Everything was going just fine in Buckeye Nation; the No. 2 Ohio State football team was shattering expectations, fans’ confidence in the inexperienced team was growing exponentially, all was right with Columbus’ college football world, and then Indiana showed up at the Horseshoe last Saturday. Even though we tried to warn everyone that the game might be closer than they expected, the better-than-you-realized Hoosiers caused quite a bit of consternation amongst Buckeye fans, especially when it came to the passing game.
Quarterback J.T. Barrett was 9-for-21, accounting for only 93 yards through the air. He threw both a touchdown and an interception, giving him a 40.5 QBR for the game; the fifth lowest of his career when attempting more than three passes. At one point, the Buckeyes went more than two quarters without recording a single passing yard.
Instead of distributing the ball to 12 different receivers, as they had the week before against Rutgers, the offense primarily stuck to the ground, with Barrett getting 26 of the team’s 50 carries, and 137 of its 290 rushing yards.
In his Monday press conference, head coach Urban Meyer acknowledged that the passing game wasn’t clicking quite like it should have been against Indiana.
“There was a couple mis-hits that usually hit,” he said. “We're kind of a shot team. When we hit shots, it's really good. If it's not, we have to find out why and get it fixed.” Meyer assured the media, and by transference, the fans, that the coaching staff knew what the issue was and is addressing it.
Since most shots were missed last Saturday, Offensive Coordinators Ed Warinner and Tim Beck stuck to the ground, primarily via the zone read, and while that was effective for the Buckeyes, it left Barrett vulnerable to more contact than the coaching staff would like. However, Meyer said that as a leader Barrett had to do what was necessary to win the game.
“You're one of the best players in the country, we're going to play you and use you and do what you do well,” he said of his quarterback. “We're aware of it and have to be somewhat intelligent about how we do it, but go win the game.”
This week, Ohio State travels to Madison, WI for its second top-10 matchup of the year, when they take on the eighth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers. Boasting the nation’s seventh-ranked rushing defense, Meyer’s “shot” offense will likely have to hit more often for his team to remain undefeated. So, for that reason, quarterback J.T. Barrett is this week’s offensive player to watch.
Name: J.T. Barrett
Year: RS Junior
Weight: 222 lbs.
Against Indiana, Barrett completed only one pass of more than 10 yards, the fourth quarter touchdown to Dontre Wilson. Though it officially went in the book as a 37-yard completion, the pass itself was a 15-yard crossing route, with Wilson breaking an initial tackle and out-running the secondary to the endzone.
On Saturday, Barrett attempted five passes of more than 20 yards, and failed to complete a single one; often over or under-throwing wide-open receivers.
While some pointed out that there was wind swirling around the ‘Shoe on Saturday, players and coaches said that wasn’t a factor, but it did call to mind Barrett’s most notable bad weather game; the 17-14 loss to Michigan State last year.
In the season’s only defeat, Barrett was 9 for 16 for only 46 yards and a touchdown. While the game against Michigan the following week had a much better outcome for the Buckeyes, Barrett only fared moderately better, going 9-15 for 113 yards and one TD.
If Ohio State is going to continue it’s quest for a second national title in three years, the Heisman Trophy candidate is going to have to have a better bounce-back this time around.
In fairness to Barrett, he had a sensational first four games to the season, completing 69% of his passes and averaging a respectable 222 yards in the air, while also contributing significantly to the ground game as well, but as the competition improves, Barrett will need to be more well-rounded than he was last week.
There’s not a football fan in America that doesn’t know what a dominant defensive force Watt is, what they might not realize is that I’m referring to T.J. Watt, the brother of Houston Texan J.J.
The younger Watt is Wisconsin’s junior OLB, who has led a stout Badger defense this year. His 5.5 sacks puts him in the top-15 in the country, a big part of why the team’s linebackers are one of the best units at causing havoc for the opposing offense. The seventh-rated rushing defense allows only 90.4 yards on the ground per game, and has given up only two rushing touchdowns this season.
So while Meyer and company aren’t going to stop running the ball any time soon, they might have to rely on Barrett to orchestrate an efficient and productive passing game more than they have in the past.
On Monday, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst equated Barrett’s mastery of the Ohio State offense to that of a point guard distributing the ball with poise.
Standing in the way of Barrett playing at his Aaron Craft-best will be the Badgers’ 35th ranked passing defense, led by CB Derrick Tindal. The squad is allowing just 201 passing yards per game, and with three, Tindal is one interception behind Malik Hooker for the most in college football.
According to Football Study Hall, Wisconsin ranks 12th national in PD-to-INC, a defensive personality stat that looks at the percentage of an opponent's incomplete passes that a defense either intercepted or broke up. Meaning that Barrett will need to be on his efficient and accurate best to beat the Badgers.
The Buckeyes will also need to try to work ahead of the chains as the Badgers have the second best third-down S&P+ in the country, and are coming off of a bye.
What to watch for
While Barrett admits that his play against Indiana was subpar, he recognizes that it is an opportunity to improve heading into an important primetime game.
“We did have our struggles,” he said at Monday’s media availability. “We have to give credit where it’s due and Indiana is a good football team. They exposed some things for us. It definitely lets us reflect and gives us a chance to try and fix those mistakes that we had.”
In the first half against the Hoosiers, Barrett did not attempt a single pass behind the line of scrimmage, something that will likely be different against Wisconsin. Given the Badgers’ talented secondary, it would behoove the Buckeyes to get the ball in the hands of their playmakers quickly and allow them to make the most of the open field.
This should also allow the usually calm and collected Barrett to get a bit of confidence off of the rocky game against IU. So, watch for a handful of screens and swing passes early on Saturday to establish the passing game and open up lanes to run.
While I hesitate to even mention this next option, since it has been a bugaboo for Buckeye fans for decades, this week would also be a good time to get the tightend involved. Marcus Baugh has not been the most sure-handed receiver on the team, but at 6’5” with good speed, he could provide a matchup issue for Wisconsin’s defense, while also having the ability to turn dump-offs into substantial gains.
While there is no doubt that Ohio State will always maintain a focus on the ground game under Urban Meyer, to achieve the goals that this team has set for itself, it will need to be as balanced as it was in the season’s first four games.