BALTIMORE –– In the first game since senior quarterback Braxton Miller was ruled out for the season, two redshirt-freshmen boosted the Ohio State football team to a 34-17 win against Navy.
After a low-scoring first half that saw the Midshipmen take a 7-6 lead, redshirt-freshman linebacker Darron Lee and redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett each accounted for second-half touchdowns in the team’s season opener Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium.
Lee picked up a fumble and took it 61 yards to the end zone before Navy junior quarterback Keenan Reynolds scored to end a four-play, 84-yard drive.
OSU coach Urban Meyer said he believed Lee’s touchdown was a key to the Buckeyes eventually coming out on top, along with multiple defensive stands throughout the day.
“The turning point was, I think, the Darron Lee fumble return,” Meyer said after the game. “The fact that our defense kept everything in check, even when I went for it on fourth down and we did not get it.”
The Buckeyes chose to go for it on fourth and short more than once in the game with varying levels of success.
Barrett, who became the Buckeyes’ starter when Miller tore his labrum in fall camp, gave OSU a 20-14 lead with an 80-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Devin Smith in the third quarter.
“They bit so hard on the play action, I was just trying not to miss him,” Barrett said after the game. “He made a great catch and then just ran away from (the defense).”
The downfield strike came after Barrett had a slow start to the game, marked by a first half interception thrown in the redzone that ended a promising drive.
“After the interception, I was like: ‘J.T., you knew you shouldn’t have threw it, you shouldn’t have thrown it, now you got to make up for it,’” he said.
Despite the mistake, Meyer said Barrett kept a level head throughout the game and added that he expects the Wichita Falls, Texas, native to improve throughout the season.
“His demeanor was great, he’s a great kid,” Meyer said. “He’ll get better and better and better.”
Sophomore H-back Dontre Wilson said Barrett was positive throughout the game, regardless of what had just happened on the field.
“No matter what happened, even when he threw that interception, he was smiling and letting us know everything was going to be good,” Wilson said.
After the Smith touchdown, Navy tacked on a field goal with 13:54 to play to move within three of OSU before sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott scampered in for a touchdown from 10 yards out on the Buckeyes’ next drive. That drive included a fourth-and-short conversion by Elliott. Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo challenged the spot of the ball, but the call stood to extend the drive.
The challenge ended up costing Navy its final timeout of the game.
Niumatalolo said the Midshipmen had “no choice” but to challenge the play, despite the potential consequences.
“It’s hard because our guys have invested so much,” he said. “These guys have worked their butts off for eight months, and everything we’ve done this offseason pointed to this game.”
After the failed challenge and Elliott’s touchdown, the Midshipmen got the ball back with a chance to come within three points again if they could score a touchdown.
While Navy had success running the ball for much of the game, OSU forced another punt on the drive following Elliott’s score before Barrett led the Buckeyes back down the field and found redshirt-sophomore wide receiver Michael Thomas for a nine-yard touchdown. The score proved to be the last of the game, cementing a 17-point Buckeye victory.
Despite the final scoreline being heavily in OSU’s favor, Meyer had high praise for the Midshipmen after the game and said he has always had a lot of respect for the Navy team.
“When I was at Notre Dame, that was always the worst week of the year, every time that we had to prepare for Navy,” Meyer said. “The best thing about today was that it’s in the rearview mirror and we won.”
Meyer was the wide receivers coach at Notre Dame from 1996 until 2000. The Fighting Irish traditionally play Navy every season.
Barrett finished the game 12 of 15 passing for 226 yards and a pair of scores with one first-half interception. He also carried the ball nine times for 50 yards, including a key first-down run on third and 11 in the fourth quarter.
Meyer gave Barrett a “B” grade after the game and said he “did okay.”
“Every new player will have their mistakes,” he said. “We wanted to open it up more in the first half but didn’t, and that wasn’t because of him. Our offensive line had some mistakes in there with penalties and sacks. We just can’t do that up front.”
Two of the five starting spots along the offensive line were listed as one player “or” another on the depth chart release by OSU before the game. Redshirt-freshman Billy Price and junior Jacoby Boren ended up in those final two slots. Senior Joel Hale spelled Price during the second quarter after the offensive line struggled to start the game.
“Joel came in, though, played the second quarter and did a nice job,” co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Ed Warinner said. “And then (we) went back to the starting lineup in the second half, and I thought they did a great job in the second half.”
While the offensive line stepped up later in the game, Lee and the defense did their part to hold Navy to 10 second-half points.
On top of his touchdown, Lee tallied seven tackles –– two for a loss –– in the first start of his career.
The game marked Barrett’s collegiate debut, but Lee played in two games last season before sustaining an injury and being granted a medical redshirt. Including the 2014 season, both players have four years of collegiate eligibility remaining.
To start the game, Barrett threw a screen pass to senior wide receiver Devin Smith on the opening play, the drive stalled and Smith downed the ball at Navy’s one-yard line after sophomore punter Cameron Johnston’s punt. The Buckeyes’ defense held, forcing Navy to punt the ball back to OSU.
The Buckeyes moved the ball into field goal range –– sparked by the first two carries of redshirt-freshman H-back Jalin Marshall’s career on the ensuing drive, where freshman kicker Sean Nuernberger made it 3-0 for the first score of OSU’s season.
After a Navy touchdown and another Nuernberger field goal, the Midshipmen missed a field goal with five seconds remaining in the first half.
OSU failed to reach the endzone in a game’s opening 30 minutes for the first time since its 17-7 win against Illinois in 2011.
That touchdown drought made it less than two minutes into the second half as Lee’s came just 1:52 into the third quarter before Reynolds punched it in from a yard out to put Navy back on top.
OSU freshman running back Curtis Samuel carried the ball seven times for 45 yards while Elliott and Wilson added 44 and 43 yards, respectively. Smith was the game’s leading receiver with two catches for 94 yards and the 80-yard score.
Redshirt-sophomore safety Tyvis Powell led the OSU defense with 13 tackles. Senior linebacker Curtis Grant and junior defensive lineman Adolphus Washington each tallied one sack in the game.
The win extended OSU’s regular-season winning streak to 25 games, which is the best such streak in the nation.
Reynolds finished the day with just 20 passing yards but carried the ball 23 times for 42 yards and a score. Navy’s Ryan Williams-Jenkins led all players with 118 yards on the ground, including a long run of 67 yards.
Navy rushed for 300 or more yards for its seventh straight game to set a new school record. The Midshipmen finished the day with 370 yards on the ground, while OSU had 194 yards rushing.
“We came into the game knowing that Navy is not a pushover team,” senior defensive lineman Michael Bennet said. “They’re a good team, and they run the triple option to perfection.”
Despite Navy’s high output on the ground, Meyer said OSU will be starting over when preparing for future opponents because of the Midshipmen’s unusual offensive style.
“Just completely throw this game plan out and it starts from scratch,” he said.
OSU is scheduled to play its home opener against Virginia Tech on Sept. 6 at Ohio Stadium. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m.
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