first-and-10 at Illinois’ 32-yard line, Devin Smith was lined up out wide to Barrett’s left. With Smith receiving one-on-one coverage, Barrett looked his way right from the snap and lofted a beautifully thrown ball to the end zone where it landed perfectly in Smith’s hands. It was right where only Smith could get it and showed fans that the old J.T. Barrett was back.
Barrett also looked extremely sharp in the two-minute offense. After an excellent punt return from Jalin Marshall set the Buckeyes up at the Illini 25, Barrett trotted out to the huddle with only 34 seconds remaining in the half. He only needed 14 seconds to get the Buckeyes in the end zone and end his day.
The first play was a 17-yard pass to Dontre Wilson along the left sideline to get to the Buckeyes at first-and-goal at the 8 with the clock stopped. Barrett rolled right on the next play and found Smith again, this time on the right edge of the end zone to all but put away the Illini.
Even though it was much better than the previous week, Barrett still was unhappy with his own performance.
“It was pretty poor. Just missing open guys,” Barrett said on his game. “I felt like I knew where to go with the football, it was more just completing it. That’s something I can correct.”
The way he started the game could be what he thinks warrants the poor grade he gave himself.
Ohio State began its first offensive series on Illinois’ 38-yard line after a Darron Lee interception on the Illini’s first drive. After a 15-yard screen to Evan Spencer, Barrett had Jeff Heuerman running wide open down the right sideline. Even though Heuerman is a healthy 6-5, the pass was way over his head. Luckily for Barrett, Curtis Samuel went 23 yards to the house on the next play.
On their next series, the Buckeyes had a first down at the Illini 34 and Barrett took a shotgun snap before scanning the field. He quickly found Wilson all alone on the left sideline. Once again, the pass was way over his head. A better throw would have most likely lead to a touchdown.
“That’s all on me,” Barrett said afterwards. “The receivers did a great job of getting open — I’ve just got to do a better job of getting them the ball.”
Urban Meyer was visibly upset after the second overthrow in as many series. With a battle looming with Michigan State next weekend, Meyer said the Illinois showing didn’t leave him completely comfortable with the passing game, but it will be addressed before the matchup with the Spartans.
“We're not 100 percent there,” Meyer said of the vertical attack after the game. “And we're going to work real hard at it at practice. I thought we had opportunities early in the game to hit some wide-open guys and we just misfired. Whenever a quarterback throws high it means he was juiced up and Tom Herman, I just listen to the way he coaches them and we have a lot of confidence, but that's one reason we tried to keep putting him in those positions and he left the game at halftime feeling very confident.”
After seeing how he played in a wild atmosphere in Happy Valley, Barrett’s performance in East Lansing could be what gives the Buckeyes a win or loss. If he can play like he has shown during most games, Ohio State has a chance to walk out of East Lansing with a season-defining win. But if he plays like he did at Penn State, it will likely be a long night for the Buckeyes.
Luckily, the experience and struggle in a hostile environment could be what gives Barrett the confidence he needs heading into the biggest game of his career.
“The way that the Penn State game unfolded, I think had you asked me to sign up for that before the game started I certainly wouldn’t have. I would’ve signed up for a different way for us to get a win,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman said after the Illinois game. “But the fact that it happened the way that it happened can only add some confidence and some toughness to him as he heads into this week.”
We all have one week to find out how tough he is. Will he play like what would be expected of a freshman quarterback or will Barrett begin to etch his name in Buckeye lore? Either way, Saturday can’t come soon enough.