Then the crowd around Barrett dissipated as he finished answering, and a small cluster formed around Haskins, as if time were ready to move on.
“I’m just going to attack it as if I’m the guy, I’m the starter,” Haskins said of winter and spring practice, his face still untouched by the aging process. The Maryland kid then expressed respect for his teammates, reaching over to hug 19-year-old freshman quarterback Tate Martell as “my best buddy right here.”
Many witnesses seemed to agree that the Cotton Bowl had not been the best game in the history of college football. So, as No. 5 Ohio State’s 24-7 win over No. 8 Southern California, replete with its scoreless second half, began its hasty path toward largely forgotten, the future filled the air even more heavily than usual.
Just down the massive hallway moments before Haskins spoke, Sam Darnold had spoken in the interview room. The Southern California quarterback would spend the next days hanging out with his friends, his teammates, as “there’s nobody that’s loved on this football team more than Sam,” as Coach Clay Helton put it.
Next, “I’ll look at everything and make my decision after that,” he said, as to whether to enter a quarterback-rich NFL draft, all while some of those bastions of impatience, mock drafts, have Darnold, the 6-foot-4 sophomore, at No. 1. He did become the first quarterback in the vivid history of Southern California to surpass 4,000 passing yards in a season.
He also got knocked pretty close to silly on an eight-sack night against an Ohio State defensive front that looks like the best thing shy of the NFL. Seven Buckeyes hogged sacks or halves of them: Nick Bosa, Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes, Chase Young, Tyquan Lewis, Malik Harrison and Jerome Baker. If anything, with the way Darnold mixed hapless, hopeless throws with his usual turns of oh-yeah-that’s-why-he’s-a-mock-draft-hero, it began to look like some simulated NFL exhibition with a rookie tossed around.
It also left his two-season path as officially curious.
Darnold stormed to excellence and prominence last season, as USC won its last nine games and he threw five touchdown passes in the Rose Bowl, leading fourth-quarter marches of 83 and 80 yards to clamber out of a 49-35 deficit toward a 52-49 win over Penn State, and throwing some of the most beautiful bloody stuff you ever saw. He reigned deservedly over the offseason as reporters came to town and lucked out dealing with his easy, likable disposition. Then he had a season with 4,000 yards but also 12 interceptions and 10 fumbles, including one of the former and two of the latter in the Cotton Bowl, the interception returned for a touchdown.
He did smooth out the interceptions, from nine in the first six games to four in the last eight, but it’s fair to wonder whether the preseason pressure intruded, or whether the offensive line proved too injured.
If he opts out of college football, which would be rational enough, he’ll have done so on an arc that went up and then wobbled, on a two-bowl path that went from scintillating to deflating, none of which means much of anything NFL-wise.
“Sam and I will talk,” Helton said — about every detail.
Barrett leaves for sure, his collegiate total yardage at 12,697, more than Drew Brees’s 12,692 at Purdue, thus more than anyone ever in the Big Ten. He leaves with Coach Urban Meyer’s tireless admiration. He also leaves after Ohio State actually got outgained by USC 413-277, irrelevant as that seemed, and after a season in which Ohio State fans sometimes wondered whether they’d prefer to see Haskins, the one-time Maryland centerpiece recruit who flipped to the Buckeyes in January 2016.
Once Barrett’s audience subsided and Haskins’s built to about six or seven listeners, Haskins told of learning from Barrett “how to manage situations, how not to make a bad thing worse.”
“I just feel like I’m a very, you know, elite passer,” Haskins said. “I can make a lot of different throws and do things that not everybody can do. So for me, it’s just like, not only trying to throw the ball, but be a leader, run the ball, make calls, make checks and stuff like that.”
He reminded that he hadn’t been a quarterback throughout his few years, so his confidence has had to grow over time, perhaps further in his performance spelling Barrett at Michigan: 6 for 7 for 94 yards, three rushes for 24.
Up next in Columbus, where the scrutiny is deathless: maybe the four-star kid from Bullis School in Potomac. A quarterback’s future is, as ever, at least partly a mystery. If you want ironclad certainty about a future, you might try that crowd of Bosa, Hubbard, Holmes et al on the Ohio State front. That group looked like one rampaging future.