When J.T. Barrett returned from suspension following Ohio State’s 28-14 win over Minnesota, there was nothing different about the sophomore quarterback. That’s a good thing.
Head coach Urban Meyer gave Barrett a one-game suspension for his citation for operating a motor vehicle while impaired – and the court system subsequently had its say in the matter by fining Barrett and suspending his license – but now that the quarterback has served that punishment, the coach is ready to reinsert him into the starting lineup.
“J.T. is a unique guy that is an extreme competitor who is a really focused guy,” Meyer said. “It’s not like, ‘Boy, he’s working much harder this week.’ He’s a professional that’s going to work to play quarterback at Ohio State.”
Barrett watched the game against the Gophers from the press box, coming down to the locker room to offer some inspiration at halftime, but was not able to help the Buckeyes on the field. Cardale Jones got the offense off to a slow start in his absence but ultimately accounted for 279 total yards and two touchdowns without an interception while improving to 11-0 as a starter.
Still, Meyer said Nov. 9 that Barrett would be the man to start for Ohio State against Illinois so long as he had a good week in practice – no different from any other week. The last time the sophomore started, he led the Buckeyes to a 49-7 win over Rutgers while throwing for 223 yards and three touchdowns and adding 101 yards and two more scores on the ground.
Despite the fact that the offense has moved better under Barrett’s direction this season, Meyer said that is was not an easy decision to return to the player who finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting last season.
“No, it’s never an easy call because one guy had his 11th win, 250 all-purpose yards,” Meyer said. “He started off slow and inaccurate on a few passes but finished fairly good. He made some good plays for us and is invested in our program. It’s never easy. So I think it’s the right thing at this time.”
While Barrett has by all accounts had a good week in practice, earning back the starting quarterback spot, his week was not all positives. The sophomore appeared in Franklin County Municipal Court on Nov. 10 and pleaded guilty to his OVI charge.
The 20-year-old, who registered a 0.099 blood-alcohol content when he was pulled over by police in the early morning hours of Oct. 31, received a $400 fine, must attend a three-day alcohol intervention class by Feb. 15, 2016, and had his driver’s license suspended for 180 days. Barrett does have driving privileges to get to class and to football practice, and his punishment was consistent with those of first-time offenders.
With the suspension and his day in court behind him, Barrett and the team seem ready to move past the incident.
“It’s never been welcome back,” safety Vonn Bell said. “Everybody makes mistakes. He’s human. He never left. He was in the locker room with us, still going and cheering us on. We know we’ve got him in our hearts. He’s not missed at all because he’s one of these leaders you can’t miss because he speaks with volume as much as his play too, so that speaks with volume to. It’s a big part of him coming back.”
Illini Have Balanced Attack
With the quarterback situation resolved, the team turns its attention to Illinois. The Illini are 5-4 on the season and 2-3 in the Big Ten but broke a three-game losing streak with a 48-14 drubbing of Purdue last weekend.
In that win Illinois amassed 382 rushing yards with 133 from Josh Ferguson. Though he wasn’t the team’s leading rusher in that game – Ke’Shawn Vaughn ran for 180 yards and two scores – it was a strong showing from Ferguson after a three-game hiatus as a result of a shoulder injury.
“He’s a spark to their team, he brings passion, he wants to win and he wants to be that playmaker so they’ll get the ball in his hands a lot, see what he can do out in space and in between the tackles,” Bell said. “That’s their playmaker right now, and they have a couple receivers that can go down and get it too so we’ve got to do our homework and keep on preparing for this.”
As Bell intimated, the Illini are not defined by their rushing attack. In fact, even after the gaudy ground numbers Illinois put up against Purdue, it is still just the 11th-best rushing offense in the Big Ten. Led by quarterback Wes Lunt, the Illini are fifth in the conference in passing offense, three spots ahead of Ohio State.
Defensive tackle Tommy Schutt, an Illinois native, said the defense is balancing its preparation between what the Illini did last weekend and what they have been successful doing all year.
“I would say we are going at it with a balanced look this week,” the senior said. “With that running back, No. 6, Ferguson, he is a special player. He can change the game at any time. Their quarterback is also a good player. He can throw it around. They have a pretty balanced attack. We have to prepare for both the run and the pass.”
On the other side of the ball, the Buckeyes are expecting a big day on the ground. Illinois has been in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten this season at defending the run, but history suggests Ohio State will have a solid day rushing.
Of the six best single-game rushing performances in school history, three have come against the Illini. Eddie George’s record 314 yards rushing came against Illinois in 1995 while Keith Byars put up 274 on the Illini in 1984. More recently, Carlos Hyde tied for the third-best total in school history in Champaign in 2013 with 246 yards.
Ezekiel Elliott’s high on the season came when he rushed for 274 yards against Indiana on Oct. 3, and he took his linemen out for a steak dinner during the off week for their performance in that game. Left guard Billy Price hopes for another trip to Columbus’ celebrated Hyde Park restaurant after Illinois.
“Within our unit, we take a lot of pride in 100 yards rushing (for Elliott) per game,” he said. “That’s something we like to try and get him, because ‘hey, you work hard, we are going to work hard for you’ kind of deal. As far as a big game, we have a little thing within the unit. Put him over 200 yards and we got another Hyde Park deal coming. He took us, it was great, best time ever. Big, nice steaks. It was a great time.”
• Following another missed field goal against Minnesota, kicker Jack Willoughby has ceded field-goal kicking duties to last year’s starter Sean Nuernberger. The sophomore kicker beat out Willoughby in competitions throughout the week, Meyer said. Willoughby will still handle kickoff duties.
• Leading up to the game against Minnesota, Braxton Miller was named the backup quarterback with Barrett suspended, and plenty of speculation about using the senior in the passing game followed. That didn’t come to fruition against the Gophers, but Meyer confirmed that Miller is able to throw the ball even if it’s not an emphasis in practice.
“I think what happened to him a year ago is still fresh in his mind,” Meyer said of Miller’s second shoulder injury. “He’s not out there throwing seven on seven, spinning all over the field, but he certainly can throw it.”
• The Buckeyes’ receiver room remains the domain of the walking wounded this week. Johnnie Dixon is out with a fracture in his kneecap while Dontre Wilson is questionable as his foot continues to heal. Parris Campbell, however, is probable after dealing with knee issues.