Ohio St.-Virginia Tech Preview
A shocking home loss to Virginia Tech last September seemed to take Ohio State out of the national title picture, but Urban Meyer's team proved that to be untrue.
The Buckeyes do not want to have to take the same wait-and-see approach.
A favorite to repeat as national champion even with Meyer yet to name his starting quarterback, Ohio State hasn't lost since falling to the Hokies but getting revenge and protecting the No. 1 ranking could be a challenge Monday night with a short-handed team entering a hostile environment.
If the Buckeyes (14-1) survive the Labor Day spotlight at Lane Stadium, they have a fairly easy path to 10-0 before closing the regular season against No. 5 Michigan State and at archrival Michigan. Their next three games are in Columbus against small-conference foes - Hawaii, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan - and they don't have to face Big Ten West favorite Wisconsin, ranked 20th.
Ohio State fell 35-21 to Virginia Tech in its second game last year before winning its final 13 to make the first College Football Playoff, and all 61 AP poll voters expect the Buckeyes to return. They received every first-place vote to become the first-ever unanimous No. 1 in the preseason.
Meyer isn't saying if he'll start Cardale Jones or J.T. Barrett under center, but it seems likely both will play - albeit with a depleted a receiving corps. Wideout Corey Smith, Jalin Marshall and fellow H-back Dontre Wilson were suspended for this game for a violation of team policies, and receiver Noah Brown suffered a season-ending leg injury last week. However, the most notable absence due to another one-game suspension is defensive end Joey Bosa.
The All-American had 1 1/2 of his team-best 13 1/2 sacks against the Hokies as the Buckeyes consistently pressured Michael Brewer, but the Hokies dealt an even more miserable day to Barrett. He completed a dreadful 9 of 29 attempts, was sacked seven times and had three interceptions.
"There is a little nudge around here because they beat us, and really the way they beat us," Meyer said. "Offensively right now there is a lot of distaste for the way that thing happened, and that's not taking away from their personnel, because I think they have excellent personnel, especially on defense."
Barrett went on to lead Ohio State to 10 consecutive victories, throwing 31 touchdown passes and six interceptions during that streak while rushing for 10 TDs, before breaking his ankle against Michigan. Jones had been a third-stringer behind Barrett and Braxton Miller - who has since transitioned to receiver - but stunningly led the Buckeyes to a 59-0 win over the Badgers in the Big Ten title game and victories over Alabama and Oregon in the CFP.
Playing possibly an even bigger role in those wins was Ezekiel Elliott, rushing for more than 200 yards in all three while totaling eight TDs, but he was hardly a factor in the Virginia Tech game and Jones did not play. Plus, the Buckeyes were coming off a week of preparing for Navy's triple-option offense the previous week, whereas this time they've only been getting ready for the Hokies.
Meyer said Jones and Barrett having comparable skill sets allows Ohio State to prepare the same way regardless of who plays, and that keeping the Hokies guessing had nothing to do with why a starter isn't being revealed.
"I imagined if one of them was way ahead I probably would announce it, but they're not, and it's more for our team than who we're playing," Meyer said Monday. "... I've had a couple conversations with them already. I think it's going to be a matter of fact. If you're not going to play early, get ready because I'd like to see both guys involved."
Jones was taken to the hospital Wednesday because of a headache, his mother told The Toledo Blade. Florence Jones told the newspaper her son was taken to an emergency room in Columbus, Ohio, and that he should be fine.
Brewer should be the only one taking the snaps for Virginia Tech despite an unbalanced 2014 season in a disappointing 7-6 campaign. The Texas Tech transfer had 2,692 passing yards to rank fourth in the ACC, but his 117.4 rating was fourth-worst as he had 18 touchdown passes with 15 interceptions.
"I don't worry about Michael. I worry about the people around Michael," coach Frank Beamer said. "And if those people uphold their end of the deal, Michael will be just fine. He knows what he's doing."
"... We've just got to be able to get our running backs going, keep it unpredictable. The wide receivers, make some plays when you've got a chance."
Beamer said the inexperience of the offensive line and receiving corps entering last year's matchup with Ohio State - factors which should be lessened this time - made Brewer's performance that much more impressive. He completed 23 of 36 passes for 199 yards and threw the go-ahead TD pass to Bucky Hodges with 8:44 to play.
Brewer's willingness to take hits and run for key first-down yards made an impression on the Buckeyes.
"His toughness was something that stood out to me," Ohio State linebacker Joshua Perry said. "We were really trying to put it on him, and he kept getting up. As a defense, that kind of takes something out of you when the quarterback keeps popping right back up."
Like Elliott, Hokies tailback J.C. Coleman hardly factored in these teams' 2014 meeting but could be key to the rematch after rushing for 468 yards during the team's 3-1 finish last season.
Virginia Tech, 0-8 all-time against No. 1s, is expected to improve this year and received 42 votes in the preseason poll to place 30th. The defense has three all-ACC preseason selections in cornerback Kendall Fuller, linebacker Luther Maddy and defensive end Dadi Lhomme Nicolas.
"When you start out with a team like Ohio State, your preparation is probably a little more intense," Beamer said. "Then, after the game, you know more about your football team. They bring it out if you have a weakness."
His son, assistant Shane Beamer, has called this the biggest game in Lane Stadium history.