- Ohio State wasn't always sharp in its season opener against Indiana Thursday night, but J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes showed flashes as they overcame a slow start in Bloomington.
We won’t know how good this Ohio State team really is until December, after it has faced Big Ten East rivals Penn State and Michigan and, if it gets there, the West champ in the conference title game. The Buckeyes entered the College Football Playoff last season with a veteran quarterback, an elite defense and just one three-point road loss on their résumé, only to be exposed as a pretender in a 31–0 beatdown at the hands of eventual national champion Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. Ohio State’s mostly smooth regular season masked the real weaknesses that lay under the surface.
On Thursday night, in a primetime road date with a team picked to finish fourth in its own division, the Buckeyes were expected to show those weaknesses had been addressed. Namely, the college football world wanted to see whether an offensive coaching overhaul—Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day replaced Ed Warriner and Tim Beck—would spark a senior-year renaissance from quarterback J.T. Barrett, who dazzled while guiding Ohio State to an 11–1 record in 2014, then split starting duties with big-armed junior Cardale Jones the next year, then fell into a strange funk as the experienced leader helming the Buckeyes’ offense last season.
Ohio State will leave Bloomington a step or two ahead of where it was when it got there. The Buckeyes held off Indiana, 49–21, though they did not provide affirmative answers to the offensive questions lingering in the aftermath of that whipping in Glendale on New Year’s Eve. They did, however, look better than they did when they were flailing helplessly against the Tigers’ D.
Ohio State’s offense had moments when it resembled an efficient machine operating at full capacity, like when junior Parris Campbell hauled in a short pass from Barrett, cut upfield, got a good block near the sideline and galloped 74 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. Or when oft-injured upperclassman Johnnie Dixon ripped off a 59-yard score less than three minutes later. Or just about anytime J.K. Dobbins touched the ball; with Mike Weber nursing a balky hamstring, the true freshman made good on weeks of positive camp buzz by notching 181 yards on 29 carries.
But there were other moments, mostly in the first half, when it felt as if the Buckeyes were working off some rust. That’s not unusual in the season opener, much less when it involves breaking in a new system. It just made for more offensive-related angst after an offseason full of it. While Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow threw for 278 yards and two touchdowns and repeatedly found redshirt junior wideout Simmie Cobbs Jr. in favorable matchups in Ohio State’s defensive backfield, Barrett completed only 10 of his 21 passes for 95 yards as the Buckeyes managed only 13 points to the Hoosiers’ 14.
When Indiana responded to two-yard touchdown run from Barrett early in the third quarter with a two-yard passing score to senior tight end Ian Thomas, it looked like Ohio State had a serious fight on its hands from a team it was widely expected to dispatch without much fuss. Instead, the Buckeyes cracked open the Hoosiers’ defense with a pair of touchdowns covering a combined 133 yards to short-circuit Indiana’s upset bid. Barrett’s third touchdown pass of the night, an 11-yard lob to sophomore Binjimen Victor on the left side of the end zone, sealed it. His final line: 20-of-35 passing for 304 yards with three TDs.
A charitable take on Ohio State’s offensive showing is that the Buckeyes just needed some time to work out the kinks, to get comfortable with new coaches calling new plays involving a new cast of skill players. In the process, they unveiled a true freshman who looks qualified to carry Ohio State’s running game no matter how long Weber’s injury lasts: Dobbins set an Ohio State freshman debut record for rushing yards (181). Plus, by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, Barrett was throwing darts in garbage time against defenders that looked like they’d run out of gas.
A harsher interpretation: It’s Indiana. So what? The Buckeyes shouldn’t have to sweat out an opponent that’s not a safe bet to make a bowl game. And if their offense is slow out of the gate in a little more than a week against an Oklahoma team with the nation’s most efficient passer, senior Baker Mayfield, pulling the strings, they won’t be able to close the gap so easily in the second half. Ohio State had to battle through some bumpy stretches, and nothing it does will prove its ready to make a run at a national championship until it faces better competition later in the season.
The reality is probably somewhere in between. Barrett didn’t look like a Heisman Trophy winner for 60 minutes, and Ohio State’s new-look attack may have fallen short of what some were expecting, but it was good enough to indicate 1) that it’s on an upward trajectory and 2) to get a result in a hostile environment.
It shouldn’t go unmentioned that Indiana was not an ideal opponent for a team keen on an easy first go running a reworked offense. With a seasoned secondary and a first-class havoc-creator at linebacker in senior Tegray Scales, the Hoosiers are projected to field one of the Big Ten’s better defenses this season. Nor will Indiana be a simple assignment for any opponent on the other side of the ball, with redshirt Lagow flinging passes to dangerous wide receivers Nick Westbrook and Cobbs in new coordinator Mike DeBord’s uptempo scheme.
That ultimately wasn’t enough to hang with Ohio State. The Buckeyes can’t erase the memory of 31–0 with one win, but they showed signs that they could round into a team capable of getting back to the stage where they suffered that beating. If Ohio State’s offense underwent a transformation, it didn’t show on Thursday. What did is that the Buckeyes’ attack is in a better place than it was at the end of last season.