Cardale Jones spent most of Ohio State's sluggish 20-13 win over Northern Illinois watching from the bench last Saturday, but the top-ranked Buckeyes are staying with him as the starter for at least another week as they try to pull themselves out of a baffling rut on offense.
Jones was benched after throwing his second first-half interception against the Huskies, as he completed only 4 of 9 passes for 36 yards. J.T. Barrett didn't fare much better after replacing Jones, hitting 11 of 19 for 97 yards with one touchdown and one interception. On Wednesday evening after practice, coach Urban Meyer said that Jones would start this Saturday's game against Western Michigan, continuing with the same justification that he has used since the season started.Kudos to Ohio State for making things interesting this season.
"The other guy has to pass him, and that hasn't happened," Meyer told reporters on Wednesday.
In three games, Jones is 26 of 46 for 334 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions, averaging 7.3 yards per attempt with a passer rating of 118.82. Barrett is 20 of 35 for 193 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, averaging 5.5 yards per attempt with a passer rating of 116.61. Jones has 21 carries for 115 yards and a touchdown; Barrett has run the ball only five times for 65 yards. After flashes of brilliance in the opening win over Virginia Tech -- with the help of Braxton Miller and Michael Thomas -- neither has been impressive in wins over Hawaii and Northern Illinois, as the Ohio State offense has looked nothing like the unit that terrorized opponents in the second half of 2014, despite losing only four starters.
While the 2015 college football season was widely predicted to be unpredictable, that sentiment did not apply to Ohio State in the preseason. It felt like Ohio State was a clear playoff favorite --- it was the unanimous preseason AP No. 1, after all -- but everyone else had flaws, whether it was new quarterbacks or rebuilt offensive lines or questionable defenses. Ohio State lost zero underclassmen early to the NFL draft from a national championship team, and while it did lose several key players, it had so much returning talent that it felt ridiculous to identify anyone else as the top team in college football.
So far, it turns out that Ohio State actually is just like everybody else, adding even more drama to a wild first three weeks of the season in which two of last year's four playoff teams already have losses (Alabama and Oregon) and many others have surprised with performances both unexpectedly good and bad (hello, Auburn and Arkansas).
While Ohio State is 3-0, the Buckeyes' performances have been the opposite of what was expected. They were pushed at times by Virginia Tech, but against a talented Hokies defense that stifled them last season, they averaged 10.21 yards per play -- the best single-game mark of the Meyer era -- in a 42-24 win. That they were uneven at times and still won by 18 on the road against a quality opponent appeared to show just how dominant and entertaining Ohio State was prepared to be, nomatter how weak the schedule looked.
Since then, Ohio State has played well in about one quarter out of the last eight, brushing off a sluggish start to beat Hawaii 38-0 with three fourth-quarter touchdowns, then scoring one offensive touchdown total in a painful 20-13 win over Northern Illinois. Ohio State averaged just 4.37 yards per play against the Warriors and 4.52 against the Huskies. After one of the best performances of the Meyer era, Ohio State posted two of the four worst yards-per-play outputs under Meyer, joining the 2014 win over Penn State (3.86) and the 2012 win over Wisconsin (4.00). The only bits of good news thus far are that Ohio State is still winning these games, and that its defense has been lights-out.
Against Northern Illinois, the Buckeyes were lucky that their defense hasn't lost a step. Darron Lee's pick-six in the third quarter bailed them out after a Barrett interception -- and proved to be the winning score -- and strong defense at the end bailed out poor game management in which they failed to both ice the game with a first down on third-and-short and burn the maximum amount of clock before giving the ball back to the Huskies. Fortunately, Northern Illinois averaged 2.57 yards per play, the fourth-worst performance by an opposing offense against a Meyer-led Ohio State team.
The latter illustrates just how bad Ohio State's offense really was on Saturday: The Buckeyes needed a defensive touchdown to ensure a victory against a MAC team that had one of the worst offensive outputs against Ohio State in the last four seasons.
