J.T. Barrett’s final run through the Big Ten wasn’t supposed to go like this.
The redshirt senior Ohio State quarterback holds multiple conference and school records and is three touchdowns shy of matching former Purdue signal-caller Drew Brees’ Big Ten record for most total touchdowns. In his final season as a Buckeye, Barrett and a veteran-laden team, which began the season as the second-ranked team in the Associated Press preseason poll, were expected to be one of the nation’s top teams.
But it won’t be easy for the first three-time team captain in program history.
The quarterback’s team already has lost 31-16 to Oklahoma in the second week of the season. Penn State’s powerful offense stands in Ohio State’s way. Michigan’s stout defense has stymied Florida and Cincinnati in the first two weeks of the season. The Buckeyes must head to Iowa and Nebraska to take on tough opponents in hostile environments.
But perhaps most importantly, Barrett must not allow the critics who think redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins or redshirt sophomore Joe Burrow should replace him to enter his frame of mind.
Luckily for Barrett, this scrutiny isn’t new.
“Back in 2014, lost to Virginia Tech and I was 9-of-28 [passing]. So, I’ve been here before,” Barrett said after Saturday’s loss. “I didn’t play that bad, but I definitely didn’t play as far as putting us in the best situation to win. With that being said, I’m going to go to work and get better and I think just try to rally guys and make sure that when it comes next week that we’re at our best.”
The difference between the 2014 home-opener loss to the Hokies and the recent loss to the Sooners is that Barrett no longer has youth as a reason for his struggles. When Barrett was thrust into the starting role as a redshirt freshman after quarterback Braxton Miller reinjured his right shoulder which required season-ending surgery, expectations were low. Early career struggles were easy to explain, and chalked up to inexperience.
But now, in 2017, Barrett has no such excuse. He holds 22 Ohio State records including most touchdowns in both a season and career, single-season passing efficiency, and total yards in a season.
If someone with Barrett’s experience struggles, like he did against Oklahoma when he completed 19-of-35 passes for 183 yards, including an interception, he earns criticism.
Barrett isn’t the only player who deserves criticism. The six-player group of starting H-backs and wideouts — Parris Campbell, K.J. Hill, Johnnie Dixon, Binjimen Victor, Austin Mack and Terry McLaurin— has done little to help its quarterback. But as Barrett and coach Urban Meyer say, this comes with the position.
“When you’re winning, I get too much credit. [That is] when I try to give that credit to the guys around me because that’s who I need — 10 other guys to play well. When we lose, I mean, I’m the one to blame too,” Barrett said. “It’s the life of a quarterback.”
Regardless of how much blame Barrett deserves, he must overcome any inner doubt. Just two games — one against Army Saturday afternoon and another on Sept. 23 versus UNLV — stand between Ohio State and the remainder of its conference schedule.
In Barrett’s time as a starter, Ohio State has lost just two games in the Big Ten. Michigan State defeated the Buckeyes 17-14 in 2015 to hand Barrett his first loss in more than a year. Last season, Penn State upset Ohio State, 24-21. In 2014, Barrett didn’t lose a game to a Big Ten opponent the entire season and was primarily responsible for Ohio State claiming the first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship.
Negative comments and judgements won’t matter if Ohio State wins, even if it isn’t always pretty. Meyer still believes in Barrett despite the offense’s inability to find an optimal flow and pace.
“Any decisions about any personnel is strictly who gives us the best opportunity to win, whether it be right guard, quarterback. And it’s always been the case,” Meyer said Monday. “Right now it’s not even a question.”
Neither Army, UNLV nor Rutgers — Ohio State’s next three opponents — has especially potent defenses. But Barrett must retake control of an offense that has looked like anything but the potent offense Meyer’s teams normally possess.
Barrett played unexpectedly in 2014 because he was one of the few healthy options at quarterback. That isn’t the case in Barrett’s final run. Haskins and Burrow present themselves as intriguing options who have been in the program for years.
The mystery and unknown invoke imagination. “Just how good is Haskins’ deep ball?” some wonder. “Maybe a quarterback change is just what a sputtering Ohio State offense needs,” critics say.
If Barrett has his way, no one will ever know.