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The J.T. Barrett Bubble: Ohio State’s Freshman Quarterback Breaks Out As the Buckeyes Try to Break Back In

Ohio State was supposed to flop without Braxton Miller. Suddenly, however, the Buckeyes are back on the brink. Freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett is breaking out; can Urban Meyer’s squad break back into the playoff mix?

How soon is too soon to anoint a young quarterback the face of a program? How fast is too fast? I’m asking on behalf of Ohio State fans. Does national hype after just six games seem like a rush to judgment? Is that a case of “irrational exuberance,” as they say? Because a half-dozen games into his career as the Buckeyes’ quarterback, J.T. Barrett is generating a level of enthusiasm that’s threatening to outrun common sense.

Admittedly, this is a good problem to have, especially given the alternative. When Barrett was promoted to the starting lineup in August in place of injured senior Braxton Miller, the reaction fell somewhere between panic and grief. Miller was 22-2 as a starter and had been named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in 2012 and ’13; Barrett was a redshirt freshman who, due to suffering a major knee injury as a high school senior, hadn’t taken a snap in a real game since October 2012. Expectations were adjusted accordingly. Enthusiasm over Barrett’s potential was deliberately curbed. The same day Barrett was named the starting quarterback, Vegas oddsmakers cut Ohio State’s chances of winning the national championship nearly in half, from 10/1 to 18/1. Miller took a medical redshirt, leaving open the option of a return in 2015; in the meantime, the word for Ohio State in 2014 has been patience.

Rather, patience was the word. That was true in August and through most of September due to an early setback against Virginia Tech (more on that below). However, as we approach the final weekend of October, the optimism in Columbus has shifted back to its standard setting: full throttle. As of this week, Barrett is a Braxton Miller clone. Unless, of course, you’re one of the people who think he’s actually a superior version. Barrett skipped the darkhorse phase of the Heisman chatter and ascended directly into the thick of the race in a year when no other underclassman is even on the board. The same site that downgraded the Buckeyes’ chances of winning the national championship two months ago now lists their odds at 10/1, exactly where they were prior to Miller’s injury. Barrett’s Heisman odds recently leapt from 50/1 to 20/1 in a matter of days. At 5-1 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten, no. 13 Ohio State’s fate in the B1G conference standings and the playoff pecking order rests in the palm of his hand.

As far as I can tell, the only person who’s had anything remotely negative to say about Barrett this week was his head coach, Urban Meyer, whose attempts to throw cold water on some of the overheated rhetoric were not entirely convincing on the heels of last weekend’s 56-17 romp over Rutgers:

“[Barrett] was the offensive player of the week (in the conference), and he could have played a lot better,” Meyer said during his weekly news conference. “There’s nothing quite like a guy who thinks he played great and then the position coach (offensive coordinator Tom Herman) jumps right in there, ‘This is what you can do better.’” …

“Offensively we can play a lot better … that was not one of our great days,” he said. “We expect more.”

In the game in question, the Buckeyes scored touchdowns on only seven of their first eight offensive possessions before easing off the gas in the fourth quarter, so I guess technically they could have done more by scoring touchdowns on all eight. For his part, Barrett completed his first nine passes of the day, didn’t commit a turnover, and accounted for five of those touchdowns (three passing, two rushing) while racking up 368 yards of total offense. He did eventually throw a few incompletions, though … so sure, he could have been better.

Meanwhile, those of us not invested in keeping his ego in check can count on one hand the number of quarterbacks who have been better than Barrett on paper this season. Against FBS defenses, Barrett ranks second nationally in pass efficiency and eighth in ESPN’s catch-all metric for quarterbacks, Total QBR; add in rushing yards and he comes in 12th nationally in total offense. As a team, Ohio State is eighth in total offense, seventh in yards per play, and third in scoring, having cracked the 50-point barrier in four consecutive games. In that context, the forced skepticism coming from the head coach sounds more irrational right now than the exuberance coming from other corners.

