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5 things to watch for between Ohio State and Minnesota

OSU quarterbacks, redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett (16) and redshirt junior Cardale Jones (12), and redshirt senior H-back Braxton Miller (1) participate in pregame warmups before OSU played Rutgers on Oct. 24. OSU won, 49-7. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead | Photo Editor

OSU quarterbacks, redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett (16) and redshirt junior Cardale Jones (12), and redshirt senior H-back Braxton Miller (1) participate in pregame warmups before OSU played Rutgers on Oct. 24 in Piscataway, New Jersey. OSU won, 49-7. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead | Photo Editor

Coming off a bye week, No. 3 Ohio State is set to get back in action against the visiting Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-4, 1-3) on Saturday. Here are five things The Lantern’s sports editors Ryan Cooper and Kevin Stankiewicz will be on the lookout for when the Buckeyes and Golden Gophers square off at 8 p.m. at Ohio Stadium.

Will Cardale Jones take advantage?

The entire college football universe will have its eyes fixated on OSU’s quarterback Cardale Jones on Saturday night. The redshirt junior is back in the starting role he occupied for the Buckeyes’ first seven games following a one-week hiatus after being benched for redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett.

But Barrett is suspended after being cited for operating a motor vehicle while being impaired on Halloween morning, so Jones, whose performance so far in 2015 has been more unpredictable than Ohio’s weather, has the reins to OSU’s offense for at least one more time.

OSU coach Urban Meyer — who said a little tinkering with the offensive gameplan now that Jones is back at the helm has occurred —  has reiterated his confidence in the Cleveland native all week long. Jones’ teammates have done so as well.

However, the type of performance from Jones that emerges under the lights at Ohio Stadium against Minnesota remains to be seen. The last time Jones, who still boasts an unblemished 10-0 mark as OSU’s starter, played in primetime at the ‘Shoe, against Penn State, he was benched in the third quarter for Barrett, ultimately losing his job after Barrett played well.

Jones’ season has not been a complete struggle — he threw for a career-high 291 yards against Maryland — but now, facing off against an inspired Minnesota team coming off a narrow loss against Michigan and the Golden Gophers’ No. 16 pass defense, he will have his hands full.

The added fluidity that exists with Barrett in the lineup is noticeable, but for OSU to fend off Minnesota on Saturday, Jones will need to do his best replication of it.

Braxton playing quarterback

Meyer said earlier in the week that redshirt senior quarterback-turned-H-back Braxton Miller will back up Jones on Saturday. The depth chart confirmed as much, as Miller was listed as the starter at H-back as well as the backup signal-caller.

It will be interesting to see if the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year gets to relive his former days calling plays for any stretch of time.

While Miller has lined up behind center in every game this season, it has been in running packages. The only throw Miller has attempted this season was a pitch only about a foot in front of him.

Miller has said that this arm strength is back following last year’s shoulder surgery, and senior left tackle Taylor Decker said the same on Monday. If a game exists for Miller to showcase his abilities to throw the ball downfield, it could be Saturday’s.

It is also possible that Meyer continues to only use Miller’s legs, but in an increased role, which brings up…

Red zone efficiency

In the seven games that Jones started before Barrett retook the job, one of his main shortcomings was his struggle to lead the offense in the red zone.

In OSU’s sixth game, Meyer made the decision to use a two-quarterback system in which Barrett came off the bench to take over the offense near the 20-yard line.

Meyer said Barrett’s skill set better suits the offense inside the red zone than Jones’ because of Barrett’s running ability. He said Jones’ 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame made it harder to find space to operate on the shrunken field.

With Barrett sidelined for the game, it is very possible that it is Miller leading the offense in the red zone.

Redshirt senior H-back Braxton Miller (1) carries the ball during a game against Maryland on Oct. 10 at Ohio Stadium. OSU won 49-28. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead / Photo Editor

Redshirt senior H-back Braxton Miller (1) carries the ball during a game against Maryland on Oct. 10 at Ohio Stadium. OSU won 49-28.
Credit: Samantha Hollingshead / Photo Editor

Meyer said on Monday that the coaches were “having those conversations now” about the possibility of using Miller in short-field situations, but no decision had been made at the time.

If the ability to scramble is as important in Meyer’s red zone sets as he has said, it would make sense for the speedy Miller to take over with Jones watching from the sideline.

Can Jack Willoughby be trusted?

For the first time this season, redshirt senior kicker Jack Willoughby was listed as the sole starter on the depth chart. Up until this point, the transfer from Duke had an “or” behind his name, essentially listing him as the co-starter with sophomore Sean Nuernberger.

Meyer said earlier in the year the player who kicked better during the week in practice would be the guy getting the nod come gameday. But with the depth charts being announced early in the week on Tuesday, the decision to drop the “or” this week must mean that Meyer has seen enough out of Willoughby to mint him the sole starter.

Despite Meyer’s move, Willoughby has been far from a sure-fire kicker this season. The former kickoff specialist for Duke has not missed an extra point through eight games (41-of-41) but it’s on field goals that the redshirt senior has been struggling.

Willoughby has split the uprights on seven of his 10 attempts for a .700 clip, which ranks in the bottom half of the country. All three of his misses have come from at least 40 yards out.

But last season, Nuernberger wasn’t much better, converting on just 13 of his 20 attempts.

Fortunately for the Buckeyes, they often find themselves getting into the end zone, which takes a little emphasis off the placekicker. But as the season progresses and the meat of the schedule arrives, it will be interesting to watch Willoughby’s success rate on field goals, namely those outside of chipshot range.

If OSU would ever need a game-winning field goal, could it trust Willoughby knock it through?

Can Webb rescue the depleted secondary?

OSU’s secondary is in the cream of the crop nationally, sitting at No. 2 in the country behind San Jose State, allowing just 149 per game. The injury bug, however, has infiltrated the unit as of late. Two safeties — junior Cam Burrows and sophomore Erick Smith — are now lost for the season.

But seemingly on cue, one of the secondary’s key contributors will be back in action on Saturday against Minnesota. Meyer announced on Tuesday that sophomore cornerback Damon Webb is back practicing with the team after a six-game absence for a foggy reason.

Following fall camp, Webb was the team’s starting nickel corner and played well in the role against Virginia Tech and Hawaii, registering eight tackles.

The defensive backfield was able to make due without the Detroit native during the six games he was out due to the play from Burrows and Smith. But now with the said duo sidelined, Webb should slide back into his old role, helping the secondary’s smothering season continue.

Webb might not get that many snaps against the Golden Gophers because Meyer will probably want the 5-foot-11 sophomore to ease his way back into the flow of things, but also because Minnesota’s passing attack is nothing to write home about. Nevertheless, Webb will prove to be a boost for Meyer’s Buckeyes over course of the final four regular-season games.

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