COLUMBUS, Ohio — The complicated legacy of Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett didn't have to be examined after last Saturday's 62-14 win over Maryland, because for a fourth consecutive week, the senior had carved up an inferior defense with such ease that he was pulled out of the game in the second half.
A month ago, some swaths of the fan base, on Twitter and in other corners of the Internet, were calling for Barrett to be replaced as the Buckeyes' starter. Some, including a five-star offensive lineman recruit, implored Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer to switch to redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins after the Buckeyes' offense looked paltry at best in a 31-16 loss to Oklahoma in early September. That forced Meyer to declare after the game: "There's not a bull's-eye on J.T. Barrett."
That moment oddly encapsulated much of Barrett's career in Columbus: A head coach publicly defending a player who might go down as the best to ever play the position at the school.
The schedule certainly set up well for Barrett to work out the kinks over the past month; against the likes of Army, UNLV, Rutgers and Maryland, he has thrown for 1,026 yards and 13 touchdowns with no interceptions, helping the Buckeyes find some semblance of offensive rhythm before wading into the teeth of its Big Ten schedule beginning with Saturday's game at Nebraska.
"It's all been a process. Just gaining confidence with the receivers, them being in the right spot, me believing in them, I think that's all something that takes time. . . . We needed games to really enhance that," Barrett said.
"We still have a long ways to go, but he's doing a very nice job," Meyer said. "We understand what is coming down the road now, including this week. I like to use the term, we're very realistic where we're at right now, and that's [we] certainly don't have all the answers."
The answers likely won't come until Ohio State plays in those pivotal games later this season, starting when the Buckeyes host No. 3 Penn State on Oct. 28 in a game with College Football Playoff implications. That should give Barrett an even larger stage to mute his critics — not that he's looking for that. Among Barrett's accomplishments: He is 31-5 as a starter, holds 25 school records, is the only three-time captain in Buckeyes history and earlier this month became the Big Ten's career leader in touchdowns.
But those accomplishments are set against a backdrop of statistical regression as a passer over the past three years; Barrett's completion percentage was at its highest during his freshman season in 2014, and during his time in Columbus, he has gained a reputation for struggling to maintain the accuracy, decisiveness and explosive running ability that he flashed early in his career.
It became a narrative again after last season's 31-0 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff, which prompted Meyer to make changes on offense and hire former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson as his offensive coordinator. While it was not ideal that Barrett was playing under a third coordinator in four years, some wondered what had truly changed after Ohio State's passing game continued to struggle in the first half of the season-opening win over Indiana and throughout the ugly loss to Oklahoma.
It was the latest big-game struggle for Barrett; against the likes of Michigan, Clemson and Oklahoma dating from last November, he went just a combined 53 for 100 for 434 yards with four interceptions.
But since the loss to the Sooners, Barrett has looked much more comfortable and confident. Critics will surely point to the schedule, but Barrett has been less reluctant to take shots down the field and give his wide receivers chances to make plays on 50-50-balls, including on a nifty eight-yard pass to Binjimen Victor in the red zone against Maryland, when Barrett fit a throw into tight coverage on a crossing route.
"That's where the ball has to be," said Barrett, whose offense ranks fourth nationally in both scoring (45.8 points per game) and total offense (568 yards per game). Barrett is averaging 252.2 yards per game, which ranks second in the Big Ten. He finished 20 for 31 for 261 yards and three touchdowns against no interceptions against Maryland in what might have been his most complete performance of the season.
In the third quarter, he quietly handed off his role to Haskins, who starred at Bullis in the Washington area and was a one-time Maryland commit before flipping to the Buckeyes before signing day in early 2016. He has been heralded as the potential heir apparent to Barrett.
"I think he's grown a lot as far as really understanding the inner workings of our offense," Barrett said last week of Haskins. "One area that we challenge him is to make sure he's vocal."
Haskins has played in each of the past four games — he's gone a combined 25 for 37 for 363 yards and three touchdowns against one interception — but he's done so in mop-up duty because of the strides that Barrett and the offense have made.
"We just improve each and every day," Barrett said. "Just go out there and not be timid, be confident in our guys, let it rip and those guys came here to make plays, so just let them go and make plays. So I think it's all coming together."