Still, the caveats ring loud and clear. On paper. In context. Given the alternative. This weekend, the context will change considerably when the Buckeyes visit Penn State, owner of the no. 1 defense in the Big Ten in both yards and points allowed. So far, Barrett’s ascent has been relatively quiet, coming at the expense of mediocre opponents in games that didn’t command much national attention aside from the gaudy box scores. Aside from a neutral-site win against Navy and a blowout win at Maryland on October 4, it has also come entirely within the confines of Ohio Stadium. On the road, under the microscope, in a marquee time slot … Saturday night in Happy Valley will be a different order of magnitude than any environment Barrett has faced to date, even against a greatly diminished edition of Penn State.

If nothing else, the first half of the season has given the Buckeyes an enticing glimpse into the future. With a season-defining trip to Michigan State looming large in two weeks, this Saturday will be their best opportunity yet to gauge exactly what they have in the present.

jt-barrett-ohio-state-maryland-triJonathan Ernst/Getty Images

Of course, while the context has changed dramatically over the past six weeks, this weekend won’t be Barrett’s first foray onto the national stage. In his second start — his first against a Power 5 opponent — the freshman looked to be several fathoms over his head against Virginia Tech, serving up three interceptions to go with seven sacks in a 35-21 defeat.1 Barrett’s full stat line (9-of-29 passing, 2-of-10 on third down, 85.2 efficiency rating) was a debacle, but the picks in particular were groaners of a distinctly freshman vintage: The first two fluttered invitingly into the arms of Hokies safety Kyshoen Jarrett like a pair of short, lazy punts, and the third found cornerback Donovan Riley waiting all alone, with no Ohio State receiver in sight to even lay a hand on him as he housed it for the game-clinching touchdown.


1.

The loss was Ohio State’s first in Columbus in almost three calendar years, dating back to November 2011.

Virginia Tech didn’t really release the hounds until the fourth quarter, when Barrett’s inability to identify and adjust to pressure sealed his fate: The second and third interceptions came on third-and-18 and third-and-16, respectively, following big losses on sacks. (Barrett’s first interception was a third-and-21 heave into double coverage in the third quarter.) It was a full-blown meltdown, the manifestation of all of OSU’s post-Miller dread in front of a national audience in prime time. The Buckeyes plummeted from no. 8 in the AP poll to no. 22, and the season ahead began to look as long as the doomsayers had feared.

From there, though, the light seemed to come on right away. The following week, Barrett rebounded by dropping six touchdown passes on an outmanned MAC patsy, Kent State, tying the school record in a 66-0 rout. After a bye week, he opened a few more eyes by racking up 409 yards of total offense and four touchdowns (all passing) in a wild, 50-28 win over a slightly less flammable underdog, Cincinnati. In the Big Ten opener, he accounted for 338 yards and five scores (four passing, one rushing) in a 52-24 decision over Maryland. Last week’s evisceration of Rutgers was merely the cherry on top of a solid month of progress: Adjusting for the competition, Barrett has taken a small step forward in each successive game, and the team’s prospects have improved in tandem.

Does a single extravagant month against middling-to-bad competition place Barrett in a category with the most recent Heisman winners, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston, both of whom barnstormed into the pantheon as redshirt freshmen? Or with, say, Alex Smith and Tim Tebow, who carried Meyer’s offense to even giddier heights during his stints at Utah and Florida, respectively? Obviously not — at least, not yet. It doesn’t even place Barrett in the same category as Miller, one of only a handful of players ever to finish in the top 10 in Heisman voting two years in a row. For all we know, the next month could just as likely see Barrett’s season trajectory go the way of Kenny Hill’s at Texas A&M.

14.10.23-Ohio State QB ChartBut as far as Ohio State’s outlook is concerned, the veil has plainly lifted as the understudy has grown into an increasingly indistinguishable approximation of the star. In some respects, in fact, Barrett may represent an upgrade: Relative to Miller’s production in 2013, Barrett is attempting more passes per game this season and enjoying better results in every relevant category, most notably in yards per attempt (9.8 for Barrett compared to 8.2 for Miller), touchdown percentage (12.2 to 9.4), and overall efficiency (182.1 to 158.1). Those numbers include Barrett’s flop against Virginia Tech.

