When the Buckeyes kick things off against Rutgers Saturday night there will be a new starter under center for Ohio State.
Cardale Jones started each of the Buckeyes’ first seven games of the season, winning each to improve to 10-0 in his career as a starter, but the junior was at times ineffective and the struggles were highlighted by the play of J.T. Barrett in reserve. The sophomore was used in the red zone in the Buckeyes’ game against Maryland and then more extensively last week against Penn State, completing all four of his passes with two scores through the air and rushing 11 times for 102 yards and two touchdowns.
Citing red-zone and third-down efficiency as a primary reason for the change, head coach Urban Meyer named Barrett the starter for the eighth game of the season.
"J.T has earned the right to start Saturday at Rutgers," Meyer said on the Big Ten coaches’ teleconference Tuesday. "Just the sheer production. Cardale is going to play a very active part, too. We're hopeful to keep him very much involved. It was a difficult decision but the red-zone production and third-down production were the two areas that made the difference."
The Buckeyes were 5-for-11 on third downs against Penn State and scored five touchdowns in six trips to the red zone. That success came one week after Barrett scored five touchdowns in five tries in the red zone and Jones added a touchdown of his own on his lone trip inside the 20.
Barrett’s presence gives the Buckeyes the ability to run more zone-read plays, getting more one-on-one matchups for running back Ezekiel Elliott as the defense has to account for Barrett as a running threat. The sophomore quarterback has 164 rushing yards the past two weeks, averaging 7.13 yards per carry.
“Everything is in order when he is in there. Everything runs very smooth,” Elliott said after the win over Penn State. “When J.T. came in there, we knew that the zone reads were going to work really well. His ability to attack them on the ground worked to our advantage.”
Guard Billy Price agreed that things were different with Barrett in the game.
“His poise,” Price said of what he noticed when Barrett entered the game. “That’s a big-time game, big-time energy with the crowd and everything. He came in and took care of the ball, executed well and that’s something that (comes from) J.T.’s leadership abilities.
“Once we got the ball rolling he really got behind us and the energy was there. He was excited and he was confident.”
As Meyer said, Jones will still have a role in the offense. He’s just two weeks removed from throwing for a career-high 291 yards against Maryland with two touchdowns and no interceptions, but Jones struggled against the Penn State pass rush. The Nittany Lions, though, have the best pass rush in the nation with 27 sacks this season, two more than anyone else in the country. It’s likely no team the Buckeyes face the rest of the season will have that ability to get in the backfield, meaning Jones would have more time to use his cannon arm when he comes in games.
For now, though, Barrett will start for the first time since Nov. 29 of last year, a 42-28 win over Michigan in which the quarterback broke his fibula in his right leg.
While Meyer is confident in the change he’s made, he knows it’s a precarious situation.
“If there's a change, it's always delicate,” he said. “That one is probably more because of the obvious. It's not No. 16 and No. 12. Those are people, and those are people we care about deeply.
“We're not ashamed to say that. We're going to do what's right for the team first, but does the individual and all that matter within the confines of this building? More than anybody will ever know. And we're extremely proud of that. Is that always the right thing to do? In my opinion, it is. So that's really the only opinion that counts. And I know our coaches all agree with that, and more importantly, our players agree with that.”
Turning the Corner
In part because of the improved play of the quarterback position, the Buckeyes appear to be turning a corner as they head into the latter half of the season. Thanks to the aforementioned red zone success, the Buckeye offense has been more productive in recent weeks and despite allowing some big plays, the Ohio State defense held Penn State to just 10 points.
“I don’t think we were ever worried,” defensive end Joey Bosa said. “I think we are just focusing on getting better every week. I think we have been doing that and we've played a really good team game. We still have some mistakes we need to fix. But it’s great to be able to show that we are getting better.”
The improved offensive play, which included scoring 38 points against a Nittany Lions team that had been allowing just 14 per contest, has coincided with a three-game stretch where the Buckeyes rushed for just over 256 yards per game.
While the offense appears to have shown improvement in recent weeks, players haven’t been fond of questions about the current state of the offense.
“I don't like that question. I don't like that question at all,” Price said. “We're a work in progress. Every game, you take steps. You continue to take those strides. For myself, I primarily focus on getting better than I was last game. When it comes to the offense, it’s more or less execution. I'm staying neutral to it. We have to execute. Whoever scores, I don't care. I'll meet you in the end zone, we'll celebrate and call it a day. For us, for the guys up front, it's take care of it. For the guys in the backfield, take care of the ball, make the right reads, make our lives easy and then we'll just continue to take strides.”
While Price bristled at the question, the Buckeyes have looked better on offense in recent weeks. Tight ends coach Tim Hinton said it’s as much about finding an identity as it is anything else.
“You can sense now the confidence in who we are, what we are, what people are doing, how we're going to go about it,” he said. “The hard part is we've got to do it again in New Jersey this week and we've got to do it again the next week and the next week and have great consistency about what we're doing, and that's probably, even in games, we have streaks where we're really moving, and we hit those little lows. What we've really got to do with this offense is get it consistent across the board all the time.”
- The Buckeyes will be without defensive tackle Tommy Schutt for the game against Rutgers as the defensive tackle had surgery to repair a broken bone in his wrist. Michael Hill and Joel Hale will fill in for the senior defensive tackle.
- Special teams standout Craig Fada is also out with a head injury. Linebacker Cam Williams is suspended for the first half of the game after a targeting call in the second half against Penn State while starting linebacker Joshua Perry is probable after suffering a sprained ankle against the Nittany Lions. “Anyone who knows Josh knows he’ll probably play,” Meyer said.
- Thanks to injuries and Williams’ suspension, walk-on Joe Burger found himself the second-team middle linebacker on Ohio State’s most recently released depth chart. Walk-on Jarrod Barnes was the second-team safety for the second week in a row following injuries to Cam Burrows and Erick Smith.
- A win over Rutgers would give Meyer his 150th career victory as a head coach. He enters the contest 149-26 in his career.
- The game marks Ohio State’s first career game at Rutgers. In their only previous meeting with the Scarlet Knights, the Buckeyes won 56-17 in Ohio Stadium last season.