NCF Nation: Ezekiel Elliott

Ohio StateAP Photo/Carlos OsorioOhio State overcame the early loss of two of its star players to win a Big Ten title and a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- If Ohio State were counting solely on the brightest stars to light a path to the College Football Playoff, it never would have found it.

The presumptive centerpiece of the offense, Braxton Miller, was lost during training camp and never took a snap at quarterback this season. Arguably the most touted returning defender, Noah Spence, never played a down, either, because of what turned into a permanent suspension.

Those weren't the only holes the No. 4 Buckeyes would have to fill after losing a handful of significant contributors from last year's roster. Any chance of developing into a contender was always going to include contributions from fresh faces and new leaders. Even without what appeared to be Ohio State's most important players on both sides of the ball, as it stormed to a conference title and into the Allstate Sugar Bowl against No. 1 Alabama, it morphed into the most dangerous kind of team: a complete constellation.

"Incredible year, a year that if you would have told me back in August when I saw our starting quarterback go down that this would happen, I would have said, 'Not yet,'" coach Urban Meyer said. "You just never can devalue the chemistry on a team, the closeness of a team. And then when you deal with tragedy and other things that our team has experienced throughout the year, it was a learning experience.

"I learned more from our players maybe this year than in a long time."

Those lessons were working in both directions between the coaching staff and a roster long on talent but short on experience. The trust that was cultivated clearly helped forge a strong bond among the Buckeyes as they dealt with all kinds of on-the-field adversity and the death of teammate Kosta Karageorge.

From a football perspective, the hits started coming even before the season opened. Losing Miller, a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, to a second shoulder injury seemed like enough to knock Ohio State out of the Big Ten running. The loss forced the Buckeyes to reload the entire attack on short notice. They were already breaking in four new offensive linemen and trying to replace their leading rusher and receiver.

On defense, Ohio State was also seeking to replace a pair of first-round draft picks who left early for the NFL. On top of that, the Buckeyes would soon be without another future pro when Spence failed a second drug test and was ruled permanently ineligible. This left them without the piece that was supposed to give them potentially the best overall unit in the country up front.

Difficulty filling these spots became painfully apparent in Week 2, when Virginia Tech stunned the Buckeyes by beating them in the Horseshoe. But it also proved to be an opportunity for Ohio State to rally together, close ranks and establish an us-against-the-world mentality that would fuel its rapid rise.

"I think it's the closeness of our family," running back Ezekiel Elliott said. "We're truly a family, we've been through so much together, and I mean, it's going to take a lot to tear us apart.

"We've been underdogs this season; a lot of people haven't believed in us. If it was losing Braxton or losing J.T. [Barrett], a lot of people have lost faith in us. All we have is each other, and we're going to keep this whole brotherhood together, keep grinding and keep pushing."

Singling out any one member as the engine behind Ohio State's success is almost impossible -- which is perhaps the primary reason the team is headed to the semifinal to face the Crimson Tide.

Barrett set a Big Ten record for touchdowns after replacing Miller, but he suffered his own injury. That thrust Cardale Jones into the lineup at quarterback, and the offense didn't miss a beat in a 59-0 destruction of Wisconsin.

Joey Bosa did become a bona fide star in his own right at defensive end as a finalist for a couple of major awards. Bosa had a prolific campaign that included 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss. He more than eased the loss of Spence. But he also wasn't working alone, with tackles Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington raising their games as the season progressed, combining for 21.5 tackles for loss and making it increasingly difficult for opponents to focus solely on Bosa.

And whether it was Elliott in the backfield, Michael Thomas at wide receiver or sophomore safeties Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell taking over and revitalizing the secondary, the list of young Buckeyes who stepped out of the shadows and into critical roles could keep on going.

All of them along the way turned a cliché into a simple fact for Ohio State: The team was the star.

"I think that's why this team has survived and even continued to improve and flourish through the adversity we've had," co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. "It's the high-character people on this team, the leadership of this team and then the leadership of our head coach and our staff.

"We have all those ingredients. That's what makes a team, and that's why we are where we are."

They're on the path to a possible national title, two games away, stepping into the brightest lights the game has to offer -- as a unit.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The debate will continue until the College Football Playoff selection committee reveals its picks for the four-team field, and the controversy surely won't stop then.

Does No. 5 Ohio State belong in the playoff over Big 12 co-champions TCU and Baylor? Good luck to the committee figuring that out. But as far as closing arguments go, the Buckeyes couldn't have made a stronger case.

In a stunningly easy 59-0 victory over No. 13 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, Ohio State came as close to playing a perfect game as you'll likely see. Despite a new starting quarterback, the Buckeyes eviscerated a Badgers defense that came into the game ranked No. 2 in the FBS. They turned Heisman Trophy candidate Melvin Gordon into a plodder and held him to just 76 yards on 26 carries. They piled up 558 yards and did not commit a turnover. Even Cameron Johnston's punting was spectacular.

"If that wasn't one of the four best football teams tonight," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said amid the celebratory postgame confetti, "then I don't know what you're looking for."

What made the performance all the more remarkable was how Ohio State overcame some potentially crippling adversity to get it done.

Starting quarterback J.T. Barrett broke his ankle last week against Michigan and watched the game from a wheeled cart on the sideline. Yet the Buckeyes just kept rolling with first-time starter Cardale Jones.

[+] EnlargeCardale Jones
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesFirst-time starter Cardale Jones led Ohio State to the Big Ten title. He completed 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards and three scores and was named the game's MVP.
Jones finished 12-of-17 for 257 yards and three touchdowns and was named the game's MVP. Jones said he didn't feel nervous going into the game, despite debuting with a championship and possible playoff spot on the line.

"He's just Cardale -- he's always just a happy, fun, silly guy," left tackle Taylor Decker said. "We knew we had to raise our level of play around him, and it ended up he played an amazing game. I don't know how he managed all that, but he did."

Ohio State has somehow managed to replace two star quarterbacks on the fly this season. At this point, you have to believe fourth-string quarterback Stephen Collier would be a Heisman candidate if he were thrust into action.

"It's the culture," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "I think Cardale understands that he had a responsibility to not just the team in general but that [quarterback] room. He had two guys in that room that had done amazing things at this position for this university, and he took that responsibility very, very seriously. He prepared as hard as I've seen a quarterback prepare this week."

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes defense -- which had struggled against top Big Ten running backs this season -- managed to check Gordon and not allow much in the passing game, either. The defensive effort came just days after the team attended the funeral of walk-on defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge, who was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Defensive tackle Michael Bennett, who was a pallbearer at the funeral, wore Karageorge's No. 53 for the game and had one of the best games of his career.

"I felt like we had a guardian angel out there," defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. "Kosta was our guide. We went out there and did it for him."

