In front of a national audience and with a Big Ten title and possible spot in the College Football Playoff up for grabs, redshirt-sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones took his place behind center for the Ohio State football team.
Jones had not started a football game since 2011 and the last time he played for a championship was in the 2009 OHSAA state title game, which he lost to Hilliard Davidson.
The Glenville High School product entered the 2014 season behind what would be two Heisman-candidate quarterbacks, yet when his name was called, he found a way to exceed even Urban Meyer’s expectations.
“I don’t use the word surprised. I guess I will use it for the first time, I was a little surprised,” Meyer said Sunday. “In that environment, I saw early in the game we did a good job managing the game with him.”
Jones completed 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards and three touchdown passes, which were all to senior wide receiver Devin Smith.
Co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman had high praise for Smith’s performance.
“Best deep ball catcher in America that we have seen in a long time,” Herman said after the game. “He fought for the football. They weren’t perfect throws by any stretch.”
Smith’s touchdown receptions went for 39, 44 and 42 yards respectively, two of which required an acrobatic effort from the Massillon, Ohio, native. The wide receiver said he thought he would be poised for a big game the night before kickoff.
“I got into a zone last night just chilling in the hotel room just listening to music and I just felt it. It was a rush that came through my body,” Smith said. “I just knew that I was ready.”
While Smith dazzled, it was Jones who stole the show as the Cleveland native took home Most Valuable Player honor for the game.
Jones replaced redshirt-freshman J.T. Barrett, who went out during a 42-28 win over Michigan on Nov. 29 with an injury, ending his season.
Barrett, who made his way around Lucas Oil Stadium on a scooter with his fractured right ankle elevated, said he was not surprised by how Jones responded in his first start.
“Definitely proud of him (Jones) and he’s able to … just take over the moment,” Barrett said after the game. “He seized the moment, seized the opportunity and he did it as a team. It wasn’t just him, that was the great thing about it, he had help around him. And that’s the great thing about this team.”
Meyer gave a lot of the credit for Jones’ performance to Herman, who has now prepared four different quarterbacks for starts in his time at OSU.
“Tom Herman is an excellent coach. His unit the first year was very average. I talk about we got a Player of the Year in the Big Ten (in then-sophomore Braxton Miller), but as a unit they weren’t very strong,” Meyer said. “Kenny Guiton got better and better. Now it’s one of the strongest units on the team. He’s done a marvelous job. But Cardale is a veteran player that was immature when he first got on campus and has really matured. Obviously Tom gets a lot of credit for that.”
Herman, however, said he was not surprised at the performance Jones had on the big stage.
“He delivered just like I thought he would. We worked all week to make sure his confidence level was up, that he prepared like a pro, which he did,” Herman said after the game. “He did all those things and when you do all those things, it fills you with confidence.”
Herman went as far to say that he was so confident in Jones that he “slept like a baby” the night before the game.
“Not to sound coy or overconfident, but we got a good team. We got a great staff, a great head coach we got a great culture, and the quarterback position is just one piece of that puzzle,” Herman said. “I have a ton of confidence in the guy (Jones) that I coach because I am around him the most and he proved me right. I slept pretty easy last night.”
For Jones, the road doesn’t get any easier as the Buckeyes are set to take on the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Meyer said having coached against Alabama’s coach Nick Saban for years in the Southeastern Conference, he knows what lies ahead for the Buckeyes.
“We have to be on point to beat this team. I know exactly what I am going to see when I flip on the film,” Meyer said.
The Buckeyes and Crimson Tide are set to meet in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. in New Orleans.