Another week has come and gone in Big Ten football, and my how things are getting interesting now.
This weekend we get something that was hard to foresee a couple of weeks ago, and that is a conference game between two ranked teams that are neither Ohio State or Michigan State.
I’m looking at this Northwestern-Michigan matchup as pretty much a pick ‘em. Might be the first one to double digits unless the defenses get into the scoring act.
Meanwhile while those two play the marquee matchup in the conference, the Buckeyes and Spartans have lots of questions to answer about themselves.
For Michigan State, simply getting healthy could be a big boost, and that might start this weekend at Rutgers, which looks like a team that is going to be one that lets a lot of teams get right before the season is over. Youngsters are getting close to playing big roles in the MSU secondary.
Ohio State is coming off another week of angst among fans accustomed to seeing the offense steamroll opponents more impressively than it did Indiana, but Urban Meyer insists the Buckeyes have figured some things out over the past couple of weeks.
I think he’s probably correct, although only showing progress on the field against a moribund Maryland team will quiet critics.
It remains to be seen how much progress is enough for some folks, although as I wrote in my weekly BuckeyeSports.com column, there are probably at least some people who will settle only for perfection because they seem to only remember the high points of last season, but that picture isn’t really accurate.
From the beginning, there has been a reasonable justification for either quarterback to start. That’s because both of them are good players with various skills that can be applied to leading an offense to points, yards and ultimately wins.
But I would argue in a strict comparison of ability, Cardale Jones has the advantage over J.T. Barrett. That’s not a knock on Barrett so much as a recognition that Jones has always had all-star ability going back to his high school days at Cleveland Glenville.
Consistency has always been Jones’ issue, and that is supposed to be Barrett’s strength. For five weeks after the disappointing loss to Virginia Tech, it certainly was, but things were a lot more up and down after that (which should come as no surprise because, well, that’s usually how things go through the course of a season).
There is very little doubt that is how Meyer and then-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Tom Herman differentiated between the two last preseason when picking a new starter after Braxton Miller got hurt. The coach had been saying for two years Jones’ best was really great but his worst was really bad.
But a lot has happened since August 2014.
Jones went through a self-described “dark period” after that decision was made, but he weathered that personal storm and came out better on the other side.
I was very skeptical leading up to the Wisconsin game, but Jones proved he can play and play well against top competition last December and January, but consistency remains a question mark.
In writing that column, I was not trying to dismiss the idea Jones still needs to prove he deserves to keep the job or that Barrett could still end up being the best option when all is said and done.
The onus is on Jones to play well, but based on the reaction to the last two weeks, perfection is the only thing some fans are going to accept before they stop calling for a change. That’s not only foolish but unfair, either in a vacuum or in comparison to Barrett’s 2014 because it wasn’t perfect, either. (Then of course there is the little issue with the Buckeyes’ worst overall offensive performance of the season happening to coincide with the game in which Barrett played the most, a rather large point that is frequently overlooked.)
From the beginning of the season, we’ve seen plenty of ups and downs (yes, there have been ups despite what you might read on Twitter), but many of them have little or nothing to do with the quarterback.
Another issue that has been raised is in regards to what going with Jones means to the scheme.
While Meyer said this week scheme is overrated, the idea Jones limits their options as compared to Barrett is pretty far from accurate.
It’s also almost certainly incorrect to conclude they have been calling fewer designed runs for the quarterback simply because Jones is at the controls, so if that bothers you, take another look at all that is going on here.
Jones can run, which he proved against Alabama and Oregon last season and again in the opener against Virginia Tech. So why hasn’t he much since pulling the ball on a zone-read keeper for about 20 yards on the first play against Hawaii? Well, it is still admittedly not his strength, but developing other aspects of the offense should make the attack stronger in the long run.
Going back to a time questions about the Ohio State offense were much more frequent than they are now could also provide us a worthwhile lesson.
From the beginning of his time in Columbus to the end, Jim Tressel used a running quarterback when needed to move the chains, but his game plans often had a way of mirroring the challenge on the other side of the ball. I have always contended he would have played a different style of offense (such as the one we saw in 2006) if he had not frequently had such good defenses and the schedule weren’t so frequently void of potent offenses (See also the 2010 Rose Bowl game plan).
There’s a reason Craig Krenzel’s best running night came against the best defense he ever faced (Miami in the Fiesta Bowl) even though he wasn’t Ohio State’s best runner. It was a matter of necessity. And there is a reason Tressel opened things up against the Ducks, too.