Jones won the MVP trophy, but the honor could have just as easily gone to several Buckeyes, including receiver Devin Smith (four catches, 137 yards, three touchdowns), tailback Ezekiel Elliott (220 rushing yards, two scores) or any number of defensive standouts. Everyone played an All-American. That's how complete a performance it was.

The question remains: Was it enough? Head coach Urban Meyer said the selection committee has a tough job ahead of it.

"All I can speak to is, I've been around teams that have competed for and won national championships," Meyer said. "This team -- the way it's playing right now -- is one of the top teams in America."

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith was a little more forceful in his comments and said the Buckeyes absolutely ought to be in the playoff. Asked what separates them from TCU and Baylor, Smith answered, "We're better."

"The football people on that committee, who watched that game through football eyes, know that they saw a championship team that deserves to be in," Smith said.

During the fourth quarter, Ohio State fans began chanting "We want 'Bama!'" After the game, Jones and a handful of players celebrated with roses atop their ears; the only way the Buckeyes are going to the Rose Bowl is if they play Oregon. If the selection committee keeps them at No. 5, they're likely headed to the Cotton Bowl.

The destination didn't matter so much in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's game. Ohio State had won a championship -- its first Big Ten title under Meyer -- while avenging last year's crushing loss here to Michigan State.

"I really can't explain that feeling," Jones said. "I want that feeling again. Me and my teammates, we would do anything for that feeling again."

The Buckeyes might or might not get their chance to win another championship this season. But they sure presented an airtight closing argument.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 14

November, 30, 2014
Nov 30
Rewarding the best and brightest performances during the final week of the regular season in the Big Ten:

Rutgers QB Gary Nova: Four touchdown passes from Nova led the way during a 28-point comeback against Maryland Saturday afternoon, leading the Scarlet Knights to a 41-38 win. Nova threw for 347 yards and, more importantly, none of his 42 pass attempts landed in the arms of Terrapins defensive backs.

Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott: The sophomore will have to carry a big load without J.T. Barrett next weekend. He got off to a good start in the fourth quarter with a 44-yard touchdown on a crucial fourth-down play against Michigan, helping Ohio State win 42-28. Elliott finished the day with 121 yards and two scores.

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: Gordon takes his normal place among the Big Ten’s top performers this week. He was the heart of the Badgers offense again while they clinched the West Division with a 34-24 win over Minnesota. He ran for 151 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries.

Illinois QB Reilly O'Toole: Talk about balance, O’Toole ran for 147 yards and passed for 147 yards to help the Fighting Illini reach the bowl eligibility plateau for the first time under Tim Beckman with a 47-33 victory over Northwestern. O’Toole accounted for three touchdowns for an offense that scored 47 points against the Wildcats.

Nebraska WR Kenny Bell: Bell caught only three passes during the Cornhuskers' 37-34 comeback win Friday, but he made them count. He started a third-quarter comeback by sneaking behind the Iowa defense for a 32-yard touchdown catch. He finished the comeback in overtime when he shed a defender and caught the game-winning pass in the front corner of the end zone.

Michigan State WR/CB Tony Lippett: The Spartans’ first two-way starter in four decades contributed on both sides of the ball Saturday. He caught four passes for 53 yards and a touchdown during a 34-10 win over Penn State. He also made one tackle and contributed to a secondary that held the Nittany Lions under 200 yards passing.
Melvin Gordon Zach Bolinger/Icon SportswireWisconsin star Melvin Gordon is one of seven 1,000-yard rushers in the Big Ten this season.
Melvin Gordon can be mesmerizing. He's such a dynamic runner, seemingly always on the verge of another huge play, that it's hard to ever turn away.

The Wisconsin junior is having a Heisman Trophy-caliber season even if he doesn't win the award next month. Although Gordon's FBS single-game rushing record of 408 yards lasted a single week, as Oklahoma's Samaje Perine eclipsed it Saturday, Gordon still became the fastest player in FBS history to reach 2,000 yards in a season (241 carries). He leads the nation with 2,109 yards. According to Wisconsin, his rushing total from the first three quarters alone (1,915 yards) still would lead the nation.

But there are other standout running backs in the Big Ten -- great ones and really good ones. As the season concludes this week for a handful of teams, it's important to acknowledge all of them. Because we might never a group of Big Ten backs like this one in the same season.

"There's a lot of guys in this league that are going to be playing on Sundays from that specific position," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said Sunday.

[+] EnlargeTevin Coleman
AP Photo/Darron CummingsTevin Coleman has been a bright spot for Indiana, setting the school's single-season rushing mark.
Think about what Tevin Coleman felt like the day Gordon went for 408. Playing Rutgers at the same time Gordon gashed Nebraska, Coleman went for 307 yards, the second-highest total in Indiana history (behind Anthony Thompson's 377, the Big Ten record that Gordon smashed). Coleman had déjà vu Saturday against Ohio State, rushing for 228 yards and three touchdowns, breaking the IU single-season rushing record but being overshadowed because he plays on a losing team.

How high would Coleman's stock be if he played for a contender?

At least Coleman's name is known around the Big Ten and, to a degree, around the country. No one is talking about Jeremy Langford. Not even in the Big Ten. OK, maybe in East Lansing. But nowhere else.

Here's what Langford did this past Saturday: rushed for 126 yards and two touchdowns as Michigan State stomped Rutgers. It marked his 15th consecutive 100-yard rushing performance against a Big Ten opponent. Think about that. He has the longest active streak of 100-yard rushing performances against conference opponents since at least 1996.

Langford has 1,242 rush yards and 17 touchdowns, and he's barely a blip on the Big Ten radar. It's a tribute to the league's incredible depth at running back. Langford is quietly having another productive season a year after quietly rushing for 1,422 yards on a team that won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl. But it's time he gets his due as one of the more consistent runners in the country the past two seasons.

"He's one of the reasons we won 13 games last year and won nine this year," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Sunday night. "Remember, he had 23 yards rushing coming into his junior year. He's put together a string of 14 100-yard games in [regular-season] conference play.

"He's been a tremendous performer for us."

Minnesota's David Cobb has a slightly higher profile than Langford, but he also gets overlooked in a league loaded with star running backs. Cobb is one of the nation's most physical and prolific backs, yet his steak evidently doesn't match Gordon's or Coleman's sizzle. Despite 1,350 rush yards entering play Saturday, Cobb amazingly didn't make the cut for Doak Walker Award semifinalists.

