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In Its Search for Answers on Offense, Ohio State Should Explore Options Beyond J.T. Barrett

In this week's Punt, Pass & Pork: Another offensive no-show on a big stage has put Ohio State's beloved starting QB under a microscope. What should Urban Meyer do about J.T. Barrett? Plus, two new teams crack the projected playoff field and a suburban Pittsburgh gastropub delivers on boar bacon and burg(h)ers.

Perhaps the best way to understand how the people within the Ohio State football program feel about J.T. Barrett is to read the living-and-dying-with-his-former-team tweets of the guy who once was named the starting quarterback over Barrett and once was beaten out of the starting job by Barrett.

Or perhaps we need to watch fans who participated in man-on-the-street interviews while leaving the scene of an abysmal loss to Oklahoma. While some criticized Barrett obliquely and one directly called for his ouster as the starter, most went out of their way to avoid pinning blame for the offense’s woes on the Buckeyes’ senior quarterback.

Or perhaps we need to ask Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer, who ultimately will decide what Ohio State must do to fix an offense that seems to keep repeating the same lackluster performance when it meets a defense of relative quality.

“I’m going to make it perfectly clear. There’s not a bull’s-eye on J.T. Barrett,” Meyer told reporters after Ohio State’s 31–16 loss Saturday night. “It’s part of the system and a group that have to get better.”

Those with only scarlet running through their arteries might not understand. They might have watched last year’s Penn State game or last year’s Michigan game or last year’s Fiesta Bowl or Saturday’s Oklahoma game and seen an offense with an obvious problem. But those who bleed scarlet and gray understand this issue is far more complicated.

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Barrett is the quarterback who, as a redshirt freshman, held Ohio State’s national title season together after an early loss to Virginia Tech that would have buried most teams. He is beloved in the locker room and in the coaches’ meeting room. His struggles throwing the ball downfield are accepted because he has done so many other things well. He makes great choices on the read option. He remains tough to tackle when he keeps the ball. Against lesser defenses, he can dissect a back seven in the five- to 15-yard range. He can set up receivers to gain huge yardage after the catch by delivering the ball to them in space.

This is why Barrett is beloved. It’s why rank-and-file fans are hesitant to openly criticize him. It’s why Meyer never considered playing a different quarterback Saturday as the Buckeyes’ offense floundered.

But shouldn’t Meyer at least ponder the possibility? Nick Saban wouldn’t be so sentimental. If the Buckeyes’ goals are to win the Big Ten, make the College Football Playoff and play for the national title—and those goals are constants at Ohio State—then Meyer owes it to his team to make sure Barrett is the best choice as the starter.

Meyer can do that during the next three weeks. Ohio State plays Army, UNLV and Rutgers, so the Buckeyes should have some room to experiment. Continue starting Barrett but give either Dwayne Haskins or Joe Burrow—or both—a chance to play with the starters at practice and in games. If Barrett is the best quarterback for the Buckeyes, it will be obvious to all. If he isn’t, the coaching staff would know that, too.

During our SiriusXM radio show on Sunday, co-host Tom Luginbill made an excellent point. He listed the offensive line starters blocking for Barrett and the skill position players Barrett had at his disposal in ’14. Check out this list.

Line: LT Taylor Decker, LG Billy Price, C Jacoby Boren, RG Pat Elflein, RT Darryl Baldwin.

Backs: Ezekiel Elliott, Curtis Samuel.

Receivers: Michael Thomas, Devin Smith, Evan Spencer, Jalin Marshall, Noah Brown.

Tight ends: Jeff Heuerman, Nick Vannett.

