COLUMBUS – Urban Meyer didn’t have to think about it for long.
Last Monday, Meyer downplayed the possibility of using back-up quarterback J.T. Barrett inside the 20-yard line, the so-called red zone, to enliven an Ohio State offense that had struggled to score from close range.
“We’ve thought about it. We haven’t made any decisions on that right now,” Meyer said.
But thinking quickly turned into planning, which just as quickly evolved into playing both starter Cardale Jones and Barrett in a 49-28 win over Maryland on Saturday at Ohio Stadium.
Barrett was Mr. Inside the 20-yard line and Jones was Mr. Outside the 20.
Jones completed 21 of 28 passes for a career-best 291 yards and two touchdowns without throwing an interception. Barrett rushed for 65 yards and three touchdowns on runs of one yard, three yards and 18 yards.
This latest version of a two-quarterback system was designed to fix maybe the biggest shortcoming on offense for the Buckeyes this season.
Before Saturday, they had scored only six touchdowns on 16 trips inside the 20-yard line. But against Maryland they were six for six, including five for five with Barrett at quarterback.
“We’ve been having some red zone issues. J.T. is a leader and a guy that needs to be on the field. He provided an obvious spark for us in there. Cardale? I think he was great,” Meyer said.
More specifically, the spark Barrett provided was the threat of a running quarterback.
No. 1 Ohio State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) addressed a number of other troublesome issues.
After turning the ball over 13 times in its first five games it did not have a turnover.
And after talking about getting Braxton Miller more involved in the game for several weeks, it did that early and often.
Miller caught five passes for 79 yards and a touchdown and rushed three times for 11 yards. The sign his drought was over came late in the second quarter when he made a diving 33-yard catch, then came back to grab a 19-yard touchdown throw from Jones on the next play to give Ohio State a 21-7 lead.
But, like most of OSU’s games this season, it was a little bit more of an adventure than expected.
After watching the Terrapins (2-4, 0-2 Big Ten) take a 7-0 lead on a 52-yard touchdown pass from Perry Hills to D.J. Moore on their first possession, it ran off three straight scores to go up 21-7.
But a 75-yard run by Hills in the final minute of the first half to OSU’s three-yard line and a three-yard run by him for a touchdown on the next play cut the lead to 21-14. Then Maryland marched 69 yards on nine plays on its first possession of the second half to make it 21-21.
“We just let it get too loose for a couple plays and we paid for it,” OSU defensive lineman Adolphus Washington said.
Uncomfortable memories of close calls against Indiana and Northern Illinois were chased away, though, when Ohio State went ahead 49-21, riding a strong second half by Ezekiel Elliott (21 carries, 106 yards, 2 TDs).
It was the eleventh consecutive game of more than 100 yards for the junior running back.
Maryland got a cheap touchdown in the final minute after a shotgun snap went over Barrett’s head as OSU was running out the clock.
“I’m so angry that thing happened. We snapped the darn thing over the guy’s head like a high school team,” Meyer said.
The Terrapins came into the game apparently a team in disarray.
They had been outscored 73-6 in their last two games by West Virginia and Michigan. They had 17 turnovers, more than any other team in the country. And there were rumors head coach Randy Edsall would be fired, possibly as soon as next week.
Hills, who replaced Caleb Rowe and his 12 interceptions as the starting quarterback Saturday, said the team was able to block that out.
“We really didn’t know what was going on and we really didn’t care,” he said. We were focused on Ohio State. We were focused on practice.”