Cobb left Saturday's win against Nebraska with a hamstring injury. He's questionable for this week's showdown against Wisconsin, although he tweeted that he'll be ready to go. If so, the game at Camp Randall Stadium will feature the longest uninterrupted rivalry in the FBS, the Big Ten West Division title at stake, a giant axe and two of the nation's best running backs. Sign me up.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State's Jeremy Langford has been the mark of consistency with 15 straight 100-yard rushing games in Big Ten play.
Did you know that two more Big Ten backs joined the 1,000-yard club Saturday? Don't feel bad if you were too busy watching Mesmerizing Melvin rack up 207 rush yards and two touchdowns against Iowa.

Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott and Northwestern's Justin Jackson both eclipsed 1,o00 yards. Elliott recorded his fourth 100-yard rushing performance in Big Ten play and fifth of the season against Indiana. Jackson, a true freshman, boasts five 100-yard rushing performances in the past seven games and consistently produces for a Northwestern offense that has struggled most of the season.

The Big Ten now has seven 1,000-yard rushers with a week to go in the regular season. No other league has more than five. The Big Ten has four players -- Gordon, Coleman, Cobb and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah -- with more than 1,400 rush yards. No other league has more than two.

The surge has taken place without star rushers from Michigan or Penn State, two traditionally elite running programs, and despite the season-ending injury to Rutgers standout Paul James. Dantonio, who has spent much of his career in the Big Ten, recalls the running back depth in the mid-to-late 1990s, when the league had stars like Wisconsin's Ron Dayne, Ohio State's Eddie George, Michigan's Tim Biakabutuka and Penn State's Curtis Enis.

"It seemed like everybody had a guy," Dantonio said. "It's very similar to that [now]. You've got four or five guys who really deserve to be first-team all-conference players. Somebody's going to get left out in the cold a little bit."

That's life in the league of running backs, but this group, not just Gordon, should not soon be forgotten.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A public endorsement as a Heisman Trophy candidate is one thing, and when it’s earned, Urban Meyer has no problem offering it.

But a private conversation about an individual award is something else entirely, and the Ohio State coach doesn’t have plans for one of those with J.T. Barrett any time soon.

The redshirt freshman quarterback and blossoming national star is certainly attracting more attention, and he is steadily shooting up the polls as a candidate for the game’s most prestigious honor. Though Meyer has some experience dealing with the hoopla that accompanies a Heisman campaign and could counsel his young star if need be, at this point there appears be no need for a State of the Stiff-arm the way he might otherwise address his team’s playoff chances.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesJ.T. Barrett is part of the Heisman conversation, but has not changed his work habits or attitude.
"That’s real, you start having that [exposure], but this kid is so grounded," Meyer said. "Once again, that’s a credit to his family.

"But if I saw it [being a distraction], certainly I’d jump in the middle of that. But I haven’t even given it two thoughts."

Barrett seems to be giving it little consideration as well, though he is clearly aware that he is now part of the conversation as the season hits the closing stretch with the No. 6 Buckeyes gaining steam thanks to his 38 total touchdowns.

His emergence has been well-documented since taking over during training camp following an injury to Braxton Miller, who was supposed to be staging his own run for the Heisman as a senior after finishing in the top 10 each of the past two seasons. But Barrett has now gone well beyond being simply a caretaker for the spread attack in Miller’s absence, shattering records on a weekly basis and helping the Buckeyes expand the playbook thanks his accuracy as a passer, underrated athleticism and an uncanny ability to make the right decision -- both through the air and on the ground.

His success has done more than draw the spotlight to him as a potential candidate for individual awards, prompting additional speculation now about whether Barrett has so far exceeded Miller’s decorated tenure that the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year should be his backup next season, or even switch positions once his surgically repaired shoulder heals. But if all that extra attention or scrutiny is changing Barrett, it certainly doesn’t seem to be inflating his ego or impacting his preparation.

"I hope it doesn’t change me," Barrett said. "I hope I stay the same. I try hard to be the same. Working hard, being here on a Wednesday night, I probably won’t leave until like 9 o’clock, you know, grinding, getting right and everything like that.

"I hope it doesn’t change me, I’m going to do my best to make sure it doesn’t. I have people around here to keep me grounded, so it’s really unlikely for that to happen."

Meyer has made it clear he would be among the first to bring Barrett back to earth if necessary, though so far he hasn’t needed to lean on the expertise acquired while guiding Alex Smith or Tim Tebow through the Heisman circus.

Barrett also has the benefit of sharing a locker room with a couple teammates who are dealing with similar attention, albeit on slightly smaller scales. Joey Bosa is a finalist for the Lombardi Award, Michael Bennett was a preseason All-America still pushing for individual honors, and a handful of skill players on both sides of the ball are in the mix for all-conference accolades.

For all of them, starting with Barrett and his high-profile campaign, one thing above all else is driving the conversation. And worrying about individual awards instead of team victories would be getting it all completely backwards.

"I'm having a lot of fun coaching this team," Meyer said. "J.T. is a Heisman candidate that knows that he could have played much better Saturday, and that's the best thing about coaching these guys right now. I hope it doesn't change.

"That's something we're watching very closely with guys that are starting to get some notoriety. You know, [Ezekiel Elliott] has a chance to get 1,000 yards, and the minute he becomes something other than Zeke Elliott, that's a problem, and same with J.T., same with Joey Bosa. I've just got to make sure they don't change."

For now that means it’s fine to publicly talk about awards or tout Buckeyes as candidates. But Meyer doesn’t expect to have any other conversations after that.
Ohio State made its down payment late in the first half with long touchdown strikes from J.T. Barrett to Michael Thomas and Devin Smith.

The Buckeyes completed their building inspection late in the third quarter with a run-fueled scoring drive. They closed on the property with 7:12 left in the fourth quarter on Ezekiel Elliott's second touchdown run.

Soon after, the Buckeyes collected the keys from the unit's reluctant tenant, the Michigan State Spartans. Late Saturday night, after singing "Carmen Ohio" in Spartan Stadium, they moved back into their old pad: the Big Ten penthouse.

[+] EnlargeDevin Smith
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioIn order to make the first College Football Playoff, Devin Smith and Ohio State have to fight the national perception of the Big Ten and hope for a few more upsets.
It's a place the Buckeyes know well. They lived there during most of coach Jim Tressel's tenure. They weren't the official residents in 2012, thanks to a postseason ban, but they spent the autumn looking down at the rest of the league.

Michigan State barged in last year, evicting Ohio State during the Big Ten championship game. But Ohio State is back after Saturday's 49-37 win.

The penthouse is a nice place: big rooms, fridge stocked with meat and beer, view that stretches from New Jersey to Nebraska.

There's only one problem: a low ceiling.

See, the Big Ten penthouse isn't Ohio State's dream home. You don't hire Urban Meyer for such a provincial purpose.

