COLUMBUS, Ohio — There is no quarterback controversy at Ohio State.
It’s starting to appear, though, like there may be a problem and no easy solution.
Urban Meyer made his feelings about the matter emphatically clear on Saturday night after the Buckeyes again struggled to generate much of anything through the air in a 31-16 loss to Oklahoma. Veteran center Billy Price set the tone for his teammates and called himself “100 percent confident” in fellow captain J.T. Barrett. And for his part, one of the most decorated passers in Big Ten history once again stood at a podium in Ohio Stadium and faced the difficult questions about whether he should still be playing the position that has made him both famous and a lightning rod.
Barrett is still unquestionably Ohio State’s quarterback. But after another uneven outing against a top-flight defense, there’s also not much doubt that the senior isn’t giving the Buckeyes everything they need to win a national championship.
So, what exactly are the options when a passer on the brink of setting the conference’s all-time mark for touchdowns accounted for suddenly can’t find the end zone?
“Well, you’re the starting quarterback and you lost and didn’t play very well,” Meyer said. “A lot of it is going to be on him. That’s just the nature of the beast.
“I’m never going to point the finger at the quarterbacks. I’m going to say he’s the head dog and he’s accountable. … But I’m going to make it perfectly clear: There’s not a bull’s-eye on J.T. Barrett.”
There is a spotlight on him, though, particularly when the Buckeyes square off with the kind of powerhouse programs that boast similar talent levels and narrow the margin for error. Based on the recent returns, it’s starting to seem like the book is out on how to limit his effectiveness.
Dating to last year’s visit to Michigan State, Barrett has been held under 200 passing yards in four of the last five games. The only exception was the season-opening win over Indiana, a team not typically associated with elite defenses but which still frustrated Barrett for a half before he found a rhythm and threw for 304 yards.
Barrett combined to complete just 25 of his 54 attempts against Michigan State and Michigan last season, then was picked off twice in the loss to Clemson. On Saturday against the Sooners, he completed 19 of 35 for 183 yards, but he tossed an interception and missed a handful of open receivers in key situations.
“Nobody is going to point fingers,” Barrett said. “We’re going to own up to it and go to work tomorrow.
“That’s how playing quarterback works. When we’re winning, I get too much credit. I try to give that credit to those other guys around me, because I need 10 other guys to play well. When we lose, I’m the one to blame, too. I didn’t play well, missed a lot of throws, game of inches. It’s the life of a quarterback.”
Barrett has been living it with the intense scrutiny that comes from playing the most important position on the field at a program with a baseline expectation of competing for championships for four years. That’s not easy, and he continues to deserve credit for the way he handles the pressure both internally and externally.
Of course, it helps that in the long run, he has a proven track record as a winner. Even during the recent skid, the examples of why he remains so valuable for the Buckeyes keep popping up.
Barrett willed the Buckeyes to that rivalry win over the Wolverines when the receivers were struggling and the pass protection was suspect. His patience last week against the Hoosiers was critical when it would have been easy for the slow start to sink the offense on the road. He was able to use his legs effectively against the Sooners and gained 66 yards as a rushing threat, though it’s reasonable to wonder why J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber combined had fewer carries than Barrett.
That game plan and the play calling is a significant part of the equation now for Meyer. Is Barrett consistently being put in position to thrive or has his arm limited the options for the coaching staff? Was Indiana right to question his accuracy and will Oklahoma following suit by dropping into so much zone coverage be Barrett’s kryptonite? Is it even possible that a freshman such as Dwayne Haskins, who has never taken a college snap, could provide a fix for the passing attack that Barrett can’t?
This is a difficult, unique situation, and those are the questions Meyer will be wrestling with as Ohio State tries to duplicate the bounce-back run to the title of 2014.
There was, of course, a familiar face taking the snaps on a fateful September night against Virginia Tech. Sticking with him turned out just fine.
“I mean, [Meyer] has complimented me and understands that I’ve been here before back in 2014,” Barrett said. “We lost to Virginia Tech, and I was 9 of 28. I didn’t play that bad [Saturday].
“I’ve been here before. But I definitely didn’t play up to par as far as putting us in the best situation to win. With that being said, I’m going to go work, get better and just try to rally the guys so when it comes to next week, we’re at our best.”
Barrett will be back on the field against Army, and odds are he’s going to finish that game as the most prolific touchdown producer in Big Ten history.
There won’t be any questions then about a controversy. But Ohio State has a quarterback quandary right now, and the pressure is heating up on Barrett to fix it.