COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Whether Ohio State can beat Clemson in the College Football Playoff next week could depend on which version of the wildly inconsistent Buckeyes offense shows up to play in the desert.
Will it be the score-at-will unit that averaged more than 53 points through the first five games and blew away Nebraska and Maryland 62-3 on back-to-back Saturdays in November?
Or the bunch that bumbled to an upset loss at Penn State, and looked nearly as off-kilter in narrow wins over Northwestern and Michigan State, with spotty pass protection, receivers who can’t get open and J.T. Barrett running for his life?
Much of that will be determined by Barrett and whether he can help shore up the Buckeyes’ uneven aerial attack and complete passes down the field against a Clemson defense with four All-ACC first-teamers. He and his receivers say that’s been a large part of the focus in practices leading up to the Dec. 31 Fiesta Bowl.
“What I see from J.T. is he’s got his head down and he’s going to work,” wide receiver Noah Brown said. “He knows what he needs to work on, and he knows what we need to work on.”
Make no mistake, Ohio State (11-1, No. 3 CFP) is in the national playoff because of Barrett, the unflappable Texan who’s never the fastest guy on the field and doesn’t have the best arm but time after time put the team on his back and found a way to win. The fourth-year junior has lost only three times as Ohio State’s starting quarterback.
Barrett’s supporting cast included a 1,000-yard rusher in freshman Mike Weber, All-American hybrid back Curtis Samuel and one of the best defenses in college football.
But the glaring weakness is the passing game: Receivers struggled to get open, Barrett could be tentative pulling the trigger and pass protection was leaky, often caving in on right tackle Isaiah Prince. Barrett was sacked a half dozen times in the Penn State loss. In the double-overtime win against Michigan, he was flattened eight times and didn’t complete a pass over 16 yards. A reliable deep threat never did emerge this season from a promising pool of wide receivers.
Ohio State contends it can be fixed by bowl time.
“We’re putting a lot more emphasis on the passing game to continue to develop that, both in protection and routes and quarterback play,” said co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tim Beck. “I like what I see.”
As is typical of Barrett, there hasn’t been a lot of hand-wringing. Even when the passing game looked its worst, he insisted there was nothing terribly wrong that couldn’t be fixed with a couple tweaks. He doesn’t think he’s too conservative about letting go of the football, noting his 24 touchdowns against just five interceptions.
“That’s my thing, I think I’m really good at making good decisions, making sure that we’re not hurting the team (with) field position and things like that, and that’s me protecting the football and not turning it over,” Barrett said.
“That’s 2 seconds you’ve got to make your mind up (whether to throw), and also just protect the football, so I feel like I have done a good job with that,” he said.
One of Barrett’s greatest attributes is his ability to take personal responsibility for winning games. Never was it more on display than in the Michigan game, when he ran for 125 yards and a TD against a Wolverines defense that took nearly everything else away from Ohio State’s offense.
And no play was bigger than fourth-and-1 from the 15 in the second overtime, when Barrett faked a handoff to Samuel, stepped left and chugged forward, head down, crashing toward the first down by inches. Samuel ran it in a touchdown on the next play to win the game.
“I know one thing about J.T.,” coach Urban Meyer said, “and that’s if there’s a chance, he’ll get it.”