Ohio State wants to move on up to the playoff apartment in the sky, but it might not have the chance, partly because of its own shortcomings. Other than No. 19 Duke and No. 11 Nebraska, Ohio State is the lowest-rated one-loss team from a Power 5 conference in the latest AP Poll. It's unlikely the Buckeyes will be slotted above Oregon, Alabama, TCU, Baylor or Arizona State in the next College Football Playoff Rankings, issued Tuesday.

Ohio State looks like the Big Ten's best, but it will need a lot of help to be acknowledged as one of college football's best four.

A bad night in September still haunts Meyer's team. A 14-point home loss to Virginia Tech is the lone blemish, yet a very visible one, on Ohio State's résumé. Virginia Tech's steady decline in a weak ACC -- the 4-5 Hokies sit in last place in the Coastal Division -- continues to puncture the Buckeyes' playoff push.

The good news is that the playoff selection committee seems to prioritize who teams have conquered ahead of their conquerors. Ohio State's victory over Michigan State should resonate all the way until selection Sunday, as long as the Spartans don't slip up again.

But how much credit will Ohio State get from beating an improved Minnesota team this week? Would a Buckeyes victory over Nebraska or Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game resonate with the committee?

Ohio State obviously must win out to have a chance. Nebraska winning out until the Big Ten championship game would help.

Arguably the bigger lifts must come elsewhere: Florida State slipping up in the ACC, possibly this week against Miami; TCU and Baylor stumbling against inferior Big 12 foes; Arizona State falling to rival Arizona and then handing Oregon its second loss in the Pac-12 title game; Mississippi State or Alabama -- ideally, both -- suffering their second losses.

It's quite a wish list for the Scarlet and Gray, but this has been the season of giving.

"The last two weeks [of the season] are most important as clarity will emerge from a level of chaos this [past] weekend represented," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told me Sunday. "We will see upsets again. I do believe this committee is going to objectively look at who's the best team at the end of the year, not the most deserving.

"I'm counting on the football people on the committee to give consideration to teams that got better over the course of the year."

The thrust of Ohio State's argument is that the current team doesn't resemble the one that lost to Virginia Tech. Meyer, appearing Monday morning on ESPN's "Mike & Mike," said this team is the "most improved" he has ever coached.

Smith recalled that while serving on the NCAA basketball tournament selection committee, discussions between teams often boiled down to this simple question: Who would win if they played right now?

Smith also thinks the Big Ten is better than its perception, still warped by the Week 2/Week 3 struggles endured by Ohio State, Michigan State and others.

"The top of our league is very strong, just like in other leagues," Smith said. "You're always going to have X number of teams at the top who are pretty darn good and are getting better as the year goes along. That's what we have now.

"Those teams who have gotten better are really starting to perform."

Ohio State is one of those teams.

"You beat Michigan State and did what they did offensively," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill told me Sunday, "they're very, very, very, very good."

Perhaps top-four-in-the-country-good. But they might never rise to that level.

The Big Ten ceiling looks awfully sturdy.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- This isn't your father's Big Ten anymore. Ohio State is officially the top dog in America's blue-collar conference, and it got there by lighting up the Spartan Stadium scoreboard on Saturday night.

The Buckeyes, behind a huge night from redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett, beat No. 8 Michigan State 49-37 in East Lansing while establishing itself as the Big Ten's best chance to reach the College Football Playoff. The Buckeyes rolled up 568 yards of total offense against the typically stingy Spartan defense. The 49 points Michigan State surrendered tied the most a Mark Dantonio team has allowed at Michigan State.

Ezekiel Elliott ran for 154 yards and two touchdowns for the Buckeyes, and Barrett provided his team's other five scores. Michigan State senior Jeremy Langford ran for 137 yards and three touchdowns in a losing effort. A holding penalty negated a fourth score, which would have given the Spartans a 14-point lead late in the second quarter.

How the game was won: Ohio State scored twice on its final six plays of the first half, both courtesy of long touchdown receptions, to take its first lead of the game. The Spartans were unable to recover in the second half and sputtered on offense until the Buckeyes had built a comfortable fourth-quarter lead.

Game ball goes to: Barrett, who took a significant step forward Saturday night by showing he could handle a big moment. The rookie threw three touchdown passes and ran for two more during a mistake-free night against the Spartans defense. He finished with 386 total yards of offense.

What it means: The Buckeyes should be heavy favorites in their three remaining games, which gives them a clear path to the Big Ten title game. And after that, who knows? Michigan State will need Ohio State to stumble to get back into contention for a Big Ten championship, which makes a repeat trip to Indianapolis unlikely.

Playoff implication: The Spartans had the Big Ten’s best shot, but at least four teams -- and as many as six -- ranked ahead of No. 14 Ohio State lost this weekend. The Buckeyes pass the eye test, but the conference will probably need help from elsewhere in the country to land a team in the first final four.

Best play: Barrett's best throw of the night came with just under a minute remaining in the first half. A play-action fake gave Devin Smith just enough space behind the Spartans' secondary, and Barrett dropped a ball into his arms six yards deep in the end zone. The score gave Ohio State a 28-21 lead, and it never looked back.

video What's next: Michigan State gets the two Big Ten newcomers in back-to-back weeks before finishing the season in Happy Valley. Ohio State has to travel to Minnesota for its toughest remaining test before a possible Big Ten championship game appearance. The Golden Gophers are coming off an impressive win over Iowa.
Our crew of Big Ten reporters will periodically offer takes on burning questions that face the league. They'll have strong opinions but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide who's right.

Our topic for Wednesday as No. 14 Ohio State prepares to visit No. 8 Michigan State on Saturday (7 p.m., ABC) in the showdown of the season in the East: Which team has the more potent offense?

Take 1: Mitch Sherman

In the Big Ten title game meeting last year between the Spartans and Buckeyes, so much of the attention focused on that fantastic MSU defense against Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. Of course, Connor Cook and the Spartans' offense stole the show, rolling to a 34-24 win.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
AP Photo/Al GoldisQuarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford can make a strong case for Michigan State being superior at the offensive skill spots.
Is anyone really going to overlook the Michigan State offense again? The Spartans are better offensively than a year ago, bringing back Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and receiver Tony Lippett. I'd argue that the Spartans are better than Ohio State at all three skill spots. And MSU, led by left tackle Jack Conklin -- who will attempt to neutralize defensive end Joey Bosa -- is equally as strong as the Buckeyes on the offensive line.

If the season ended today, OSU freshman J.T. Barrett may, in fact, win out over Cook as the All-Big Ten quarterback. But Cook has a better supporting cast and leads the league in QBR.

Additionally, the Spartans rank No. 1 in the Big Ten in yards per game (515.3), yards per passing attempt (9.1) and have allowed just five sacks, also best in the Big Ten. In fact, the only statistical areas in which the Buckeyes claim an edge are points per game (45.6 to 45.5) and rushing yards per game (259.3 to 254.9).

Not exactly a resounding advantage.

