How about one game to change the entire narrative of your career?
Prior to the near-perfect, Heisman-worthy, jaw-dropping, “are you kidding me” performance against Penn State last Saturday, J.T. Barrett’s Buckeyes career was clouded in a lot of coulda, woulda, shoulda’s.
Not now. Barrett cemented himself in Ohio State folklore with a performance that might have been the best in school history: 33-for-39, 328 yards, and four touchdowns. And three of those incompletions were drops!
Certainly, criticism of Barrett throughout his career has been over the top.
Urban Meyer tried to let us know. The coach never indulged the silly notion of a quarterback switch, not even with sections of the fan-base clamoring for a change to a dynamic blue-chip true freshman. “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 after the Buckeyes’ disappointing loss to Oklahoma. “And right now, it’s not even a question.”
The Penn State game was not Barrett finally becoming good. He’s been good, for a long time. But it was the first time he put the team on his back and relentlessly picked apart an opponent drive in and drive out. Jump on my back, boys. I’ll take us to the promised land.
Barrett won with a combination of vision and accuracy that often has abandoned him in the biggest spots. Questions about his willingness and ability to throw vertically have all been fair.
A new offensive coordinator was supposed to change that.
In stepped Kevin Wilson, a coach who’s a switch release maestro and thrives on putting linebackers in conflict. Any doubt of whether receivers could consistently separate downfield should have been eradicated; Wilson would get them open through play-design.
Over to you, J.T.
Early-season performances against Indiana and Oklahoma were rough. Barrett looked skittish in the pocket. As was usual in big-games, he was too eager to let his feet do the talking. His accuracy and decision-making were less than impressive. And receivers were still locked up all over the field. What exactly did Wilson change?
A bunch. It took time, built Wilson’s offense is now fully installed with a barrage of man-beater concepts. More than anything, the former Indiana head-man has done an excellent job of self-scouting in-game. And he’s trusted his veteran quarterback to execute in big moments.
Wilson has installed a passing game from the branches of Chip Kellyism. Kelly’s “Smash” and “Yankee” concepts have worked their way into the Buckeyes playbook. Kelly even discusses some of his designs that Wilson and company are now running on ESPN. There’s a reason Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, and Bill Belichick used to make the trip to Eugene, Ore., to meet Kelly. They went to Chip, Chip didn’t come to them.
Meyer’s hires of Wilson and co-offensive coordinator Ryan Day – a continued shift toward Kellyism – were inspired. Day coached with Kelly in the NFL, with stops in both Philadelphia and San Francisco as a quarterback coach. He played quarterback for Chip in the coaches’ formative years at New Hampshire before joining Kelly as a tight ends coach on that staff.
The Wilson/Day passing game has been predicated on quick-timing routes. The Buckeyes have run the same mesh concept so often that I presume at this point it is to bore the defense.
Receivers crisscross over the middle of the field looking to “pick” the cornerbacks covering them. Either they slam into each other, or they hesitate, springing the receiver they’re supposed to be covering open. It’s a staple play at every level, from the Air-Raid schools in high school and college to the New England Patriots in the NFL.
Everything requires precision. The receivers must arrive at the right landmarks at the right time. It should be an easy throw for the quarterback: A guy pops open, throw it in front of him.
At its best, it’s easy yards, particularly after the catch. Put blue-chip playmakers in space and let them make plays that’s the Meyer-Kelly-Wilson-Day philosophy.
Yet Barrett struggled early in the year. He left throws behind receivers, missed them high, and missed them wide. He rushed his footwork and failed to tie his eyes to hit feet – the recipe for inaccuracy.
And the staff failed to adjust. Those guys must own that, too.
Opposing defenses clogged the middle of the field, like an NBA defense trapping the big man. They added in a “lurk” or “robber” defender. Rather than having two cornerbacks cross each other’s face, thereby “pick” one another, they simply passed off their receiver to the lurk defender.
Wilson came to Columbus to add more vertical elements to the passing game, and to unlock Barrett’s potential throwing down the field.