Price still plays on the offensive line, but this group doesn’t protect Barrett the way that one did. This was especially apparent during the 31–0 Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson. This year’s backs—freshman J.K. Dobbins and junior Mike Weber—might not be quite as good as Elliott and Samuel, who were selected in the first and second rounds of the NFL draft, respectively. But the Dobbins/Weber combo might be close, and it’s certainly good enough to carry a good college running game. Of course, the Buckeyes need to use them. Meyer and his coaches forgot Elliott was on the team in the loss at Michigan State in 2015, and they only gave Dobbins/Weber the ball 16 times against Oklahoma, even though the pair averaged 6.3 yards a carry. Barrett, meanwhile, carried 18 times for 66 yards. Take away sacks, and it’s 15 carries for 81 yards. Now go back and look at Jones’s second tweet.

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This is evidence that the issues may be related to playcalling, but the question is who is calling the plays? Meyer ran off co-coordinators Tim Beck and Ed Warinner after last season and brought in former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson. Wilson’s offenses at Oklahoma and Indiana were dynamic and effective. Through two games, Wilson’s Ohio State offense looks pretty much like Beck and Warinner’s offense. That suggests that it’s more Meyer’s offense. He’s the head coach. That’s his prerogative. But he did hire Wilson for fresh ideas.

The current receivers also don’t stack up favorably with that 2014 group that Barrett threw to so effectively. Thomas and Smith were so fast that they were nearly an automatic throw every time they drew one-on-one coverage. Spencer had great hands and threw vicious blocks on the perimeter. Marshall was a versatile target.

The playcalling issues can be tweaked. For whatever reason—perhaps because they listened to Elliott’s rant after the Michigan State loss and took it to heart—the staff made adjustments prior to the 2015 Michigan game that made the offense operate for that afternoon the way it did in the ’14 season. The plays came in fast. The Buckeyes didn’t abandon the run. In fact, they ran 54 times. Michigan was gassed. The last great offensive performance came in Norman last year. Barrett only averaged 7.6 yards an attempt in that game, but four of his 14 completions found the end zone. More importantly, the Buckeyes ran 48 times (6.1 yards per carry) and threw 20.

Now let’s look at the 24–21 loss to Penn State. The Buckeyes ran 40 times (4.2 yards per carry) and threw 43 (5.7 yards per attempt). The 30–27 double-overtime win against Michigan? They ran 50 times (4.1 yards per carry) and threw 32 (3.9 yards per attempt). The Fiesta Bowl? They ran 23 times (3.8 yards per carry) and threw 33 times (3.8 yards per attempt). Oklahoma 2017? They ran 34 times (4.9 yards per carry) and threw 35 times (5.2 yards per attempt).

Ohio State should not be a balanced offense. It should be run-heavy, especially when the run game is averaging nearly five yards a carry. Look at those passing yards per attempt numbers. The Buckeyes can’t use the excuse that they don’t want to run into packed boxes because if the opposing defensive coordinator has any sense at all, he’s stacking the box because he isn’t afraid of the Buckeyes going over the top. The Buckeyes are actually pretty good at running into packed boxes, and they might break defenses down—except maybe Clemson’s defense, which is filled with superhumans up front—if they just keep running the ball.

Or—and this is the controversial part—they could try to get those yards per pass attempt numbers somewhere near average. That would be in the mid-sevens. The current state of affairs results in a lot of missed-out-upon yards when the pass attempts climb into the 30s and 40s.

The Buckeyes can’t recruit another Devin Smith or Michael Thomas or Taylor Decker or Pat Elflein between now and the Penn State game, but they can tinker with one variable in the equation just to make sure they’re gaining all the yards they possibly can. Barrett, a consummate competitor and team player, seems like the type who would welcome the challenge.

If Meyer and Wilson give Haskins or Burrow a few series over the next few weeks, what will it hurt? Some feelings, maybe. But at least they’ll know they’ll be entering the most critical stretch of their season playing the best possible version of the offense.

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A Random Ranking

I had so much fun last week ranking the items in one scene of a classic comedy (Spaceballs) that I’ve decided to continue the theme this week. Here is the definitive ranking of all the items Steve Martin’s Navin Johnson needs as he leaves his mansion in The Jerk.

1. These matches.
2. This magazine. (Which presumably is a copy of SI.)
3. This lamp.
4. The chair.
5. This paddle game.
6. This ashtray.
7. This remote control.

