ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In 2014, then-redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett was injured in the fourth quarter in Ohio State’s blowout win against Michigan, forcing Cardale Jones to take to the field as his replacement.
Jones with the lead and all the momentum. He did not feel the pressure of the starting gig until his next time out, when the Buckeyes played Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game.
Watching from the sideline Saturday, Jones saw Barrett limp off the field against Michigan for the second time in his career. This time, Jones could not help, and another strong-armed pocket passer took the reigns. Redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins entered with the game on the line and his team trailing 20-14.
He marched them 69 yards down the field, contributing two plays, each for more than 20 yards, before handing the ball to freshman running back J.K. Dobbins for a 1-yard touchdown to give Ohio State a 21-20 lead on what proved to be the game-winning score.
Though he had the weight of the team’s College Football Playoff hopes and a win over the archrivals on the line, Haskins wasn’t phased.
“It was really unreal, honestly,” Haskins said. “The first person would think that you’d be nervous and, honestly, I wasn’t. I had the O-line, I had the receivers, Billy [Price] and everybody else was behind me the whole entire way. I got the snap and we were just moving the ball down the field and play by play it happened.”
Because Barrett’s injury happened just before the opening kickoff, putting his status into question, Haskins knew he might be needed. But Barrett toughed out the injury and played until late in the third quarter.
As Barrett and the rest of the offense battled against the Wolverines, Haskins watched from the sideline, taking note of each and every play, watching for different defensive formations and preparing himself should the need for him to enter the game arise.
It did, with 6:07 left in the third quarter. And Haskins was prepared. Only for a brief moment was there any uncertainty about what was going to happen.
“When he actually did get hurt, it was a little bit of confusion, like, ‘Is he really hurt or not? Tell me to get ready. Am I really going in the game?” Haskins said.
He took the field on third-and-1. The call was simple: hand the ball off to Dobbins, and the running back easily plowed through the line for a first down.
Though a simple playcall, moving the chains and giving Haskins a fresh set of downs to work with helped settle him into the spot.
“I mean after that first handoff I think when J.K. got the first down, I was like, ‘All right, we got the ball rolling now it’s first down I actually can start the drive,’” Haskins said. “After that play, it was just like, ‘let’s keep moving. Let’s go score the ball,’ and as time went on, it was crazy.”
After that first down, Ohio State just kept the ball moving, led by the new man behind the center. In a pivotal third-and-13 situation, Haskins threaded the needle on a pass to sophomore wide receiver Austin Mack, who corralled a 27-yard reception. Then, after a Dobbins carry and with no open receivers, Haskins tucked the ball and took off down the right sideline before diving to the Michigan 1-yard line. Dobbins finished off the drive with a touchdown on the next play.
“We didn’t want to put him in harm’s way and you saw somewhat conservative to let him settle in there,” Meyer said. “We had two or three first downs and then he hit that one play, which was phenomenal to Austin Mack and did a heck of a job. And then he scrambled for a big hit and he took care of the ball. That was the No. 1 thing, he took care of the ball.”
Given he never trailed again, Haskins no longer shouldered that burden for the remainder of the game. For the most part, his role became the middle-man between Price and whichever running back stood beside him. But when asked to pick up a third-down conversion, three out of the remaining five times, Haskins was able to get it done. He hit H-back K.J. Hill on a crossing route for a 29-yard pass and hit him again on a similar play for 24 yards, both coming on third downs.
“You see what he did on third-and-17, third-and-11, whatever the case was, and he’s able to convert on that. As a 19, 20-year-old young man, that’s incredible,” Price said. “I just say trust the offensive line. Trust us for getting our jobs done up front, you just make good decisions and don’t turn the ball over and we’ll be in good shape.”
Haskins entered the season as the backup quarterback due to redshirt sophomore Joe Burrow breaking his thumb on his throwing hand. Haskins saw some time throughout the season, playing the clean-up role late in blowouts to gain some experience.
Saturday, he was thrust into the Buckeyes’ most important game of the season against the team’s rival in enemy territory.
And when the Buckeyes needed him most, he came through.
The starting quarterback position will be up for grabs next season with Barrett officially leaving Ohio State, and Saturday’s game might go a long way in deciding that race early. With Barrett saying after the game he will be ready to go for the Big Ten championship game, Haskins might not repeat Jones’ feat in taking the team through the conference title against Wisconsin and the College Football Playoff. But Haskins has firmly planted his name as the front-runner for next season’s starting job.
Should Haskins see time against Michigan in the future, it might not be as the backup.
“How about that?” Price said. “Introduction to the rivalry.”