The Ohio State football team was preparing for its fourth season with two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller at quarterback. The Buckeyes were ranked No. 5 in the preseason AP poll, and with Miller expected to lead a youthful offense, Ohio State had realistic hopes of earning a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Then, mere days before the start of the season, Miller was sidelined for the year because of a right shoulder injury.
All of the sudden, an offense that had potential was being viewed as one that had perhaps too many questions that needed answered. Stepping in for Miller was the biggest unknown in redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett. The Buckeyes also had an offensive line that would feature four new starters would protect him, and receivers and tailbacks that needed to prove themselves.
Those questions loomed larger after the Buckeyes struggled offensively in their first two games. Ohio State did not score an offensive touchdown until there was less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter vs. Navy. Things did not improve the following week when Barrett threw three interceptions and was sacked seven times in a loss to visiting Virginia Tech.
Ohio State scored 66, 50, 52, 56, 31 and 55 in rolling off six straight wins after falling to the Hokies, but the competition was far from stellar. The questions still remained … until the Buckeyes sliced and diced the vaunted Michigan State defense last week.
Led by an ever-improving Barrett, OSU bested the then-No. 8 Spartans 49-37. The offense was stellar and compiled 568 yards against a MSU defense that entered the game No. 5 in the nation in total defense, allowing 279.4 yards per game.
“It's our best performance that we've had since we've been here,” Meyer said Monday. “It's very balanced. … Obviously statistically, I think we probably had more yards against other teams, but that was against a legitimate top-five defense in America and a bunch of NFL players on that defense. And it was very well executed.”
The offense is on the upswing.
“We had a quarterback that was a quarterback for about two weeks and did not play very well. We had an offensive line that played horrible that game and a group of receivers that were not ready to play. The young guys were not,” Meyer said of the VT loss.
“This is the most improved team that I've been a part of. This is a team that I've been fortunate to be around some championship level teams.”
As for why the offense is so improved, there is more than one answer.
- Barrett: The redshirt freshman has had the biggest growth since the start of the season. Now a potential Heisman candidate, Barrett ranks second nationally in passing efficiency and is just four touchdown passes short of the OSU record for TD tosses in a season.
OSU quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Tom Herman was asked if he thought one would have been crazy if someone had told him that Barrett would play this well when Miller went down in August.
“No, I wouldn’t have said you’re crazy,” Herman said. “I think we all saw. I think the pace at which his improvement has accelerated is mildly surprising.”
“You don’t have to be a coach to know that when you turn on your TV and you watch J.T. play against Navy or Virginia Tech or even Kent State vs. J.T. playing against Michigan State, it’s a different guy,” Herman added. “He continues to get better. So to say that all would have taken place in a span of nine games, 10- or 11-week span, I don’t know that I would have said we’d be here where we are this quickly, but I knew that where he’s at was certainly a possibility. I just didn’t know when he would get there.
“The ceiling, I don’t even know if he can see the ceiling yet.”
His teammates were also not surprised by his improvement.
“After the Virginia Tech game, he took that upon himself,” OSU fifth-year senior tackle Darryl Baldwin said. “He just has always been striving to get better. He’s always the last one here, always watching film and he just works so hard at it that it’s not a surprise that he’s playing at this level.”
- Playmakers Emerging: Barrett’s leap can be attributed in part those around him. The wide receivers in particular are playing as well as they have since Meyer took over the program. Sophomore Michael Thomas has become Barrett’s top target. He has caught 31 passes for 538 yards and seven touchdowns, including a key 79-yard TD reception last week at Michigan State.
Senior Devin Smith also caught a crucial touchdown pass against the Spartans and leads the Buckeyes’ receiving corps with eight trips to the end zone.
Ohio State ranks third in the Big Ten with 251.9 yards passing per game and leads the conference with 9.1 yards per reception and 28 TDs.
“We were borderline pathetic at passing the ball our first year, 2012. Last year we were just above not very good,” Meyer said. “And now we're pushing to have throwing 300 yards against Michigan State.”
“I'm high on the receivers right now, as you can tell,” Meyer added. “And that's probably a first since we've been here.”
The passing game is not the only part of the offense that has having playmakers come into their own. Tailback Ezekiel Elliott might not be Carlos Hyde, but the sophomore is playing well and coming off arguably his best game of the season.
Elliott leads the OSU rushing attack with 863 yards and seven touchdowns. He has also caught 16 passes. Against Michigan State, Elliott totaled a game-high 154 yards rushing and scored a pair of TDs.
“He played out of his mind. He played really well,” OSU senior wideout Evan Spencer said after the game. “He was running the ball hard – running the ball really hard – and he was hitting the holes. We were blocking really well for him, too. As a running back, when you’ve got guys on the perimeter and guys up front moving people and giving you holes, I don’t want to say it’s easy but it makes your life a little better.”
Added senior left tackle Taylor Decker: “He’s always been the type of guy that portrays our culture in the way he plays. He’s always a big 4-to-6 guy. He’s always going hard. You’ll always see him running on the field throwing blocks, even if that block is not necessarily going to have an impact on the play. He’s always been that type of guy. For him to have that type of performance (at MSU), it was really good for all of us to see. We know he’s got that. He’s always been that type of guy.”
- The Offensive Line: Last, but certainly not least, is the improved play of the line. After allowing seven sacks against Virginia Tech, albeit with six of those coming with the Buckeyes needing to go pass-heavy in the fourth quarter, the line has done a good job of keeping Barrett upright. The Buckeyes have allowed 12 sacks in the other eight games.
Barrett was sacked twice against the Spartans, who entered the game with a league-leading 28 sacks. The line also helped Elliott produce his big game.
The group, which had only Decker as a returning starter, has become a strength after opening the season as a potential weakness. Three of the linemen – guards Billy Price and Pat Elflein and center Jacoby Boren – graded out as champions for the MSU game.
“None of this would be possible if it weren’t for (OSU O-line coach) Ed Warinner and what he’s done with that offensive line over the span of eight weeks,” Herman said. “It doesn’t matter who you have on the perimeter or who you have playing quarterback. If you can’t run the ball and you can’t protect, it’s not real fun on Saturdays.
“Ed’s done a masterful job getting those guys to improve. We haven’t even come close to our ceiling yet, and that the exciting part is just to be around these guys and watch them grow each and every day.”
Baldwin said the biggest change for the O-line from the Virginia Tech game to now is comfort among the linemen.
“That was just such a long time ago. Now, we’re just all comfortable in our roles,” Baldwin said. “That was my, Jacoby Boren and Billy Price, that was all our second starts. It was the second game of the season, and now we’re on our ninth start. We’re just really comfortable with each other and our jobs. We just know what to do to get the job done.”