INDIANAPOLIS — He covered 60 yards running the football, about what he might manage in a typical game. He passed for 211 yards — although most of that involved hitting receivers not terribly far from the line of scrimmage — and then watching them run through missed tackles for devastating gains.
There was nothing extraordinary about J.T. Barrett’s performance, except that it happened.
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Seven days prior to the Big Ten Championship game, Barrett left Ohio State’s still-at-stake rivalry game against Michigan with an injured right knee. Six days prior to the Big Ten Championship game, Barrett had arthroscopic surgery to shave off a dangling piece of cartilage.
Saturday, Barrett quarterbacked OSU to the Big Ten Championship for the first time, the Buckeyes surviving previously undefeated Wisconsin by a 27-21 final.
Officially, this was not Barrett’s first league title, but he’d had to watch in 2014 — after breaking an ankle in that year’s Michigan game — as teammate Cardale Jones led OSU to a rout of these same Badgers. This time, Barrett was in charge. He was in command.
“Last time, I got us to the party, but I wasn’t let in,” Barrett said. “This time, if there was an opportunity for me to go play in this game, I was going to do whatever it takes to go out there and play with my buddies, knowing it’s my senior year.”
Like the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” Barrett sat following Saturday’s game and said of his surgery, “It was just a small procedure, really.” Barrett said he felt so normal, he told co-offensive coordinator Ryan Day to call whatever plays he wanted, not to worry about him taking on tacklers and cutting on the turf.
It was not a perfect performance. Barrett threw a pick-six in the first half. He threw another interception near midfield late in the third quarter that set up a Wisconsin score; that one chopped OSU’s lead to a mere field goal. It was a winning performance, though.
“I just got with him afterwards and he said his shoulder was sore — his legs there was no pain whatsoever,” coach Urban Meyer said. “The players love him. The players respect him. They know him better than all of us. I’m not there in the summers when they’re training and running, but he has earned the respect of the players. And that’s the most important respect you can have.”
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Meyer didn’t doubt Barrett would be available to play in what was a vital game to keep alive Ohio State’s hope to be selected for the 2017 College Football Playoff. They have been through so much together, from the disappointment of Barrett being unable to finish the job as the Buckeyes won the 2014 national championship, to his struggles during segments of the 2016 season and team’s blowout loss in the CFP semifinals. And now this.
“How you keep him out of the game,” Meyer said, “I just don’t know how it happens.”
Meyer claimed Barrett was spending 15 hours a day getting treatment from the training staff. Barrett said that was exaggerated; he figured it was it was closer to 14 hours. He got almost no practice time because the primary concern was avoiding swelling; on Thursday, Barrett took roughly half the quarterback reps, but only throwing. He did not run.
“After Tuesday, when it didn’t swell at all, they told me it was looking good,” Meyer said. “Wednesday, it was looking really good. Thursday, they said he was going to be ready to go.”
Wisconsin stacked its defense close to the line in an attempt to contain the OSU running game, employing what Meyer termed a “zero-hold coverage.” That presented opportunities for Barrett to connect with his receivers on downfield passes; he mostly flubbed these, which he blamed on the absence of sufficient practice time.
It also, though, allowed OSU the opportunity to create big plays with just a missed tackle or two. And that’s what happened.
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Buckeyes freshman tailback J.K. Dobbins, the game’s MVP, broke off runs of 77 and 53 yards. Barrett completed a pass to Terry McLaurin for 34 yards that the receiver then carried another 50 to produce an 84-yard touchdown. Wisconsin surrendered three plays of 50 yards or longer all season. OSU beat that with fewer than three quarters.
“Whenever you play zero-hold coverage, if you break a tackle you come out the other end,” Meyer said. “When you face a feast-or-famine style defense like they played against us, you’re going to have some big hits.”
Ohio State led 21-10 at halftime and kept that 11-point margin through the third quarter, but after Chris James’ 1-yard touchdown run with 12:39 left, the Buckeyes chewed up 7:19 of the remaining time before arriving at a fourth-and-1 at the UW 3-yard-line. OSU’s offensive line wanted to try to convert. They’d pushed forward to allow Barrett to gain a first down on the prior series. Meyer wisely trusted his defense, which held Wisconsin without a first down on two subsequent possessions.
Barrett’s final act was simply to take a knee twice.
He chose to let his left knee hit the turf.