BSB Preview: Wisconsin

There was a time this fall when Cardale Jones was ahead of J.T. Barrett on the depth chart. With the injury to Barrett, Jones is the top healthy quarterback for the Big Ten championship game with developed weapons around him. The Buckeyes defense, meanwhile, must prepare for Melvin Gordon.

Throughout spring practice and into fall camp Cardale Jones was leading J.T. Barrett in the competition for what was then the backup quarterback position on the Ohio State roster.

Jones eventually fell behind Barrett as the redshirt freshman earned the starting nod after Braxton Miller was ruled out for the season with a shoulder injury.Jones was nearly the one to start in Miller’s place and now, with Barrett out with a fractured right ankle, the sophomore gets his chance take the reins of the Ohio State offense against No. 13 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship.

“It's going to be his first start,” head coach Urban Meyer said. “Obviously a really good environment against a very tough defense, but it's not like he's not taking snaps with the one offense or understands the concepts. So he has a very good understanding.”

That experience as the first-team quarterback throughout the spring is certainly valuable, putting Jones in a better position than many third string quarterbacks could hope to be in, but as the coach said, he has never started a game at Ohio State. The 6-5, 250 pound redshirt sophomore out of Cleveland Glenville last started a game in 2011 while attending Fork Union Military Academy.

In his time at Ohio State, he has completed 11 of his 19 pass attempts (57.9 percent) for 121 yards and two touchdowns to go along with 43 rushes for 334 yards. All but two of those passes came while relieving Barrett this season, and Jones’ 206 yards rushing this year are fourth on the team. He averages a team-best 7.9 yards per rush.

Jones has a valuable skill set. He is a physical runner with the strongest arm on the team, reportedly able to throw 50 yards from a knee. Still, there was a reason that Barrett and not Jones started in place of Miller when the season opened.

“It was certainly not any deficiency on Cardale’s part, he was doing an admirable job,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “It was just that J.T., I think I said this before, just the way the offense was moving just a little bit better when he was in there. Their grades were very similar, it was just the offense was moving a little better at the time when J.T. was in.”

Herman said that Jones initially struggled with the fact that he was beat out by Barrett, but he rebounded from that decision to remain focused on his role as the backup this season. Now finally with his chance to start, the coordinator thinks he is ready.

“I think that was tough for him, but he and I spoke at great length, in great detail on numerous occasions on how to handle it and he’s been nothing but a great example of how to handle that,” Herman said. “He’s stayed engaged in every game plan. He’s taken that role very seriously and I’m proud of him for it.

“Had he gone in the tank and been reclusive and unresponsive I would have been pretty nervous about this week. We’ve got to get him ready, we’ve got accelerate the learning curve a little bit.”

Because Jones did take starters reps for spring ball and a period of fall camp, the rest of the starters are more comfortable with the sophomore than most teams would be with a third string quarterback.

Senior captain Jeff Heuerman said he is at ease with Jones taking the snaps in the Buckeyes biggest game of the year.

“He was the starting quarterback all of spring and then he was the starter going into camp for the most part with Braxton out taking limited reps until J.T. came in,” the tight end said. “So he’s taken a lot of first-team reps, and it’s not like these guys have never caught balls from him. They’ve caught balls from him all spring long and even into camp and in the offseason. He was kind of the starter even throwing in the summer and throwing out there in our off days and stuff. He was the starting quarterback throwing. We’ve caught balls from him, and we feel really confident with him back there.”

Weapons Abound For Jones

Barrett, like Jones, had never started a game entering the season. He looked overwhelmed early, especially in the Buckeyes Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, but grew into a Heisman candidate, breaking program and conference records along the way.

It seems unlikely that Jones could go from unproven to national name in the same manner that Barrett did, but the Ohio State offense is in much better shape entering the Big Ten championship game than it was Week 1 against Navy.

“It’s a product of those around him a lot of times,” Meyer said. “A good quarterback has a common denominator, it’s good players around him. We have a veteran offensive line and some good players around him.”

Barrett’s first snap of the season came with four new starters along the offensive line and a starting tailback with 30 career carries to his name.

The Buckeyes have played 12 games since then and things have changed. Running back Ezekiel Elliott became the second running back ever to rush for 1,000 yards under Meyer and boasts 1,182 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground entering the title bout with Wisconsin. The same five offensive linemen have started each game this season, allowing just 15 sacks over the last 10 games.

“Is Cardale going to come in and account for seven touchdowns in this game? Probably not,” Herman said. “And he doesn’t need to and shouldn’t have that weight put on him. So to expect that as a teammate would be a little bit false. We have to coach our guys that, ‘Hey, JT’s not here. J.T.’s numeric production will be missed, but we’ll be able to make it up in X, Y and Z fashion and everything is going to be OK.’”

To be sure, Barrett and his 3,772 yards of total offense and Big Ten record 45 touchdowns accounted for will be missed, but the Buckeyes didn’t put together the fifth-best scoring offense in the country with just one player.

“When you go to a place like Ohio State, you’re going to have good players all over the place,” Elliott said. “Every player is ready to step up. It’s a next-man-up mentality. I don’t think there will be any drop off for Cardale.”

Tall Task For D

Regardless of who is taking snaps for the Buckeyes, Ohio State has a tough job ahead with the Wisconsin offense.

The Badgers enter the championship game with the third best rushing offense in the country and the top-ranked running back in Melvin Gordon. The junior has rushed for 2,260 yards and has found the end zone 26 times. Both those marks are tops in the country.

“Just how explosive he is and the fact that he’ll take any seam and be able to get a decent run out of it, at least a decent run out of it,” linebacker Joshua Perry said of Gordon’s strengths. “The fact that he’ll find a hole, he’ll hit it and he’s hard to tackle. He’s very powerful. He looks like an angry runner on film sometimes, so that will be one of those things where you’ve got to guys swarming to the ball. When you hit him, you’ve got to make sure he feels it a little bit.”

The Buckeyes have provided some frustrating results in run defense this season. Ohio State is the 40th ranked run defense entering the conference title game, allowing 145.6 yards rushing per game.

If Gordon gives the Buckeyes issues, he won’t be the first Big Ten back to do so. Indiana’s Tevin Coleman burned Ohio State for 228 yards while Minnesota’s David Cobb amassed 145 rushing yards. The Buckeyes left with wins in both those games against elite running backs, but Gordon is the best of the bunch.

“I think we’re really close on a lot of things,” Perry said. “We just have to shore up those things that we’re not great at. It’s not always the same thing every week. I hope this is the week that everything clicks and we’ll be really solid.”

Notes

  • The team mourned the loss of walk-on Kosta Karageorge this week as the defensive lineman took his own life, according to police reports. The team attended Karageorge’s funeral Wednesday morning.
  • Barrett had surgery to repair his fractured ankle with a plate and two screws on Sunday. The redshirt freshman will be in a cast for six weeks followed by four weeks in a walking boot and “Aggressive rehab from there,” he said.
  • Aside from Barrett and H-back Dontre Wilson, who broke his foot Nov. 8 against Michigan State, the Buckeyes are healthy entering the championship game, Meyer said.


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