While some teams lean on experienced players in a season opener, the Ohio State football team relied on big plays from two redshirt-freshmen to kick off its season with a win.
The two players — quarterback J.T. Barrett and linebacker Darron Lee — each accounted for second-half touchdowns that sparked OSU to a 34-17 win against Navy on Saturday.
Lee — who played in two games last season before being granted a medical redshirt — returned a fumble 61 yards for a touchdown and made a pair of tackles in the Navy backfield. Barrett threw both of his touchdowns in the second half at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore and led the Buckeyes with 50 yards on the ground.
Apart from a first-half interception in the red zone, OSU coach Urban Meyer said Barrett “did very well” in his first taste of collegiate football.
“I’m trying to think of the misfires he had, very cognitive quarterback,” Meyer said Monday. “Very smart quarterback that gets us in the right plays and makes the right decisions.”
Barrett’s only turnover was the interception, as he completed 12 of 15 pass attempts in the game.
Despite limited mistakes from the offense, the Buckeyes found themselves trailing Navy, 7-6, at halftime. Less than two minutes into the second half, Lee scooped up the fumble from Midshipmen junior quarterback Keenan Reynolds and took it to the end zone untouched.
After the game, Meyer called Lee’s return one of the turning points of the matchup, but the linebacker said it was a simple case of doing his job. On Monday, Lee gave sophomore defensive lineman Joey Bosa — who forced the fumble — more of the credit.
“(The ball) kind of rolled right there … thanks to Joey,” Lee said. “It just rolled right there right in front of me.”
Lee said he watched the play unfold, got to the ball and thought to himself: “take off.”
“I saw Joey shed a block, and then attack the quarterback, so I saw that,” he said. “And then it was just job assignment, really, just lucky enough to be in the right place, right time.”
Lee’s touchdown return swung the momentum in OSU’s favor with a 13-7 lead, but Reynolds punched the ball in from a yard out to put the Midshipmen back on top in their next possession.
Navy’s newfound lead lasted until there were just over four minutes remaining in the third quarter, when Barrett led the Buckeyes on an 11-second, 80-yard drive that took just one play.
Barrett found senior wide receiver Devin Smith open downfield and they connected on an 80-yard touchdown to put OSU on top for good.
“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).”
Despite some early growing pains and limited throws downfield behind a struggling offensive line, Barrett still received high praise from teammates for his leadership and poise during his first game for the Scarlet and Gray.
“He’s very poised, and he always has a voice in the huddle,” junior offensive lineman Taylor Decker said Monday. “For a young guy, coming in never having started a game, he kind of embraces that leadership role.”
Decker went on to say some young quarterbacks might not command the same respect from their teammates that Barrett does.
“Because … he’s our quarterback, we’re going to listen to what he has to say,” Decker said. “I don’t think every guy can come in and do that and have that leadership role, but that’s just the kind of guy he is.”
While Barrett’s transition to an OSU leader at quarterback was a natural one after starring at the position for Rider High School in Wichita Falls, Texas, Lee’s path to starting at linebacker against Navy looked very different.
Like Barrett, Lee starred as a quarterback while playing at New Albany High School in New Albany, Ohio. He said he had options to continue playing quarterback in college, but chose to come to OSU for “the bigger picture.”
“I had … (OSU co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell) believing in me that I could play on the defensive side of the ball,” Lee said. “I played (defense) my junior year in high school. I felt comfortable with it and I didn’t have a problem with it.”
Lee said the athleticism he developed while playing quarterback in high school helps him as a linebacker for the Buckeyes. He said he added about 40 pounds onto his now-228 pound frame since arriving at OSU.
Junior linebacker Joshua Perry — who said he met Lee while running track in middle school — said the team looks at the New Albany-native as a key player at the position after his big game to open the season.
“Right now we look at him as one of the guys we need to play really well, as we look at a lot of the guys in the (linebacker) room,” Perry said.
After making their mark at the Baltimore Ravens’ stadium, Barrett and Lee are set to lead the Buckeyes into Ohio Stadium for the first time on Saturday. OSU is scheduled to take on Virginia Tech at 8 p.m. for its first home game of the season.