Sometimes, when you win a national championship, little things simply have to go your way. In that glorious 2014-15 football season, luck was with the Buckeyes. But it sure didn’t appear that way as the season began.
Ohio State was ranked No. 5 in the AP preseason poll and widely expected to compete for the national championship in the first four-team playoff that was set to conclude the season. Sure, the Buckeyes lost some key players from the 12-2, 2013 team, most notably star running back Carlos Hyde. But the main offensive weapon was back: two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year Braxton Miller.
Miller had injured his right shoulder in the Orange Bowl in January and had been held out of spring practices. But he was reportedly good to go, and the 2014 season was looking pretty rosy to Buckeye fans. Then came Monday, August 18. Miller re-injured the shoulder, and it was announced the following day that he would miss the entire season.
Coach Urban Meyer announced that redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett would be the starter; Cardale Jones would be the backup quarterback. Jones had thrown two passes in his Buckeye career; Barrett hadn’t played a game. Oh, well.
The Bucks struggled to beat Navy in the season opener, 34-17. Barrett’s stats were pretty good (12/15 for 226 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception), but the running game was stymied by Navy, and OSU never really clicked. They led by only six going into the fourth quarter, and I remember feeling lucky to get the win when it was all over.
In the second game, Barrett’s inexperience caught up with him against a good defense, and he completed only nine of his 29 pass attempts and threw three interceptions. The Buckeyes lost at home to the Virginia Tech Hokies, 35-21. And it was starting to look like a .500 season.
The win streak
Then, the Buckeyes started winning . . . and kept winning. Often winning big. When the streak hit nine, the Bucks were 10-1 and had already clinched a spot in the Big Ten championship game. Barrett had emerged as a phenomenal passer and runner, a legitimate dual-threat. And the other guy in the backfield with him – Ezekiel Elliott—was making us forget all about Carlos Hyde.
As always, the regular-season finale would be played against Michigan, this year in Columbus. Brady Hoke’s Wolverines weren’t doing well at all. They had gotten mauled by Notre Dame early in the season and were entering the “Shoe” having just lost to Maryland, 23-16, and sitting at 5-6 for the year. Buckeye hopes were again high, and the team had climbed the rankings to sit at No. 7. Playoffs? Maybe not out of reach after all.
There’s an old cliché that says when fierce rivals play each other, you “can throw away the record books.” It pertains to the 2014 Michigan game. On paper, the Buckeyes looked like an easy (and sure) winner. The game was nip and tuck, however, and there was plenty of drama as late as the fourth quarter.
The Buckeyes scored first, as Barrett threw a short pass in the end zone to tight end Nick Vannett. But that 7-0 lead didn’t hold up for very long; Michigan tied the game at the end of the first quarter. The Wolverine running game was clicking (as it often seems to), and TTUN took the lead on a two-yard run. Barrett tied it again with a 25-yard scamper of his own. The extra point made it 14-14 as the half expired. A tight one.
Barrett scored again on the first Buckeye possession of the second half, but another short running play for Michigan knotted the score again about halfway through the third quarter. With only a minute left in the period, Elliott took it in from the two, and the Buckeyes lead again, 28-21.
Very early in the fourth quarter, Barrett kept the ball on a second and one play. He didn’t get up. Players from both teams gathered around the fallen star. Team doctors called for the cart, and J.T. Barrett was carted off the field at Ohio Stadium. Earlier in the contest, Barrett had beaten Drew Brees’ Big Ten, single-season mark for touchdowns accounted for (passing, rushing, returns). And now he was hurt bad.
The Bucks led by only seven, and the inexperienced Cardale Jones was taking the helm. It looked like déjà vu all over again. How deep can the Buckeyes be at quarterback? In came the 6-5, 250 lb. backup. And while we’d very much like to remember Jones coming in and winning the game – the way that Dwayne Haskins did three years later when Barrett hurt his knee – that’s not what happened in 2014.
Jones threw only three passes, completing two of them for seven yards. He ran for 18 more on a couple of carries. Not stellar stats for a quarter, but he’s a hero nonetheless. He held the team together when things looked bleak. He didn’t make mistakes. He looked pretty cool, in fact, handing the ball to Zeke who took it 44 yards for a touchdown and a 14-point lead. Linebacker Darron Lee sealed the deal for the Buckeyes on the next UM possession, scooping a fumble and running 33 yards for a score. With about four minutes left, the Bucks led 42-21. Michigan would put up another TD to make the final score 42-28. The win streak was still alive. The Buckeyes would play Wisconsin for the Big Ten title.
Why the game was important
After the game, we learned that Barrett was, as feared, done for the year. A fractured right ankle that would require surgery. Cardale Jones was now the man – for the championship game and whatever bowl opportunity lay ahead. Jones gained confidence in the Michigan game. Not that Cardale ever lacked confidence, but he now had the team behind him.
I didn’t see it, but several folks who went to the Big Ten championship swear that Jones was sitting (yes, sitting) on the midfield stripe during the pregame warmups, throwing “field goals.” 60-yard field goals from a seated position. Badgers and Buckeye players alike watched with mouths open.
We know how that one turned out: Ohio State 59, Wisconsin 0. After that performance, the Buckeyes — though ranked No. 5 — got the fourth bid to the inaugural playoffs and would face No. 1 Alabama in the semifinals. Strong wins over Bama and Oregon secured the Buckeyes’ first national championship since 2002 and made third-string QB Cardale Jones a legend.
While most fans would argue that the Wisconsin rout, or beating Alabama, was the highlight of that championship season, I see that Michigan game as a turning point. No longer relying on a running quarterback, the Buckeyes let Elliott carry the ball. He gained over 200 yards rushing in each of those final three games. And Jones’s rocket arm and Devin Smith’s speed gave the Bucks a serious long-ball capability. In the final three games, Ohio State looked like a different team, a team possessed. They looked like one of the great college teams, and Cardale Jones was their quarterback.