They’ve suffered some slings and arrows for it, but I would not be surprised if this coaching staff has figured given the relative quality of the defenses they have been planning for since the opener, they concluded it was worth it to go in a bit short-handed (so to speak) because that could help the offense be better in the long run.
The QB run — with Jones or Barrett — is always going to be there. The blocking schemes are not different than they are for some of the handoffs to Ezekiel Elliott, but the quarterback could probably use some reps to get a feel for where those blocks are going to pop open. (And they do have the option of Elliott acting as a lead blocker, so that would be one extra benefit of running the quarterback at times. That might make people happy, at least as long as it worked.)
But if it has been a crutch to run the quarterback at any sign of trouble since Meyer got here — and it has — then perhaps concentrating on getting everything else in order first when the opposition isn’t really all that intimidating makes a lot of sense.
Also worth remembering: Last year the staff didn’t seem to think Barrett was going to be as big a part of the running game when he took over — and they had talked all offseason about running Braxton Miller less, which was a big factor easing the transition to Barrett when Miller got hurt — but by the end of the season he was becoming as much of a go-to as Miller had been.
While that was one thing at Michigan State and Minnesota, where the talent was closer to equal than most weeks (speaking of the Gophers’ defense, not offense), it remaining necessary against Indiana a week later that came as a surprise.
And then the offensive funk that existed for three quarters against the Hoosiers — before Jalin Marshall returned a punt for a touchdown and broke a push pass for a long TD then scored another on a short field set up by a turnover — carried over to the Michigan game, too.
I say offensive funk rather than quarterback funk because I certainly wouldn’t put it all on Barrett. As we are seeing this year, a lot of things go into an offense working — or not working.
But the answer was again to put the game on his shoulders against Michigan, and it only had relatively middling success before he got hurt and Elliott and the defense put the game on ice.
In fact, it was very much like the offense has looked the last couple of weeks with big plays masking play-by-play deficiencies. Or very much like pretty much any game Braxton Miller started, for that matter.
I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
What would have happened next if Barrett hadn’t gotten hurt?
We’ll never know, but the entire offense had a different look at the Big Ten Championship Game, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Not being able to go into the game with the idea the quarterback would save the day if anything went wrong very likely had an impact on the play of the guys around Cardale Jones, as it may have for mostly the same guys around Barrett a couple of months earlier when many players began to raise their games and the offense took off with him at the controls. After Barrett was outstanding against Michigan State and Minnesota, maybe some of that urgency to help him out was lost.
So one has to wonder if Ohio State’s coaching staff went into this season intent on making sure every unit is firing even if there might be easier ways to beat lesser teams now.
A function of the spread offense is any team can go out and spread the field and out-athlete most opponents somewhere. The whole offense doesn’t really have to be firing in that case, and it also diminishes the need for a very talented quarterback as long as he makes good decisions.
But those offenses have lower ceilings, too. There’s a reason most of those strategies first sprouted up at places they couldn’t win by simply blocking and tackling and throwing the ball downfield from time to time.
Then there is also the question of quarterback health.
Meyer and many other spread option coaches have always claimed the pocket is the most dangerous place to be for a quarterback, thus they conclude using them extensively in the running game is not a greater injury risk.
Not only does that not make sense on its face, it hasn’t really held up to reality when you consider almost literally every quarterback Meyer has had since at least Tim Tebow has been injured at some point.
The thing is, even if the pocket is more dangerous than the open field, Meyer’s quarterbacks spend a lot of time both places so the injury risk is naturally going to be greater.
Meyer’s quarterback and a drop-back QB (Say for instance Connor Cook) might both drop back 30 times a game, but where are they on another 15 plays? This is not too hard to figure out.
Braxton Miller was in and out of games for two years before hurting his shoulder on a scramble (who knows how healthy his shoulder was before it went out on that tackle). J.T. Barrett was hurt on a zone read keeper. Tebow was banged up at times during his career at Florida, too.
Does it make sense to maybe limit Cardale Jones’ running now given the mounting data, even knowing how much more dangerous an offense becomes when the 11th guy is not only a threat but actually running? Again, these are not hard dots to connect.
Lastly, I don’t want to come across as completely dismissing the idea Barrett could come in and perform better than Jones has. That is certainly possible.
I just don’t think, after really reviewing the full bodies of work, it’s more likely than Jones getting better as he gets more reps and the rest of the offense develops. If the rest of the offense comes around, having the stronger-armed quarterback against the best teams on the schedule should be a major benefit — as long as he proves up to the task between now and then.
Perfect or not, he’s earned enough rope the last two weeks to continue down that path, but things can change any Saturday.