BLACKSBURG, Va. — After Ohio State’s defense stuffed Virginia Tech on the Hokies’ first possession Monday night, the Buckeyes’ first-team offense gathered around coach Urban Meyer on the sideline. J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, the two finalists in the most fascinating quarterback competition in college football history, both joined the huddle. “Both of us had our helmets on,” Jones said. “And both of us had our mouthpieces in looking at each other.” As the play was called, the junior who led Ohio State to three postseason victories last season inched toward the sideline. Then Jones heard something from Meyer that sent him the other direction.
Jones swore early Tuesday morning that the preceding is a true and accurate description of the manner in which Meyer announced his choice of starting quarterback. “When y’all found out,” Jones said after the Buckeyes’ 42–24 win, “I found out.” If that is indeed correct, it does explain the question Ohio State co-offensive coordinator Tim Beck asked Jones on Monday. Here is Jones’s recollection of that pre-game conversation:
Beck: “Has coach talked to you?”
Jones: “About what?”
Beck: “What do you think?”
When Jones got the news and strode onto the field, he waved his arms and asked the Lane Stadium crowd for more noise. The orange-clad Virginia Tech faithful obliged, cranking the volume to singing-along-with-“Enter Sandman” levels. On his sixth snap as the starter, Jones rumbled for 16 yards on third-and-21. A play after that, he hit Ezekiel Elliott for 10 yards to convert a fourth-and-five. A play after that, Jones was flat-footed and drifting backward as he flung a 24-yard touchdown pass to Curtis Samuel.
No, the noise would not bother him.
“It was a hostile environment,” Jones said. “It was definitely one of the top environments I’ve ever played in. I’ve only played four games, but…”
We can finish that thought for Jones. He’s only played in four games, but he’s beaten Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship, Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, Oregon in the national title game and Virginia Tech in Lane Stadium cranked to 11. That’s not a bad run, and it was the quality of the first three starts for Jones—who took over after Barrett broke his ankle against Michigan—that kept nagging at Meyer as he tried to make a decision these past few weeks. “Cardale finished the season as the starter, and then I kind of started thinking that for him to not take the first snap he had to get beat out,” Meyer said. “And he wasn’t beat out. It was very close.”
Think about the dynamics of the choice. Barrett is the first sophomore named a captain in Ohio State football history. He is beloved by Ohio State’s players and coaches. As a redshirt freshman who didn’t even play in the postseason, Barrett broke the Big Ten single-season touchdown production record previously held by Drew Brees. Given all that, Meyer picked Jones anyway. Why? Because Meyer must think the 6'5", 250-pound Jones is flat-out better.
But the most interesting aspect of the night on which Meyer finally had to choose is what happened to the third guy in the competition. Braxton Miller was supposed to start at quarterback for Ohio State in 2014, just as he had when he collected Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year awards in 2012 and 2013. In those seasons, Ohio State went 24-2, but primarily because Miller dragged a subpar offense to wins with his individual brilliance. “It was Braxton right, Braxton left,” Meyer said Monday. “Or we would have been a just-above-.500 team.” But a shoulder injury suffered late in the 2013 season required two surgeries to fix, and Miller sat out the entire championship run in 2014. He came back hoping to play quarterback, but as his rehab inched along, he realized he might help the team—and himself—more by moving to another position. So Miller switched to H-back. And when Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson got themselves suspended for the opener, Miller’s situation became even more interesting.
Monday, we learned that Miller remains magic with the ball in his hands. Meyer, perhaps having flashbacks to when he coached Percy Harvin at Florida, had the Buckeyes hand the ball to Miller, throw the ball to Miller and snap the ball to Miller. It was Miller who got open down the right sideline early in the third quarter to catch a 54-yard touchdown pass from Jones that touched off a string of 28 consecutive Ohio State points.
Later in the third, Miller did this on the way to a 53-yard touchdown run.
“O.K.,” said Jones, who later impersonated Miller on the sideline. “He’s back.”
The video game quality of the run wasn’t lost on Miller, either. “I set them up. I acted like I was looking straight,” Miller said. “I saw them out of the corner of my eye. Then I hit the, what is it, circle button? The B button? Yeah. The B button.”
So what about the third guy? What about Barrett, who had no role early in the game? He entered with 10:43 remaining. Two minutes, 29 seconds later, his 26-yard touchdown pass was landing in the hands of Michael Thomas. After the game, Barrett and Jones locked arms and sang “Carmen Ohio.” They laughed and smiled. They know this isn’t necessarily a final decision from Meyer. “I don’t think the battle is over,” Jones said. “You have two great guys with experience who can lead the team in their own way. We put the team in a unique situation with me and J.T. just because of our talent and just because of how the team rolls with each of us in the game.”
Meyer said he contemplated putting in Barrett earlier. Jones struggled through the back end of the second quarter. The opportunity for a change is there. But Meyer also is cognizant of the fact that a quick hook could damage either player’s confidence. So he must work through how he exchanges the two. “There might come a time we have to do that,” Meyer said. “This journey is going to be interesting. I’ve got to make sure that I’m not screwing it up.”
Complacency will be Ohio State’s toughest opponent between now and Michigan State on Nov. 21, but that likely won’t be the case in the quarterback room. Jones and Barrett are acutely aware that the coaching staff is always evaluating. “I’m not even sure who will start Saturday,” Jones said.
Maybe Meyer will keep the quarterbacks in the dark again. Jones had to try hard early Tuesday morning to convince everyone the choice wasn’t revealed until moments before the first play. Someone even asked why Jones didn’t tweet the news. “I didn’t have my phone on the sideline,” Jones said. “We should have called a timeout before the play started so I could grab my phone and put it up on Twitter and then run back on the field.”
Then Jones laughed. He has to. It’s absurd that a program would have two—or is it three?—quarterbacks this talented and still figure out a way to make everyone happy. But Ohio State did it Monday, and if the Buckeyes can keep doing it for the next three months, this season could end exactly like last season did.