As a runner, Barrett isn’t quite the de facto tailback Miller was, failing to approach Miller’s output in terms of rushing yards per game or per carry; Meyer has called Barrett his “move-the-chains quarterback,” implying that he lacks the “wow factor” — again, Meyer’s words — that his predecessor possessed in the open field. But Barrett is hardly a stiff: At 63.8 yards per game (including sacks), he still ranks among the top dozen rushing quarterbacks in the nation, thanks in part to 20 different runs that have covered at least 10 yards apiece. Five of those runs came last week in the win over Rutgers, including his longest, most impressive gain of the season, an ad-libbed scramble after the designed screen pass began to disintegrate:

Busted screen passes are supposed to wind up as incompletions, at best; exceedingly few wind up in the end zone. Even Meyer, self-assigned speed bump to the Barrett bandwagon, had to tip his cap on that one: “When a screen is not there, that’s when you see guys twitch, panic,” he said in the same press conference in which he’d attempted to tap the brakes on his quarterback’s hype a few moments before. “That was an impressive play. They dropped eight guys into coverage right to the screen. He put his foot in the ground and went north/south. That’s good stuff.”

Yeah, that is good stuff. Pretty much everything Barrett has done since getting picked off by Riley on September 6 has been good. And not just for-a-freshman good, either. Kid is good, period. At this point, all the partisans need to see is the scalp of a real defense — one that looks more like Virginia Tech’s than Cincinnati’s — to permit Barrett the leap from good to great.

urban-meyer-jt-barrett-triJonathan Ernst/Getty Images

Penn State is certainly not a great overall opponent right now, as evidenced by the 14-point spread in the Buckeyes’ favor for Saturday night’s game. With Miller at the wheel last year, Ohio State gained 686 yards of total offense against the Nittany Lions in Columbus, resulting in a 63-14 massacre that marked Penn State’s most lopsided defeat since 1899. This year, the Lions are coming off a miserable, 18-13 loss at Michigan — another ostensible Big Ten power in dire straits — that left them demoralized and searching for answers heading into a bye week. Offensively, Penn State can’t block its way out of a wet paper bag.

On the other side of the ball, however, the defense is most definitely for real. The Nittany Lions lead the nation in rushing yards allowed per game and per carry. Only one of their first six opponents (Northwestern) has exceeded 300 yards of total offense. In many respects, Saturday night is being regarded as a kind of warm-up for Ohio State ahead of the all-important showdown in East Lansing on November 8, which will likely determine the winner of the Big Ten’s East Division, the eventual Big Ten champion, and whether the playoff committee will be considering the Spartans or the Buckeyes for one of the four playoff slots. It was Michigan State that brought Ohio State’s 24-game winning streak to an abrupt end last year, costing the Buckeyes a shot at the BCS title in the process, and it’s Michigan State that will stand in the way of another shot this year. Make no mistake, though: Penn State will be a very relevant gauge of exactly where OSU and its young quarterback stand against the kind of first-rate defense they’ll have to overcome against the Spartans.

Barrett has been so good over the past few weeks that some fans have already given in to the temptation of looking ahead to next year, when Miller and Barrett could conceivably find themselves locked in the most star-studded quarterback competition on record. (Meyer assured reporters last month that Miller will be his starting quarterback in 2015; we’ll see where that promise stands in a couple of months.) But all of Ohio State’s goals are within reach right now: Despite rumors of the conference’s demise earlier in the season, a one-loss Big Ten champion will stand a very good chance of making the cut for the final four. Barrett is the Buckeyes’ ticket. If he’s come as far, as fast as the numbers and subsequent headlines suggest, there’s no reason those goals should have to wait until next year.