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Ohio State might need Cardale Jones sooner than you think

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J.T. Barrett will be Ohio State's starting QB Saturday night against Rutgers, but fans are wrong to place all of Ohio State's offensive woes on Cardale Jones's shoulders.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The fervor amongst fans regarding who should be Ohio State's starting quarterback has been present since Cardale Jones announced he was returning to Ohio State last spring. The hemming and hawing about the Buckeyes' signal caller reached a fever pitch right before the season opener, died down when Cardale Jones performed well, but has been spiking during the first two quarters of just about every Ohio State game ever since. Ohio State's offense has unquestionably sputtered early in every game this year. #TeamJT fans blame these woes on Cardale Jones, and they're no doubt overjoyed now that Urban Meyer has finally heard their pleas and installed Barrett as the starter against Rutgers.

Though all Buckeyes should get behind J.T. given what's at stake moving forward, that doesn't mean any of the petty, quick triggered criticism of Jones was fair. And particularly since OSU is a tackle away from needing him again, you should probably bite your tongue before unfairly painting him as the latter-day Joe Bauserman.

1. Apples and oranges: there's no comparing the offensive play-calling when Barrett is on the field.

One point that more casual fans miss: the Buckeyes play a very different offensive style depending on which QB is on the field. What Ohio State's brought to the table is not a plug-and-play system. Jones plays a much more pro-style offense, with fewer designed QB-runs, more power-run plays and an overall pass-based offense. Barrett's offense relies onzone-read and spread concepts, with Barrett either handing the ball off to Ezekiel Elliott or keeping it himself, depending on his read of the crashing defender.

I'm not alone here; smart football types agree:

The fact that the pro-style hasn't been working isn't entirely the fault of the QB. These offensive style differences exist because of the skill differences between Barrett and Jones. Jones is not a fast runner. He's a tough runner, he's a big runner, and he has proven at times he can run; but he is just not the shifty, near-instant-acceleration runner that Barrett is. More spread out plays with Jones at the helm were painful to watch because he can't get moving fast enough to stretch the field out.

Cardale Jones's offense requires excellent power-run blocking and receivers that can get open and make catches. Unfortunately, those are two areas where Ohio State has struggled this year. Ohio State's receiving corps right now consist of Mike Thomas and Jalin Marshall. Everyone else is either an underclassmen (Johnnie Dixon, Paris Campbell, K.J. Hill) or playing a new position for the first time (Braxton, the apparently temporarily exiled Torrance Gibson). Corey Smith is hurt. Parris Campbell is also hurt. Dontre Wilson has just 7 receptions on the season. Ohio State is lacking receiver depth and is sorely missing deep threats from Smith and the departed Evan Spencer and Devin Smith. All this adds up to a passing game that just doesn't function consistently.

What's more, there's been virtually no scheming to take advantage of Cardale's size as a runner. Opportunities for QB draws have been passed by. Ezekiel Elliott has been stellar in short yardage situations, but when the field is spread on obvious passing downs, there's been plenty of room for Cardale to run, but it looks like he's been chained to the pocket.

So where does that leave us? Opponents know that Jones doesn't have the playmakers to catch deeper passes or the speed to run to the edge, so they can load up the box, sell out on Ezekiel Elliott running, and stall out the Ohio State offense. Ohio State's offensive line, good as they may be, is facing stacked boxes with little chance of prolonged success. At any rate, it's not entirely Cardale Jones's fault that Ohio State just doesn't have the right pieces outside of the QB to run a pro-style offense.

2. The passing stats between last year and this year look pretty similar.

A common theme this year has been that Jones is a more inaccurate passer that Barrett. That's simply not true.

Last year, through seven games, Barrett (and Jones, but mostly Barrett), threw 188 times for 122 completions (64.8%), averaging 245 yards per game. This year, Jones (and Barrett, but mostly Jones) have thrown 193 times for 120 completions (62.1%), averaging 213 yards per game. So while you may remember Barrett as a distributing machine, regularly hitting receivers in stride for touchdowns, the numbers show that no matter who's taking the majority of snaps, the number of passes, the number of completions, and the passing yards per game are similar enough, year of year.

The point? Cardale Jones isn't as bad as you think of a passer. When he's leading the Ohio State offense it's nearly as effective as it was last year for Barrett through 7 games. Jones's effectiveness as a passer is actually somewhat surprising considering the receiving dynamics he's been dealing with. Barrett had vastly superior receiving experience last year, yet only mustered a few extra percentage points in completions and 30 extra yards per game. If not for some of the bad decision making (zoning in on receivers at times, or trying to force the issue in ill advised situations), you could make an argument that Jones was doing admirably, or at least no worse overall when you factor in some of Barrett's low-lights (e.g. the 2014 Virginia Tech game).

One of the biggest differences between this year and last year is that 2014 brought way more receiving touchdowns. Cardale is completing a comparable number of passes, so the lack of receiving touchdowns this year seems at least somewhat attributable to receiver inefficiency in the red zone and a decrease in yards after the catch. There were easy passes that Cardale missed this year, but Barrett has just as much propensity to make mistakes throwing the ball.

Receiving stats over the next few games (assuming Barrett is the guy indefinitely) might will bear out whether Barrett is a definitively superior passer, but the numbers so far don't entirely tell that story.

3. The Buckeyes operate at a comparable pace, no matter who's under center.

"But J.T. lets us run a more uptempo offense!". It certainly feels that way, and maybe even looks as much to the naked eye, but the numbers don't really reflect that.

Per TeamRankings, Ohio State is currently averaging 70 plays per game. Last year they averaged 74 plays per game, and 67 during the last 3 games (when Cardale took over). So, relax with the tempo argument, because not only is Ohio State running at nearly the same speed as last year, Cardale's running it faster this year than he did last year. Does it feel like the offense stagnates and waits around with Jones under center? Yes. Does it feel like J.T. can press the gas pedal more? Yes. Is he? Not necessarily.

So, what does it all mean?

Barrett's success, relative to Jones, means that this Ohio State team, with this offensive line and this receiving corps, needs a fast running QB, at least for now. Barrett has shown that his ability to bring defenders into one-on-one situations fits best with the rest of the talent on this team.

But that doesn't mean that Cardale Jones sucks or merits your rooting against him. It means that the blend of talent (and lack of experience/fit, as the case may be) on this Ohio State team requires a QB that can run. This is not a question of competence, it's a question of attributes. Barrett can run the zone-read and make the passes necessary to keep the run defense honest. If Cardale had one more fully developed receiver that could take pressure off the run game, this could be a fully functioning offense, and Jones would look like the same guy we saw against two of the best defenses Ohio State faced all season last year. Jones has shown he can operate at a high level.

You can absolutely prefer J.T. Barrett with this Ohio State team, and it's the score at the end of the day that truly matters, but the Buckeyes might just need Cardale Jones sooner than you think.