When No. 5 Ohio State takes the field to kickoff the 2014 season, all eyes will be on No. 16.
The Buckeyes are scheduled to play the Navy Midshipmen on Saturday at noon with redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett under center for the first time in his OSU career. Barring any unexpected changes, he will be the first freshman to start a season opener for the Buckeyes since Art Schlichter did so in 1978.
Even senior quarterback Braxton Miller, whose season-ending shoulder injury paved the way for Barrett to begin his OSU legacy, didn’t start until the fourth game of his freshman season against Colorado.
OSU co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman said he feels great about the team’s quarterback situation going into week one.
“I’m very confident,” Herman said Wednesday. “J.T. has had an excellent camp. Cardale actually has had probably his best week as a Buckeye this week.”
But regardless of Jones’ success in practice, OSU coach Urban Meyer said there is no set plan to bring the backup quarterback into the game against Navy.
Herman added that he doesn’t expect either Barrett or Jones to be a Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year quite yet.
While Saturday’s game will mark the start of Barrett’s career at OSU, seniors on the team will be heading into their last season to cement their places in school history.
One senior, defensive lineman Michael Bennett, said he wants to go out having achieved everything he planned to do as a Buckeye.
“We really want to do this the right way this year and get everything that we came for,” he said. “The younger guys really want to do that for the seniors and the seniors want to do that for each other.”
Without Miller, OSU players and coaches have often talked about the plethora of playmakers surrounding Barrett on offense. While having depth on the team can be a good thing, it has left Meyer with a few big decisions to make when it comes to his Week 1 lineup.
On Aug. 25, Meyer said continuing to have position battles with the season opener just days away can be a bad thing, but only if the players aren’t good.
“If they’re bad players, you got a problem,” Meyer said. “If they’re really good players and they’re just battling and battling and battling, it means they’re both going to play.”
The team released its official depth chart Wednesday afternoon, but it brought little clarity to who exactly will be on the field for the first play against Navy. Many positions listed one player “or” another as the starter, but Barrett was officially named the starting quarterback.
While he is expected to be the first freshman quarterback to start an opening game for OSU since the 1970s, he’ll be the first signal-caller of any age to take the team’s first snap of the season outside of Ohio Stadium since 1999. That season opener 15 years ago took place at the old New York Giants’ stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and saw the Buckeyes lose to Miami, 23-12. It also marked the last time OSU lost a season opener, regardless of venue.
Just like in 1999, the 2014 season opener is scheduled to take place at an NFL stadium, meaning it won’t quite be a home game for the Midshipmen or the Buckeyes. The game is set to take place at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, home of the Baltimore Ravens.
Senior wide receiver Evan Spencer said Monday it’s always an adjustment to play away from home, but the team has a simple plan in mind going in.
“It’ll be a little bit different in terms of the facilities and the locker rooms, et cetera,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we’ve still got to go out there and play a game.
“There’s four quarters to be played and no matter what stadium we’re in, we’ve got to go in and dominate.”
Bennett said the team won’t prepare much differently for the neutral-site game in Baltimore, but he had a good idea of what color he expects to see dominate the stands.
“I remember what the crowd was like in (California) last year, so I would assume it’s going to be a lot of scarlet and gray,” he said.
When OSU played the University of California in Berkeley last season, about half the stadium appeared to be wearing Buckeye colors.
Spencer also addressed the Midshipmen as a team, and noted their discipline on the field. Navy finished best in the NCAA last season with just 34 penalties committed. The team has been in the top three in the nation for least penalties every year since 2007.
Offensively, Navy runs an uncommon triple-option offense, which Spencer said his high school team ran as well.
“It’s kind of a pain in the butt because they’ve got 300 fakes before they give the ball to somebody,” he said. “But defensively, I mean, we’ve been watching a lot of film, we’ve got a really good game plan going into the game and I really believe that we’ll shine that game and get out there and have some fun again.”
Senior linebacker Curtis Grant said playing a team like Navy will be different than any other game this season, and might require a little extra effort.
“I’m just going to say it’s a lot of running involved,” Grant said. “It’s not like the normal pro (style) team where you just go fill all the gaps. Everybody has a different responsibility.”
Grant said instead of ball-watching, each defensive player is assigned to a particular player on offense when taking on a triple-option attack.
In order to slow down the Navy offense, the key for OSU might be finding a way to stop junior quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who rushed for 1,346 yards and tied for best in the nation with 31 rushing touchdowns. Those touchdowns helped him to finish the year fourth in the NCAA with 15.7 points scored per game.
“The Navy coaches and some people I’ve talked to think that (Reynolds) is the best that they’ve ever had, which, that tells you, takes your breath away a little bit,” Meyer said Monday.
The last time the Buckeyes took on Navy — to open the 2009 season — the two teams played to a 31-27 OSU victory that involved a key interception return on a two-point attempt by Navy late in the game.
OSU co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell said the coaching staff showed a clip of the interception return by Brian Rolle to the team on Wednesday. He told them the 2009 Buckeyes ended up winning the Rose Bowl against Oregon after that scare against Navy.
“I also reminded them how we ended up finishing that year,” Fickell said. “We were a pretty good team, both offensively, defensively and as a whole.”
After the matchup with Navy, OSU is scheduled to head back to Columbus for a three-game homestand. The Buckeyes are set to play their first game at Ohio Stadium on Sept. 6 against Virginia Tech at 8 p.m.