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama (2–0)

It’s amazing how effective Alabama’s offense is when the Crimson Tide aren’t playing Florida State’s defense. Meanwhile, the Alabama defense remained dominant in a 41–10 win over Fresno State.

2. Oklahoma (2–0)

Remember, this projection is only based on what has happened this season. So Oklahoma jumps in at No. 2 on the strength of its dominating second half in Columbus. Baker Mayfield was quite impressive, but the Sooners’ defense might have made the biggest statement. This group has been maligned in recent years, but it came through Saturday. Oklahoma State fans may be mad that the Sooners’ move drops the Cowboys to No. 5 in a four-team ranking. Don’t be. Oklahoma’s win helps the entire Big 12. If Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma once (or twice) and goes on to win the Big 12 title, the Cowboys also would get a bump from the respect this win earned the conference. (Assuming Ohio State winds up being relatively good, of course.)

3. Clemson (2–0)

The Tigers gained fewer than 300 yards and averaged only 4.2 yards a play in a 14–6 win over Auburn, so why am I still so high on them? Because Auburn’s defense limited a Deshaun Watson-led Clemson last year, and that offense turned out fine. Plus, Clemson racked up 11 sacks and humbled an offense that was supposed to turn Auburn into an SEC contender. We’ll know exactly how good the Clemson defense is next week after it faces Louisville and quarterback Lamar Jackson.

4. USC (2–0)

The Trojans followed a ho-hum win against Western Michigan with a convincing victory against Stanford that makes clear USC is the team to beat in the Pac-12. The hype around Sam Darnold may have obscured the possibility that Ronald Jones and Stephen Carr could be USC’s best rushing tandem since Reggie Bush and LenDale White.

Big Ugly of the Week

When a defense piles up 11 sacks, it’s probably going to be home to the Big Ugly of the Week. This week’s honor goes to Clemson defensive end Austin Bryant, the figure Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham will see in his nightmares when he’s 40. Bryant had four of those 11 sacks.

Three and Out

1. Several upcoming games have been moved or rescheduled because of Hurricane Irma. On Saturday, the ACC announced that the Miami–Florida State game would move to Oct. 7, which was the teams’ common open date. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes now will face Georgia Tech on Oct. 14 instead of the previously scheduled Oct. 12 (a Thursday). The removal of Miami–Florida State from Saturday’s schedule created a hole in primetime that ESPN was happy to fill by moving the Clemson-Louisville game—previously scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET—to 8 p.m. ET on ABC. That’s probably where the showdown between Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson—who remains college football’s best player—and Clemson’s ferocious pass rush should be.

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2. A bad snap and the ensuing butterfingered attempts to recover the ball forced Louisiana Tech to face third-and-goal from its own seven-yard line in a loss Saturday to Mississippi State.Yes, the Bulldogs faced third-and-93. Within minutes, a person on the Internet named Braden Bishop added Yakety Sax to the video of the play that put Louisiana Tech in that predicament. Not all heroes wear capes.

3. The lack of a scholarship for Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship became a mini-controversy earlier this year. After Blankenship kicked the go-ahead field goal from 30 yards with 3:34 remaining in the Bulldogs’ win at Notre Dame, Georgia coach Kirby Smart told his kicker to break some good news to the rest of the team.

For Your Ears

Here’s the latest episode of Place At The Table, the podcast I host with SiriusXM’s Patrick Meagher. In this episode, we discuss Hurricane Irma, Oklahoma’s huge win and the proper way to cook bacon. (Spoiler alert: I’m correct.)

What’s Eating Andy?

This shouldn’t have to be typed, but unfortunately it did need to be tweeted after Arizona State’s 30–20 loss at home to San Diego State.

Scrolling through the (mostly respectful) responses reveals a portion of a fan base fed up with coach Todd Graham’s leadership of the program. The fact that a loss to San Diego State wasn’t really an upset is either a huge compliment to Aztecs coach Rocky Long or proof that the disgruntled Sun Devils fans are correct.