Yes, the Spartans struggled after halftime against Oregon and Nebraska. Yes, Barrett and the Buckeyes piled up big numbers against Kent State and Cincinnati. But examine Ohio State's only trip to play in a hostile environment. The Buckeyes needed overtime to escape Penn State, finishing with fewer than 300 yards.

Michigan State is better and more experienced at the positions that matter. It's been tested more often. My verdict: The Spartans' offense is better.

Take 2: Josh Moyer

Michigan State better at three offensive skill spots? I'll give you the wideout position, Mitch, but as for the other two -- allow me to quote our colleague Lee Corso: Not so fast, my friend.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY SportsJ.T. Barrett's ability to make plays with his feet simply cannot be overlooked.
Let's start off at the most important position, quarterback. Although you cite QBR, I'm hoping you wouldn't mind if we take a look at other categories. Overall numbers? Barrett leads the B1G in pass efficiency, trails Cook by just 12 passing yards and has thrown for a half-dozen more touchdowns. Potential? The offense was incredibly simplistic in the first two games, and the playbook has gotten thicker every week. Respect? Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones called Barrett the “way better quarterback” over Braxton Miller, a two-time B1G offensive player of the year. Oh, and then there's the whole makes-plays-with-his-feet thing.

On top of all that, Mitch, every single one of us voted for Barrett over Cook in our weekly awards tracker. So you're half-right: Barrett may in fact gain that spot as the first-team All-Big Ten quarterback -- but because he's been better.

As far as the rushing game, you concede the Buckeyes have the slight statistical advantage there. True, but let's take an even deeper look. OSU leads the FBS by gaining at least 5 yards a carry on 52 percent of its runs. And Ezekiel Elliott is a budding star who currently boasts a higher yards-per-carry average than Langford. So I would venture to say Ohio State holds more than a slight advantage here.

Barrett didn't look great through the air against Penn State -- neither did Cook against Nebraska -- but Elliott still finished with 109 yards (4.2 ypc) in that game. The Nittany Lions remain No. 1 in the nation in rush defense, allowing 2.29 yards a carry and 77.1 yards a game. And Ohio State nearly tripled that total.

As I said, I'll spot you the receiver position. Tony Lippett is the best in the Big Ten. But, when it comes to quarterback and rushing the ball, the Buckeyes boast the advantage. So say what you will, but I'm sticking with Ohio State.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The Nittany Lions' defense swarmed and nearly came away with the upset win Saturday night. Nearly.

Instead, they walked off the field silently after falling 31-24 against No. 12 Ohio State in double overtime. The Buckeyes scored two touchdowns in the overtime periods and sacked Christian Hackenberg on the final play.

Penn State's Anthony Zettel returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown, and the defense held J.T. Barrett to just 74 passing yards.

The Buckeyes showed they were the better team with a strong defense and ground game. Penn State didn't enter the red zone until the final quarter, and Ohio State limited PSU to 16 rushing yards on 31 carries.

With the win, Ohio State improves to 6-1, 3-0 in the Big Ten. Penn State drops to 4-3, 1-3 in the conference.

How the game was won: Ohio State’s defense dominated, as the Nittany Lions just couldn’t get anything started until the final quarter. Penn State finished with 240 total yards -- and didn’t reach the red zone until the final quarter. By then, it was too late. Two controversial calls in the first half also helped Ohio State, as a questionable interception call led to an Ohio State touchdown and a field goal counted despite the snap coming after the play clock had expired.

Gameball goes to: Ohio State's Joey Bosa. He finished with six tackles and 2.5 sacks -- but his final sack was most important of all. He tackled Hackenberg in the backfield to end the game. Ezekiel Elliott and Mike Hull also deserve mentions here, but Bosa's play had the biggest impact.

Playoff implications: The Buckeyes are still in this. For them to truly be considered, though, they’ll have to win out. Nothing is guaranteed, but the College Football Playoff committee might be willing to overlook the Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech – as long as the Buckeyes beat Michigan State in two weeks and then win the Big Ten title.

What’s next: Ohio State will take on Illinois at the Horseshoe next week, while Penn State remains at home against Maryland. The Illini are coming off a surprise win against Minnesota, and the Terrapins are coming off a big loss to Wisconsin.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 8

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
Let the second half of the season begin.

The Big Ten's West Division is still as muddled as ever, Rutgers is searching for more respect, and several teams still aren’t secure at quarterback. This week's games could help make the overall conference picture a bit clearer, but plenty of time – and storylines – remain. Here’s a look at Saturday’s games and what to expect (all times Eastern):


Iowa (5-1) at Maryland (4-2), ESPN2: The Terrapins have had a week to rest, and they’ll need it against a tough Hawkeyes team. Iowa scored an uncharacteristic 45 points last week, and Maryland’s defense is giving up more yards – but fewer points – than the Hawkeyes’ last opponent, Indiana. This is an interesting matchup for a lot of reasons. Not only is Iowa trying to remain atop the West, but we could possibly see four quarterbacks. Kirk Ferentz still wants to play both Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard, while Randy Edsall won’t hesitate to pull C.J. Brown for Caleb Rowe if Brown struggles the way he did against Ohio State.

Purdue (3-4) at Minnesota (5-1), BTN: The Boilermakers shocked the Big Ten last week by hanging 31 points on Michigan State -- and that wasn’t lost on Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, who praised Purdue’s offensive line. With Austin Appleby now playing well at quarterback, this isn’t the “gimme” game it appeared to be a few weeks ago. Regardless, Purdue’s run defense is still lacking, and that’s not good news against Minnesota. David Cobb is rushing for more than 136 yards per game, and he’s one of the more underrated players in the Big Ten. He isn’t just the spark in this offense, he’s the engine – and he’ll again be key to the Gophers’ success. If Minnesota keeps winning, voters in both polls won’t be able to ignore this team for much longer.

3:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesJ.T. Barrett's rapid improvement has the Buckeyes as a big favorite at home against Big Ten newcomer Rutgers.
No. 8 Michigan State (5-1) at Indiana (3-3), ESPN: This matchup is happening at the worst time for the Hoosiers. Not only is starting quarterback Nate Sudfeld out for the season, but backup Chris Covington will reportedly not play Saturday, either. That leaves true freshman Zander Diamont, who weighs 160-some pounds, according to Indiana coach Kevin Wilson. Indiana boasts the nation’s leading rusher in Tevin Coleman, but it’s no secret Michigan State will stack the box and dare the Hoosiers to pass. And even if Indiana succeeds in scoring, it still might not be enough to keep up with a balanced Spartans offense. It could be a long day for Indiana.