His initial in-game change to the mesh concept was to add an extra shot route. He used the outer most receivers to draw coverage – one would press hard up the field, the other would run a post. With one safety dropping down as the lurk defender, and another occupied with the post, there would be a nice gap along the sideline to spin an extra receiver into.
He went after Indiana by flaring a running back out on a wheel route.
It was a smart design, but Barrett couldn’t hit the wheel route routinely (or any other deep ball for that matter).
What was expected to be an unstoppable combination of Meyer’s spread-to-run ground game, paired with Wilson’s vertical strike passing attack had bogged down. Without those deep shots, the passing game lived on underneath throws. And with defenses adding in the lurk defender those plays often were toothless.
Barrett hit all the shots against Penn State, however. He was at his ruthless best. He took the easy stuff, and hit some special throws – with Wilson and Day sprinkling in some fresh wrinkles.
Barrett’s accuracy was on point and it opened up everything else. He showed not only the willingness to stand in, take a shot and deliver a blow right back, but the anticipation and precision to make Penn State’s defense pay deep down the field.
Two of those big-time throws came thanks to that good ‘ol mesh-concept.
OSU had it rolling all day.
I’d guess Penn State’s defense was sick of how much they repped against that mesh look a week ago. They probably began seeing it in their sleep.
They saw mesh ghosts Saturday.
On Barrett’s first touchdown throw of the day, the Nittany Lions were fooled by the pre-snap look and initial moves of the receiver. When the receiver at the bottom of a two-man stack released inside, Penn State’s linebacker read “mesh.” He tried to hand the receiver off, presumably thinking he was going to get help inside from one of those now-infamous lurk defenders.
But it wasn’t a mesh play. The help wasn’t there.
The receiver split the two-deep safeties. Barrett planted, fired, and delivered the perfect ball for a touchdown.
It was a small adjustment from the staff: Show the same initial “mesh” action, run a different concept.
The neatest tweak came later in the game, though. This time they showed the exact action through much of the play. But instead of targeting the corners and worrying about the lurk guy, they went right after the lurk defender.
“Enough with this rotating defender sitting in a zone nonsense and taking away our core concept” Wilson probably said, likely with more coach speak and possibly profanity.
It was a brilliant adjustment.
It was the same look as every pre-snap: A two-man stack into the boundary (short side of the field), with a single back and pair of receivers spreading the field to the field side.
On the backside of the play, there was a curl tagged with slot fade. But all the magic took place with the receivers in the stack. As usual, the inside receivers released flat, like he was running across the middle of the field. And the outer-most receiver released to run his post.
That’s when the adjustments kick in: As a defender sitting in a zone dropped to take away the receiver on the crossing route, the receiver stuck his foot in the ground and fired up-field.
And the receiver running the post, whose job normally is to drag a safety toward the hashmark, bent his post out into a corner route, stretching the safety back out toward the boundary and widening the gap between the two deepest defenders.
Penn State bought it hook, line and sinker.
A huge gulf was created between both safeties, and the slot receiver zipped between them, leaving the linebacker cemented to the ground in the middle of the field.
It was typical Wilson stuff: Put linebackers in conflict and do it all off a mesh-concept.
Talk about self-scouting. The Buckeyes even kept the running back in on a check-and-release rather than releasing him on a wheel route, so that they could have extra time and protection for Barrett as the double-moves developed.
The play kick-started the team’s fourth-quarter comeback. The coaches drew up a superb play for the quarterback. Barrett delivered a superb throw for the coaches.
He didn’t stop there. He delivered body blow after body blow on the final few drives. Before delivering a haymaker down in the red zone:
That’s an NFL throw right there. No tweaks. No help from the coaches. That’s just a great quarterback doing great-quarterback things; making a special back-shoulder throw.
Barrett’s now up to 30 total touchdowns this season, with just one interception. That’s stupidly good.
Everything we envisioned when he got paired with this coaching staff at the start of the season is starting to come to fruition. His performance in Columbus last Saturday erased any notion that he’s anything other than a great Buckeye.
His improvements from within the pocket set him for a potential charge at the Heisman. At the very least, he’s well-positioned to take the crown as the best quarterback in the program’s storied history.