What’s Andy Eating?

The surroundings looked bleak. The rumbling that had taken over my stomach after reading the Industry Public House menu began to wane. Across a main road sat a Wal-Mart. Within the same general cluster sat a Sam’s Club, a Max & Erma’s, a Tilted Kilt and a Quaker Steak & Lube. Even though Quaker Steak & Lube sprouted from Pennsylvania, it feels like standard suburban fare. Given those options, the best dining choice felt like a cinnamon sugar pretzel at Sam’s*.

*I’m only sort of making fun here. Don’t sleep on the Sam’s cinnamon sugar pretzel. It costs less than $1 and is better than any pretzel you’ve had at the mall or the airport.

Even though it shared a shopping center with some of these places, I shouldn’t have lumped Industry Public House into one of the circles of Chain Hell. In fact, more places need to do what Industry Public House has done: open a hip restaurant with a carefully crafted menu and excellent cocktails in a place that’s actually convenient.

Many of the places I review in larger cities are wedged into tight spaces downtown. Parking usually is a nightmare. Nearby hotels can be outrageously expensive. This lends a kind of exclusivity to these places that makes them seem cooler, but why? The Industry Public House I visited is Pittsburgh’s second location—the first is in the Lawrenceville neighborhood—and it serves barrel-aged Manhattans, lumberjack Old Fashioneds (made with your choice of wood smoked by a torch-wielding bartender) and wild boar bacon. Such a restaurant in a downtown area would draw rave reviews. But wouldn’t the place be even better if it served barrel-aged Manhattans, lumberjack Old Fashioneds and wild boar bacon and had a huge parking lot with an Ikea and an airport nearby?

It’s not just better. It’s infinitely superior. People who move to the suburbs shouldn’t be sentenced to a lifetime of Outback Steakhouse and Buffalo Wild Wings. Their credit cards work just as well as their downtown counterparts’. Why not bring the dozens of on-tap craft beers and seared pork belly to them?

A smoke-infused cocktail from Industry Public House in Pittsburgh.

A smoke-infused cocktail from Industry Public House in Pittsburgh.

The barrel-aged Manhattan was excellent, but I immediately regretted ordering it when I saw the bartender lighting up shards of hickory to make smoke to infuse into another diner’s Old Fashioned. This may seem like a parlor trick—and it’s more theatrical here than anywhere else I’ve seen it done—but the smoke does pair well with the natural sweetness of the bourbon. The idea behind barbecue, where wood smoke enhances the flavor of meat that is sweetened by caramelizing fat, isn’t that different.

The Pig Iron boar bacon appetizer from Industry Public House.

The Pig Iron boar bacon appetizer from Industry Public House.

The boar bacon appetizer, meanwhile, is tailor-made for someone with my bacon preferences. If you like your bacon burned to a crisp, just skip this and order another drink or head straight to the burgers. But if you like your bacon chewy, you’ll love this. The boar is leaner, so there’s more meat and less fat. Because of this, it has to come out chewy or it will be ruined. But unlike regular bacon, there is little chance of getting a barely cooked glob of fat on the end of the piece. If you’re concentrating on drinking and only want a little food, order a bowl of the Catalyst Chili. It packs savory ground beef and ground pork into a mixture sweetened and deepened by Hop Farm Coffee Porter.

The Blast Pig Burgher.

The Blast Pig Burgher.

Those with healthy appetites should order the Blast Pig Burgher. It’s a half-pound patty topped with candied bacon, candied jalapenos, caramelized onions and fried zucchini. The zucchini acts as a base to provide support for the more extreme flavors of the bacon and jalapeno. Just as with the chili, the burger presses the savory, salty, spicy and sweet buttons at once. It would seem entirely at home at the newest, hippest gastropub in the part of downtown with the least available parking. Instead, it tastes even better next to a wholesale club that sells toilet paper in 48-packs.