Rutgers (5-1) at No. 13 Ohio State (4-1), ABC/ESPN2: Rutgers is the surprise team in the Big Ten right now, but there would be no bigger surprise than if it were able to knock off the Buckeyes at the Horseshoe. Quarterback J.T. Barrett is rolling, running back Ezekiel Elliott is solid and the Scarlet Knights’ defense will be tested, B1G time. Ohio State holds the advantage in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense, scoring offense, passing offense and rushing offense. Rutgers has embraced its underdog role so far this season, and it’s a big underdog in this one.

7 p.m.

No. 19 Nebraska (5-1) at Northwestern (3-3), BTN: The Wildcats have faced three one-dimensional offenses in a row, but that ends with the Cornhuskers. Not only does Nebraska have one of the nation’s best running backs in Ameer Abdullah, but quarterback Tommy Armstrong is also fourth in the Big Ten in both passing yards per game and pass efficiency. This is the highest-rated offense (No. 10 in total offense) that the Wildcats have faced all season. Nebraska’s defense isn’t too bad, either, and Trevor Siemian will have to be on top of his game for Northwestern to stand a chance.

Required reading
Dantonio/MeyerUSA TODAY SportsMark Dantonio, left, and Urban Meyer have their teams on course for another huge B1G showdown.

In case a reminder was needed after another chaotic weekend on the field, rankings, projections, underdogs and favorites don't usually mean a whole lot to college football. The best laid plans typically don't last long.

But there is one from the preseason that suddenly appears to be back on track. Though there is still more than a month to go until what was presumed to be the biggest battle in the Big Ten actually kicks off on Nov. 8 in East Lansing, Michigan, what is the fun in just sitting around and waiting until then to start talking about it. Now that No. 8 Michigan State and No. 15 Ohio State seem to be on a collision course again, who is in better shape for that matchup and to potentially win a Big Ten crown?

We are breaking it down Take Two-style.

Austin Ward: Ohio State

Go back through the checklist of reasons the Buckeyes were picked as the top contender in the conference and a potential factor in the College Football Playoff before the season started. Dynamic quarterback, dangerous defensive line, explosive weapons at the skill positions, and a decorated coaching staff that has proven it can get the most out of the talent on hand.

What exactly has changed since then?

Certainly Braxton Miller's injury was a meaningful loss given his experience and the two Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year trophies. But don't look now, after an early hiccup J.T. Barrett is actually on pace to post better passing numbers across the board and looks every bit as suited to run Urban Meyer's spread offense as his predecessor. And all those same talented players at wide receiver, running back and tight end that were supposed to make Miller's life easier are doing precisely that for Barrett, with the only challenge finding a way to get all of them touches.

The defensive line might not be the best in the nation thanks to the indefinite suspension of Noah Spence. But as long as Joey Bosa is around to wreak havoc on the edge and Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington are still handling their business on the inside, the Buckeyes are still as fearsome up front as anybody in the Big Ten.

And don't forget that Meyer, a two-time national champ, is still on the sideline overseeing the entire operation.

Ohio State has some weaknesses, and anybody who favored the Spartans initially still likely has the same reasons to point to at this stage of the season. The head-to-head meeting is on Michigan State's turf, it won the last matchup on a neutral field and the Buckeyes still look suspect at times in the secondary.

But after putting that early loss to Virginia Tech behind them and moving on from Miller's injury, the Buckeyes are starting to look exactly like a conference contender should. Based on the preseason predictions, nothing has changed.

Josh Moyer: Michigan State

Let’s not overthink this, Austin. The Buckeyes are definitely improving every week, but they have played just two teams with winning records so far -- and they have only won one of those games (Virginia Tech, Maryland). So I think it’s a little premature to start saying Ohio State boasts a better team than the defending Big Ten champion.

I’m not saying the Spartans’ schedule is all that much harder, but they have at least impressed with a good win against Nebraska. Plus, they have played two ranked opponents. No Ohio State opponent is even receiving votes in either poll. And you mentioned Barrett's gaudy numbers, but he has played just one defense -- Virginia Tech -- that is ranked within the top 85. Have the Buckeyes really been tested yet?

Michigan State is the safe pick, the easy choice here. Meyer called his secondary an "Achilles’ Heel"; Michigan State has no glaring weakness. Cincinnati actually posted more passing yards and passing touchdowns against Ohio State than Oregon did against Michigan State.

True, the Spartans’ 2014 defense isn’t as good as 2013. Even head coach Mark Dantonio admitted that. But it’s still forcing turnovers (No. 4 in the country), still limiting yards (No. 11 in the country), still racking up sacks (No. 3 in the country) and still limiting rushing yards (No. 4 in the country.) Ohio State just can’t compare right now.

On top of it all, Michigan State’s offense is clearly better than last season. Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford aren't putting up video game numbers, but they have been solid. And give me Tony Lippett over Devin Smith any day. The Buckeyes are a good team, but the Spartans are the better team right now.

We’ll find out for sure on Nov. 8 but, until then, Michigan State will still remain No. 1 in our Big Ten power rankings, Vegas will still favor MSU over OSU, and voters from Ohio to California will still agree in the polls that the Spartans are the better team. Because they are.
You can take much of what we predicted in the preseason and throw it in the trash. Please. (Rutgers at 4-8 and Michigan at 8-4? Bad, Brian, bad).

But one idea we had about the Big Ten in the offseason seems to be playing out just as it was forecast: Michigan State and Ohio State are the best two teams in the league, and there's a noticeable dropoff after that.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Rush
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan State's defense can smother opposing offenses like it did for three quarters against Nebraska.
That didn't necessarily look like the case in early September, certainly not after Ohio State lost 35-21 at home to Virginia Tech. That result in hindsight wasn't all that surprising, as quarterback J.T. Barrett played just his second game in the wake of Braxton Miller's August shoulder shutdown and had trouble reading the Hokies defense.

Just look what has happened since. In the past three games, Ohio State has scored at least 50 points in each while outscoring its opponents 168-52. Barrett's improvement is happening at warp speed. In those same three games, he has completed 75 percent of his passes for 909 yards and 14 touchdowns, with just one interception. He also added 156 rushing yards and a score.

Sure, the defenses at Kent State and Cincinnati are deplorable, and Maryland showed itself susceptible to the big play earlier this season against West Virginia. Yet many thought the Terps were feisty enough to keep things close at home Saturday, and the Buckeyes simply crushed them.

Even if Miller had played this season, I always thought Ohio State would have a large learning curve based on the youth of his surrounding cast. Now, skill players like Michael Thomas and Ezekiel Elliott and the rebuilt offensive line are all coming on strong alongside Barrett, making the Buckeyes one of the scariest teams in the Big Ten's second half.

Can Urban Meyer's team, which is ranked No. 15 in both major polls this week, even work itself back into College Football Playoff contention? It depends on whether the selection committee can forgive that early loss and issue a pass because of the Miller injury. If this were the basketball tournament, the committee would take the injury into account and focus more on how the team finished. But no one is really sure how the new football selection committee will weigh things.