Picking one quarterback and rolling with him as the starter seems to be a good idea at this point, although that's probably not going to stop whoever is playing from constantly looking over his shoulder. In this case, Jones still theoretically allows Ohio State to better stretch the field with the passing game because of his superior arm strength, but Ohio State hasn't proved that it has receivers who can consistently make plays downfield. Miller looked fantastic in the opener, but there's still a learning curve associated with his transition. Thomas is one of the best all-around receivers in college football, but nobody on this roster can match the downfield ability of Devin Smith, who thrived when paired with Jones in the playoff but is now in the NFL.
Determining roles in the receiving corps is one big problem as Ohio State tries to figure out how to put so many versatile playmakers in the best position to succeed. Turning around the offensive line's performance is another. While it feels like Ohio State has foolishly failed to commit to handing the ball to Ezekiel Elliott, he's not getting enough room to run behind a struggling line, which was unprepared for Northern Illinois' changed scheme last week, according to Meyer.
It's easy to compare this year's Ohio State to last year's Florida State: Both returned a ton of talent from national championship teams and were widely expected to repeat. Both didn't play up to expectations against mediocre schedules. In reality, these are two very different teams, but the place where the comparison is apt is the offensive line: Both returned four touted starters, only to underperform significantly.
"If you look historically what an Ohio State offense is for us, it's control the line of scrimmage, best perimeter blocking in America -- which we had last year -- and a very good, solid play-action passing attack," Meyer said on Tuesday. "That's not what's going on. So we're going to get that fixed."
The final problem is play-calling. This is Meyer's system, but it's clear that former offensive coordinator Tom Herman played a huge role in the offense's success, including the transition from quarterback to quarterback to quarterback. With Herman now at Houston, play-calling duties shifted to offensive line coach Ed Warinner, who, unlike Herman, is on the sideline during the game. Ohio State has yet to find a play-calling groove, with the lack of commitment to Elliott and a struggle to figure out how to best spread the ball around to so many talented athletes, on top of the blocking issues. The presence of two capable but different quarterbacks, plus a deep pool of versatile skill-position talent, has seemingly resulted in Ohio State overthinking things on offense. It's tried to do too much and hasn't settled on an identity. As Meyer continues to stick with Jones, it would seem that vertical passing combined with Elliott's hard running is the best direction.
All of this makes it sound like it's the end of the world in Columbus, which, of course, is not the case. The Buckeyes were able to survive against Hawaii and Northern Illinois despite inaccurate, poor decision-making, subpar blocking and haphazard play-calling, and even if those problems stay the same, they'll likely survive against much of their beatable schedule. The talent is still present, and it's just a matter of a retooled offensive coaching staff and receiving corps gelling around whichever quarterback is playing.
Those problems are not going to stay the same. The loss of Herman continues to be a question mark -- in addition to Smith and the blocking of receiver Evan Spencer and tight end Jeff Heuerman -- but the Buckeyes figured things out over the course of last season, and there's little reason to think they won't do so again. If they can develop a vertical passing game with Jones at the helm and get better protection from the line -- it's hard to imagine it won't, with players like Taylor Decker and Pat Elflein -- then it won't take much for Ohio State to hit its stride and start performing like the Ohio State we expected, or the Ohio State we saw for much of the trip to Virginia Tech.
The Buckeyes can be thankful that the Michigan State game isn't until Nov. 21. For now, they'll keep trying to dig themselves out of this rut with Jones at quarterback, although, really, Wednesday's announcement just preserves the uncertain status quo moving forward.
"He is the guy, unless he doesn't perform well," Meyer said of Jones.
There's no reason to expect that the defense won't continue to perform at a high level, and the offense has nowhere to go but up. Given the presence of Meyer and the wealth of talent at his disposal, it's only a matter of time before Ohio State finds solutions, even if nothing has gone as smoothly as expected just yet.