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Column: The new J.T. Barrett has proven Ohio State’s offense is ready for a challenge

Redshirt senior quarterback J.T. Barrett (16) prepares to call a play in the third quarter against Nebraska in Memorial Stadium on Oct. 14. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

To those who wanted Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett benched after Week 2, you weren’t wrong.

The J.T. Barrett who completed 19-of-35 passes for 183 yards with no touchdowns and an interception against Oklahoma wasn’t the dynamic option at quarterback who could lead Ohio State to the top of college football in his final season.

However, by Week 9, those who questioned Barrett early probably weren’t expecting the same guy to be leading the nation’s No. 2 scoring offense.

This version of Barrett has completed 72 percent of his passes (98-for-136) for 1,340 yards and 18 touchdowns with zero turnovers in the past five games. Barrett is making those who doubted him eat crow.

But those critics in the fanbase will gladly eat it, and they will likely ask for seconds because he has turned a deficient offense into a unit that is ready for its greatest challenge this season, when the No. 6 Buckeyes welcome No. 2 Penn State into Ohio Stadium Saturday afternoon.

Plain and simple, Barrett has never played this well in his career.

Only one other time has he played five consecutive turnover-less games passing, which began with last year’s loss at Penn State. Barrett completed 63.5 percent of his passes (103-for-162) and threw for 1,097 yards and eight touchdowns. Even in 2014, Barrett’s best season, the most consecutive games he went without an interception was three.

Barrett insisted Wednesday he’s the “same guy” people wanted head coach Urban Meyer to bench after Week 2.

“I’m the same person that people said that they wanted to bench,” Barrett said. “I’m the same person now who’s playing well, like the same guy.”

He might be the same guy, but he’s a completely different player.

When Barrett was at his best in 2014, he wasn’t fitting passes into tight spaces and normally would bail on the play and scramble if his top two options were not open. His first passing option was often the first player he targeted, usually Devin Smith or Michael Thomas — both NFL receivers.

He doesn’t have any players of that caliber this season. He has had to create opportunities and, by doing so, has grown as a passer and has shown his confidence in throwing over the middle of a defense and in between defenders.

Each game since Oklahoma has been a natural progression of the passing game. The game plan against Army featured horizontal passing with the defense playing off of receivers. Barrett threw five touchdowns to five different receivers the next week against UNLV. In the next three weeks against conference opponents, he led Ohio State to leads of at least 35 points by halftime while continuing to improve downfield passing and going through his route progressions.

In his arsenal, Barrett has displayed accurate throws on back-shoulder fades, crossing routes and the occasional deep ball. Even if some disagree and think he hasn’t been as accurate as he should be, or that the competition has been menial, the incompletions he’s thrown have generally been harmless and thrown to a spot where only his receiver can come down with the ball.

Barrett’s downfield passing game was rightly criticized. He completed just 9-of-30 passes thrown for at least 10 yards in the first two games, according to CFB Film Room. Barrett is coming off a Nebraska game in which he led the offense to a touchdown on every drive he played and converted 10 of 14 passes thrown 10 yards or more.

H-back Parris Campbell has become a dangerous player with the ball in his hands in the open field. Receiver Johnnie Dixon has shown ability to stretch the field vertically as well as catch the ball in the middle of the defense. Wideout Binjimen Victor is now a legitimate red-zone target. J.K. Dobbins has been the ideal running back to put enough fear into a defense while Barrett turned those three wideouts into playmakers they weren’t at season’s dawn.

Barrett and Ohio State probably won’t play a better team this season than Penn State, at least in the regular season. Saturday’s game will truly determine if he has taken the next step because, after all, quarterbacks at Ohio State are expected to win against top programs.

After a fifth straight impressive showing by the offense and Barrett’s performance of 27-of-35 passing, 325 yards and five touchdowns a week ago at Nebraska, there is no denying it at this point: Barrett is the only quarterback the Buckeyes should have on the field.

Early in the season, many people around college football didn’t think Barrett could be the guy to beat Penn State. Many of those same people, if not all, will be watching Saturday to see if Barrett will force them to eat crow again — possibly his most memorable dish yet.

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