Ohio State only has one marquee game left on its schedule, and that's the Nov. 8 showdown at Michigan State. Just as we thought in the preseason, that should be epic.

The Spartans haven't played to their full potential for a whole game yet, but if they ever get to that level, they could prove unstoppable. They nearly did so against Nebraska, building a 27-3 lead after three quarters. When Michigan State's defense is smothering every passing route and squashing the run as it did much of Saturday night -- the Cornhuskers had their lowest rushing output since 2007, and Ameer Abdullah was neutralized for the first time in a couple years -- it must seem to opposing offenses like Pat Narduzzi is putting 12 or 13 players on the field.

But the MSU offense hasn't yet been able to take over the end game by pounding the ball on the ground the way it did so many times last season. That's a big reason why the Spartans had to hold on for dear life as Nebraska mounted a stunning fourth-quarter comeback and nearly stole the win on the road.

"It's pretty unacceptable how we played," quarterback Connor Cook said afterward, and it's telling that a win over a previously 5-0, No. 19-ranked team felt substandard to Michigan State. "We'll use this as motivation, because we never want to perform like this ever again."

In peak form, the Spartans and Buckeyes are just a notch above everyone else in the Big Ten. Nebraska can occasionally rise to that level but remains far too inconsistent and sloppy with the ball. Wisconsin and Minnesota can't generate a passing game, Penn State can't block well enough for its stellar quarterback and Iowa just isn't explosive enough. When Northwestern leads the West Division after losing at home to both Cal and Northern Illinois, you know there's a lack of great teams in the league.

The Big Ten's long shot playoff hopes still rest in East Lansing and Columbus. Both teams should enter that Nov. 8 game with just one loss. Michigan State spends the next two weeks in the Hoosier State against Purdue and Indiana before hosting struggling Michigan in a game that could wind up a bloodbath -- unless, for maybe the first time ever, the Spartans find themselves actually looking past the Wolverines. Ohio State has tougher tests, with a visit from 5-1 Rutgers after this week's bye, followed by a potentially tricky trip to Penn State. But the Buckeyes' athleticism should push them through both games, and the Nov. 1 home game against the walking dead Illinois defense offers the chance to break that school record for offense for real this time.

So we're back to where we started this season and, really, where we were last December. Michigan State and Ohio State are clearly the league's top two teams. Even dummies like us can see that.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The physical difference is plain to see.

The height is the same, but Ezekiel Elliott is about 20 pounds lighter than the guy who came before him.

The unique mentality requires a bit more of an explanation.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsEzekiel Elliott has proven to be a worthy heir to Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde.
Ohio State's current starting running back is the first to admit he'd prefer to make tacklers miss and get to the perimeter, while his predecessor thrived on contact and seemed to go out of his way to bowl over defenders.

The offensive system isn't even exactly the same now, either, with the Buckeyes dialing up the tempo to unprecedented levels and rotating through their personnel at the skill positions instead of largely relying on two main guys to carry the load.

But for all the ways he might not fit the mold Carlos Hyde left behind, it looks clear that the two share at least one key trait after Elliott tallied 112 yards after contact last week in a performance that would have made his old mentor proud.

"Well, yeah, I'm not as big of a back as Carlos," Elliott said. "I can't take as many hits as him. He's more of a bruiser-type back, and I have a little more finesse to me.

"But just being a running back, you've got to be tough. You have to have some bruise to you."

Elliott might not pack quite the same punch, but Cincinnati certainly left Ohio Stadium black and blue last weekend after the sophomore relentlessly pounded away at its defense. He unofficially announced himself as a worthy heir to Hyde in the backfield.

He also showed the same ability to handle a healthy workload while appearing to gain strength as a game goes on. Elliott wore down the Bearcats with his 28 carries for 182 yards while adding 51 more on 5 catches. The record-setting outing with 45 first downs and 710 yards was sparked largely by Elliott and the rushing attack, a throwback to last season ago when Braxton Miller was teaming with Hyde and posting eye-popping statistics at nearly every turn.

That explosive dynamic was notably absent during the Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, with redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett and Elliott struggling to make an impact. The defeat put Ohio State's playoff candidacy on the ropes quickly. Elliott finished with just 32 yards on 8 carries against the Hokies, and there certainly wasn't much happening after contact in that game.

But like seemingly everybody else on an inexperienced offense, the improvement every week has been pretty evident as Elliott grows more comfortable with his role and responsibilities. The Buckeyes figure to only grow more dangerous as a result.

"On Saturday, he did the job you would want a Carlos Hyde to do," co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. "But he's a different runner than Carlos. He's playing with very low pad level, he plays with great energy, he's explosive and he finishes runs with great pad level. He doesn't want to make direct contact. He wants to edge defenders, which always allows you to finish runs and come out the other end.

"He's developed, and here we go starting to show that on the field."

Against the Bearcats, Elliot left a lot of defenders having to pick themselves back up while he kept moving down the field.

That's been a familiar sight for Ohio State opponents over the last few seasons. While the guy doing it now has a different method, it's already shaping up to be just as effective.

"That's definitely one of our core values in the running back room," Elliott said. "Get those yards after contact, fight with that extra effort.

"You can't just be all outside, you know? You've got to have a downhill aspect to you."

After a bit of a slow start, Elliott has the ball rolling that way now and Ohio State is building momentum again in the process.

OSU facing problems Miller couldn't fix

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The list of things Braxton Miller can do when not forced to keep a sharp blue suit on during warmups while shackled on the sideline, protecting a surgically-repaired shoulder with a sling, is incredibly long.

The Ohio State quarterback is a strong-armed passer. He’s developed into a vocal leader after three seasons as a starter. He’s electrifying with the football in his hands, a blur when he hits the accelerator to take off as a rusher and as slippery as they come when a defender tries to cut him down.

[+] EnlargeChase Williams
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsNot even Braxton Miller could have completely neutralized the pass-rush onslaught that Virginia Tech unleashed on Ohio State's spotty offensive line.
But there are plenty of attributes Miller doesn’t possess, and those happen to be the things the Buckeyes had in short supply last weekend when Virginia Tech invaded Ohio Stadium and dealt Urban Meyer his first regular-season loss with the program.

Miller isn’t a receiver, so his hands wouldn’t have been much use in cleaning up the costly drops that plagued the offense. He’s clearly not a blocker, so even though Miller can dance away from would-be tackles better than almost anybody in the country, erasing all seven sacks seems a bit unlikely. He’s also not a defender, leaving his absence largely irrelevant for a team that was repeatedly victimized on third down and had trouble running down Hokies quarterback Michael Brewer as he extended plays.

