Ohio State may have lost star quarterback Braxton Miller for the season before it even began, but his replacement did a decent impression last week. J.T. Barrett, the redshirt freshman thrust into the starting job upon Miller's injury, created 409 yards of total offense (330 passing and 79 rushing) in a 50-28 home win over Cincinnati.
Barrett was slow out of the gate this season, and Ohio State paid for it in a second-game loss to Virginia Tech, a night on which Barrett threw three interceptions. But Barrett has gone over 300 yards passing in his last two starts, both wins, and looks to have hit his stride in head coach Urban Meyer's spread offense.
"You can see that he has a better understanding of what they are doing and he is more comfortable with each game. He's been impressive. He's got the ability to throw the ball extremely well," Maryland head coach Randy Edsall said. "He can run the ball. He knows where to go with the ball."
Barrett plays for Ohio State, so he has the Buckeyes' standard arsenal of talented offensive linemen and skill position players surrounding him. No single Buckeye receiver has posted gaudy numbers this year, but 10 players have at least three catches and 38 receiving yards. Barrett has spread the ball around, with positive results. The Maryland defense will have a lot of bodies to account for, and Barrett will have a lot at his disposal.
"There's some guys making really terrific plays out there for him, too," Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said this week. "So I think, as a group, this is a good group to be around right now."
Not unlike in the past, the Buckeyes remain largely predicated on their running game. They are a solid 23rd in the nation in rushing yards per game (241.5) and have Barrett and several capable ball-carriers. Running back Ezekiel Elliott has 5.9-yard average and leads the team with 333 yards on 55 carries through four games. Four more backs – Curtis Samuel, Dontre Wilson, Rod Smith and Warren Ball – are averaging more than four yards per carry. Two of those additional backs, Samuel and Wilson, average more than six.
"They have a lot of guys and a lot of athletic guys that can really hurt you on the ground," linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil said.
The Buckeyes' offensive line struggled early on but has improved of late. In addition to the team's consistent rushing prowess, Barrett has been sacked just once in the last two games, while defenses have mustered a total of five tackles for loss in that span.
"Protection-wise I think they are all on the same page," Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said. "Running-wise, they are getting up to the next level. I think they are playing pretty well."
Ohio State moves at a breakneck pace offensively. In the season-opener, the Buckeyes ran 55 plays. The next week, they ran 69. The week after that, they ran 87. Last week, they reached a crescendo, running 101 plays against Cincinnati. Time of possession differences come into play on those numbers, but it's clear that the Buckeyes are moving more quickly as Barrett settles in at quarterback.
Meyer said Ohio State's deep group of running backs and skill players plays into his offense's hands from a tempo perspective, allowing him to "platoon" players to keep them fresh as the offensive machine keeps churning.
"There's been times in the past when we want to run very up-tempo, and it looks awful because everyone's blown out," Meyer said. "I don't feel that now that way at all, and more importantly our offensive coordinator, [Tom Herman], he's a big tempo guy. I'm the one putting the brakes on. I'm the one on the field seeing the fatigue. As long as I know we're rotating players, on the headsets it's 'go, go, go.'"
Maryland has had varying degrees of success against offenses that move so quickly. West Virginia ran 108 plays and scored 40 points against Maryland, causing Edsall to riff that there was a "problem in college football" that allowed that pace of play. Then again, Indiana often took fewer than 10 seconds between plays last weekend, and Maryland allowed just 15 points on 84 offensive plays. On Saturday, his defense will have to recover quickly again.
Edsall said pressure would key Maryland's efforts to slow the Ohio State passing game.
"Anytime people are going to throw the football, the best way to help yourself there is getting pressure," he said. "If you get pressure with a four-man rush, that makes it better because you can cover more guys."
Since West Virginia ran wild on them three weeks ago, the Terrapins have mostly prevented the big play. The now-injured Alvin Hill allowed a 51-yard sideline completion two weeks ago against Syracuse. Last weekend, the defense surrendered one 29-yard catch and nothing else north of 20 yards. Needless to say, a repeat performance would not hurt.
"On the deep balls versus West Virginia, we didn't win the 50-50 [balls]. That's me and you, side by side, jumping up and attacking the ball," Stewart said. "We didn't win the 50-50. What we have to do is put ourselves in a position to win the 50-50 ball or we are in a dominant position where we have the chance to attack the route. That's what we talk about, and that's what we have been harping on."