J.T. Barrett must own this big-game stage for Buckeyes against Penn State

COLUMBUS, Ohio — J.T. Barrett wiggled into a scrum of reporters talking to teammate Tracy Sprinkle at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on Tuesday. Barrett, with a cell phone clutched in his right hand, manned the camera for a few seconds, then interrupted Sprinkle with a big smile and a question of his own. 

“What do you think about that quarterback?”  

Sprinkle jokingly listed the other quarterbacks on the roster before the fifth-year senior quarterback and three-time Ohio State captain waved him off. 

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Barrett then headed to his own table for his own media session ahead of the top-10 showdown between No. 6 Ohio State and No. 2 Penn State at Ohio Stadium on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox). In a way, Barrett faced the same line of questioning: Everybody wants to know what he thinks about being Ohio State’s quarterback, and it has been that way since 2014. 

There’s no question Barrett’s big-game reputation took a hit after the Buckeyes lost 31-0 to Clemson in the College Football Playoff last year, and lost 31-16 this season to Oklahoma. Since that latter loss, Barrett has rolled through five inferior opponents and now has the big stage again with the Buckeyes’ season on the line. Whether he likes it or not, Barrett needs to win this big game, or there might not be another one like it. Chances are he knows that — he just wasn’t planning ahead after that loss to the Sooners.

“It’s not like I’ve been looking forward to it,” Barrett said. “I’m trying to win each game because that’s where we’re at right now. I’m glad it’s here and playing in front of our home crowd and things like that. To say I was looking forward to it with [the] date marked, that’s not true.”

Barrett isn’t the only one who gets that question. When asked during the Big Ten teleconference on Tuesday if this is the game that will define Barrett’s career, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer returned with a similar answer. 

“A quarterback who has played as long as him,” Meyer said before a redirect. “He’s had several of them. I wouldn’t say this is the one, but this is obviously an important one.” 

That’s true on every level.

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Barrett has played in a lot of big games. He’s 5-3 as a starter in games against top-10 opponents. Everybody remembers the first one on Nov. 8, 2014, when he led Ohio State to a 49-37 victory at Michigan State. That put him in the Heisman Trophy discussion before a season-ending ankle injury in the regular-season finale against Michigan. 

DATE TOP-10 OPPONENT RESULT BARRETT
Nov. 8, 2014 No. 7 Michigan State W 49-37 16-26, 300 pass (3 TDs), 86 rush, 2 TDs
Nov. 21, 2015 No. 9 Michigan State L 14-17 9-16, 46 pass (1 TD), 44 rush
Jan. 1, 2016 No. 8 Notre Dame W 44-28 19-31, 211 pass, (1 TD, 1 INT), 96 rush
Oct. 15, 2016 No. 8 Wisconsin W 30-23 17-29, 226 pass (1 TD, 1 INT), 92 rush, 2 TDs
Nov. 5, 2016 No. 9 Nebraska W 62-3 26-38, 290 pass (4 TDs), 39 rush
Nov. 26, 2016 No. 3 Michigan W 30-27 15-32, 124 pass (1 INT), 125 rush, 1 TD
Dec. 31, 2016 No. 2 Clemson L 31-0 19-33, 127 pass (2 INTs), -2 rush
Sept. 9, 2017 No. 5 Oklahoma L 31-16 19-35, 183 pass (1 INT), 66 rush

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This typically isn’t the one game that defines an Ohio State quarterback. That’s Michigan, and Barrett is 3-0 against the Wolverines as a starter. That includes last year’s 30-27 double-overtime thriller against No. 3 Michigan that sent the Buckeyes to the College Football Playoff. That’s as big as it gets in Columbus. 

Yet those losses to Clemson and Oklahoma have made this matchup against the defending Big Ten champions an important game for Barrett. Penn State coach James Franklin knows Barrett’s resume — which includes a 32-5 record as a starter and a Big Ten career-record 126 total touchdowns.

“He’s one of the leaders in number of categories when it comes to Ohio State, when it comes to the Big Ten and when it comes to those things nationally,” Franklin said on the Big Ten teleconference. “It feels like he’s playing there for 20 years.”  

Barrett has been at Ohio State longer than Franklin has been Penn State’s head coach. Even more unbelievable is the perception swing Barrett faces based on Saturday’s result. 

Win, and Barrett has the Buckeyes in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten East and College Football Playoff. It also puts him in the Heisman Trophy discussion, considering he has 18 passing touchdowns and no interceptions in five starts since that loss to the Sooners. 

Lose, and the vitriol returns. Ohio State will be all but out of the playoff hunt. Critics will point to those other quarterbacks Sprinkle joked about — Dwayne Haskins, Joe Burrow and Tate Martell — like they did after that loss to Oklahoma.

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No other quarterback on a College Football Playoff contender faces that level of scrutiny. That’s because  Barrett has yet to lead the Buckeyes to a Big Ten championship as the starting quarterback — even though he did most of the work in 2014 before Cardale Jones beat Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon en route to the national title.

Michigan State beat the Buckeyes in 2015. Penn State beat the Buckeyes in 2016. That’s why this is the big game for Barrett, and he’s taking the same old approach. That’s what Meyer sees every day and why Barrett was voted a captain in 2015, even when Jones won the starting job in fall camp. It’s the same “competitive spirit” Meyer saw in Alex Smith at Utah and Tim Tebow at Florida. 

“Like that every day since I shook the man’s hand as a youngster, what’s impressed me the most is his consistency, his work ethic and leadership skill set,” Meyer said. “I see what probably most everybody else doesn’t, and that’s with coaching J.T. for a long, long time, and that’s his consistency and toughness never waver.”

Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson — who was hired after the loss to Clemson and is Barrett’s third different offensive coordinator — sees that now too. There appears to be a comfort level between the two. Wilson listens to Barrett’s interviews and sees a word that pops up in every one. 

Practice. Barrett is talking about practice, all right. He’s not going to scream “Let’s go!” to teammates too much on Saturday. That goes on during the week.

“Since I’ve been here Coach Meyer has always talked about big games and that the most prepared team is going to win that game,” Barrett said. “I think that’s very true. With that being said, you don’t win that game Saturday. You win that game on Tuesday’s practice, Wednesday’s practice and Thursday’s practice.”

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Ohio State center Billy Price knows Barrett as well as anybody. Price was a starter on the 2014 team when Barrett’s star took off in that first big-game performance against the Spartans. Barrett set a single-season Big Ten record with 45 touchdowns before his injury against Michigan, and for three seasons the Buckeyes have been looking for that kind of unstoppable offense they had that night in East Lansing. It appears to be close. There’s just one conversation on the sideline after drives now.

“What’s better right now is the chemistry between offensive line, wide receivers, running backs and J.T. and the tight ends,” Price said. “As a whole there isn’t one or two units performing well with J.T. It’s collectively as a whole. … I don’t want to elude and say whether he’s better than ’14. I just know we’re playing at a high level.”

That’s where it’s at with Barrett heading into another top-10 referendum against Penn State. GameDay. Slick new uniforms with what he called “fresh” shoes. A Heisman Trophy-type showdown against a Nittany Lions offense that features Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley.

The cameras will be pointed at Barrett on Saturday, but he isn’t thinking about his last big game, last year’s loss to Penn State, last year’s Big Ten championship or any other narrative. This isn’t about revenge.

“That means you are holding on to the past and so many things have happened since then,” he said. 

If the Buckeyes win here, than Barrett will be in yet another top-10 game soon enough. That’s what he has known about being Ohio State’s quarterback all along. 

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