There’s no question that removing Miller from the lineup is significant for the Buckeyes, but he’s not the only face missing from the roster that won 24 straight games to open Meyer’s tenure with Ohio State. And it’s filling the void left by all those other veterans that has created a bigger challenge than perhaps even Meyer anticipated.

“It’s been a little bit greater, and I think this one we got exposed a little bit,” Meyer said. “It's amazing how fragile this game is. You catch that [dropped] touchdown pass, and I know there’s what if and all that other stuff, but if you make a couple plays, that is a different ballgame.

“That is the fine line of how fragile this whole thing is. I thought we'd be a little further ahead, but we were exposed in this game.”

The holes were brought to the surface quickly by the Hokies, and they were likely going to be there whether Miller was on the field or not.

The Buckeyes lost four starters on the offensive line, and they even went into the season opener against Navy with uncertainty at the top of the depth chart at two different spots up front. Miller’s replacement at quarterback, J.T. Barrett, faced a relentless barrage of pressure against Virginia Tech and had virtually no chance of making a play while getting sacked six times down the stretch.

Barrett had done enough as a passer earlier to keep the Buckeyes rolling, but Corey Smith's muffed touchdown was just one among a handful of critical drops that plagued the receivers -- who couldn’t have expected the balls to be delivered any better from Miller.

The tailbacks haven’t supplied much help on the ground through two weeks either. After overpowering opponents with their rushing attack under Meyer, starting running back Ezekiel Elliott is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry.

And for all of Ohio State’s issues a year ago, it surely would have helped to have a pair of athletes with first-round NFL talent on the field to chase down Brewer or provide tighter coverage on third-and-long situations.

The common theme is not Miller. It’s how important Carlos Hyde was to the rushing attack. The value of having a veteran receiver like Philly Brown to provide consistent hands on the perimeter. The incredible work Jack Mewhort, Corey Linsley, Andrew Norwell and Marcus Hall did on the line. The amazing production Ryan Shazier provided at linebacker and the threat Bradley Roby posed to quarterbacks with his game-breaking ability at cornerback.

None of those guys are coming back for the Buckeyes, and they will have to find a way to make up for that, particularly on offense. Eventually they’ll get Miller back next season, but the Buckeyes have a lot of growing up to do elsewhere before then.

“Carlos brought a special demeanor, a special skill set to our offense last year,” running backs coach Stan Drayton said. “Are these guys Carlos? No, they’re not Carlos right now. But at the same time, this is a different team all around. We have a different offensive line. We have a different quarterback that plays. We have a lot of things different right now, so offensively, we have to fit our skill set.

“It’s not a positive, it’s not a negative, we just have to find ways to be productive in a different way.”

It’s impossible to know for sure, but the Buckeyes might have been trying to find answers even with Miller involved in the search. As talented as he is, Miller is only one guy -- and he didn’t have the ability to replace everybody else who’s gone.
With his teammates lining up to pat his helmet or offer compliments, J.T. Barrett just jogged silently through the praise and waited for his center after Saturday’s final touchdown. He didn’t even spit his mouthpiece out until he reached the bench.

Then, with two minutes left in the game, the Ohio State quarterback began taking practice snaps. He didn't joke, didn't smile, even when the game was virtually won -- Ohio State 34, Navy 17 -- and it looked as if his day might be over.

“J.T. is a very serious guy,” running back Ezekiel Elliott said. “He goes about his business, and he’s a pro. That’s how he acts.”

Nearly 1,500 miles away in Barrett’s hometown of Wichita Falls, Texas – a town whose claim to fame is a 54-foot cascade of man-made falls – his past high school coach and teammates weren’t surprised. That’s always been J.T., they said.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesThose who know him best weren't surprised by J.T. Barrett's performance on Saturday.
This is the Barrett they grew up with, the one who missed his senior season with a torn ACL but still attended practice with a jersey on and a helmet by his side. It’s the Barrett who shocked coaches as a sixth-grader when he hurled a pass 50 yards at camp. And it’s the Barrett who never takes his focus off the game – even when it’s in hand.

“That’s J.T. right there, man,” said Jim Garfield, who coached Barrett on the Rider Raiders. “He’s all business. He’s going to operate and he’s going to do all the things the staff ask him to do. It doesn’t surprise me at all.”

Business-like and calm and collected were the adjectives attached to nearly every conversation about Barrett, from Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer and TV analysts on down to Buckeyes teammates and high school friends. It’s just about the first thing to notice in the redshirt freshman.

Barrett kept an even tone around a scrum of reporters following Saturday’s Navy game. He surveyed the room, maintained eye contact and spoke about an interception the same way he talked about a touchdown.

Was there a time you said to yourself you’d be fine after the pick?

“Not really,” Barrett said.

He didn’t need to; he knew he’d be fine. In the past, he’d prepare for situations and plays by envisioning them all in his backyard. He was ready for anything; a change in scenery wasn’t going to alter that.

“He is a phenom; there’s no other way to describe it,” said Brandon Williams, his friend and high school receiver. “His mind just works in so many different ways that you couldn’t even imagine. You could play the kid in Connect Four, and he will not let you win. He will win no matter what it takes – if it’s him that has to get the ball or the next guy down the line. His leadership, you wouldn’t believe. When he talks, you get chills down your spine.”

The Buckeyes are hoping for every bit of that from Barrett this weekend. Virginia Tech’s defense was ranked No. 4 nationally in total defense last season – and it’s sure to be a tougher matchup for Barrett than Navy. But Barrett’s former high school teammates just laughed when asked if Barrett would be at all intimidated or panicked.

He's a professional, they said, and he approaches every game -- and every drive -- the same way.

Former Rider running back Domanic Thrasher recalled the time Barrett calmed the team in the huddle and led a game-winning touchdown drive with 56 seconds left. Williams remembered the time the Rider staff signaled a play to the offense by holding their arms up as if there were a touchdown – literal name of the play: “Greatest Football Play Ever” -- right before Barrett heaved a long score to end the first half. And Garfield, the coach, can remember the way Barrett always managed to stay upbeat, even in the face of deficits -- or a season-ending injury as a senior.

“In pressure situations, you would never see a downside on him,” Garfield said. “He was always a positive and matter-of-fact person. And, after that injury, he was like a coach on the sideline.”

Ohio State fans haven’t seen the entire Barrett yet. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman wants to bring the first-year starter along gradually, after all, so shorter passes and an established run game were the Buckeyes’ backbone Saturday.

But, as season progresses and Barrett becomes more accustomed to the offense, those who know him best say the Big Ten is in for a surprise. The 19-year-old is all business, and he still has a long career ahead.

“You really haven’t seen a whole lot just yet,” Garfield added. "J.T. is a kid that got himself ready for this path. He can handle anything."