The monkey is officially off their backs. The Ohio State Buckeyes took care of business on Monday night in front of a capacity crowd, finishing off last year's would-be spoilers, the Virginia Tech Hokies. All of the offseason drama reached its fever pitch as Cardale Jones took the field as Ohio State's starting quarterback, putting the speculation to bed, though certainly not for good.
It was, as so often happens, a game of ebb and flow. The Buckeyes were stellar in the first quarter, jumping out to a 14-point lead on the backs of a Jones-Curtis Samuel combo breaker and a vintage 80-yard Ezekiel Elliott run. Things quickly turned in the second, however, and after some uninspired play from Ohio State on both sides of the ball, the Hokies went into halftime with a 17-14 lead.
Unfortunately for Virginia Tech, the Buckeyes took control of the ball in the second half and never looked back. Everyone from Cardale Jones to Braxton Miller to J.T. Barrett got in on the action, giving a glimpse at what a more egalitarian QB future might look like on the way to a 42-24 win. Let's take a look at who was responsible for that result:
Blue Chip Stocks:
Braxton Miller, H-Back: Holy smokes. Lost in all of the craziness of last season was the fact that Braxton Miller is pretty damn good at this whole football thing. The two-time Big Ten Player of the Year (making him the Jerry Kill of QBs) is as electric an H-Back as he was a quarterback, and on Monday night he was far and away the best Buckeye on either side of the ball. He began his non-signal-calling career with an insanely athletic grab, but he didn't stop there. He took a Cardale Jones pass 54 yards to the house before conducting his magnum opus: a 53-yard scamper from under center that saw Miller earn his XBRAX360 nickname on multiple levels. It's beyond words. You have to see it, and see it again, to believe it.
Miller finished the day with 140 all-purpose yards and the aforementioned 2 TDs. One area in which he was conspicuously absent was the return game, where he had been listed as a starter on the two-deep. Should Urban Meyer slot Miller in back there, we can certainly expect to see more of the same craziness.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB: Zeke didn't need a ton of touches to show that he's more than ready to take up the title of college football's best running back. After two solid catches in the flat, Elliott took his third touch 80 yards to the endzone. He broke an ankle tackle at the line before heading off to the races, showing early on the kind of flair that allowed him to carry the weight for the Buckeyes again and again down the stretch last season.
He ended the game with just 11 rushing attempts, but still put 122 yards and a score on the board. He added 16 receiving yards to his total, and his two grabs made it pretty clear (if it wasn't already) that he has a fantastic set of hands and great body control with the ball in the air. He made his presence felt in other ways, too, picking up block after block to buy Cardale Jones time in the pocket when his number wasn't called.
Darron Lee, LB: For Lee and the Buckeye defense, Monday night felt like an addition-by-subtraction situation. The baddest man in New Albany history didn't stuff the stat sheet, but his presence was enough to force the Hokies to try to run and throw away from his side of the field. They did a pretty good job of it, too, but one way or another, everyone has to pay the piper:
Cardale Jones, QB: The official starter for Ohio State showed us some of his best and his worst on Monday night. He threw for two scores and ran in for another, amassing 285 yards of offense, and reminded everyone just how fearless he is when he has the ball in his hands. What was perhaps his best throw of the night didn't put any points on the board, but it did make it clear that he has progressed as a passer since last season: on the Buckeyes' first possession, he rifled a pass into Mike Thomas' hands, in stride, despite the fact that Thomas was being guarded about as perfectly as possible by Kendall Fuller. It was a ball placed such that only Thomas could have caught it, and it spoke volumes about Cardale's development and what's to come.
Of course, with 12 Gauge comes the other side of things, too. He had his unpolished moments against Virginia Tech, including a tipped interception on a forced throw, making a few decisions that J.T. Barrett almost certainly would not have (see: multiple throws off the back foot, a scramble-throw combo in which the ball changed hands twice and was only released in the midst of what would otherwise have been a sack, et al.). Jones also seemed a little more eager than usual to tuck and run without giving throws time to develop, something he wasn't often guilty of down the stretch last year. Whatever happens, watching him play is a thrill ride, start to finish.
Defending that one kind of play. You probably know the one. The wheel route, bane of Ohio State's existence on several big occasions, came back to bite them once more against Virginia Tech. Though it's too niche to be something to worry about on a large scale, there are moments -- this game being one of them -- where the momentum can swing entirely off of plays like these. It is nice to picture some frazzled offensive coordinator throwing up his hands and deciding to try an "All Wheel Route" offensive scheme against the Buckeyes, which is about the only positive here.
Oh, and drag-throwbacks to the tight end can also take a hike.
BUY: Sam Hubbard's future. Joey Bosa's shoes are pretty much impossible to fill, particularly if you're a true freshman making your first career start. That didn't stop Hubbard from trying. Though he looked raw at times, there's good reason to be excited about what the former Notre Dame lacrosse commit will bring to the OSU defense. Hubbard got into the backfield for an early sack, and looked pretty good a few times dropping back to cover guys leaking out. He also drilled Michael Brewer on a throw that Tyvis Powell pretty easily intercepted. He'll take a backseat to Bosa next week, but he's likely earned himself some rotation time moving forward.
SELL: Abandoning Ezekiel Elliott. After Elliott's 80-yard TD scamper in the first quarter, it was as though he did something to offend the coaching staff, as they seemed determined not to feed the hungriest man on the team. Look, it's true that the Cover-0 Bear front is designed in part to stifle the power run game. But doesn't using that as a rationale for ignoring Zeke seem kind of silly, given that his first carry went to the house, almost the full length of the field? As the game wound down, Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit pointed out that Elliott will almost certainly get more touches moving forward, now that all of the Buckeyes' main receiving weapons will be back to take the top off defenses and stretch the field, and here's hoping that's the case. But not going back to the well early and often when you know that Elliott is a constant threat to rip off a big play seems kind of nonsensical.
SELL: Ezekiel Elliott, punt returner. This has nothing to do with his costly fumble and more to do with the fact that he was ever put in a position to make that fumble in the first place. How in the world are you going to take away touches from your star running back -- a Heisman hopeful, the guy who put the team on his back during a championship stretch -- and instead throw him into a role with (even more) massive injury potential? It's a ridiculous misallocation of resources at best, and a blatant disregard for your team's future at worst. Jalin Marshall is back next week, which is probably best for all involved.