COLUMBUS - Everything changed with one throw, one scream of pain, one fall to the ground on the practice field.
Ohio State was hoping for a season that would include a trip to the first College Football Playoff before Braxton Miller was lost for the season when he re-injured his right shoulder on a simple throw in practice last Monday.
Now Urban Meyer and the No. 5-ranked Buckeyes have turned to another kind of hope. The hope that an undefeated season, maybe even a national championship is still on the table with untested redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett at quarterback instead of Miller.
OSU’s players and Meyer say it can be done. Proving it will be harder to do.
“I still like our team. Really like our team,” Meyer said. “Quarterback is an important cog but that’s exactly what it is – a cog. It’s not the team.”
Miller has been the biggest offensive cog in the Big Ten the last two seasons. Last year he passed for 2,094 yards, rushed for 1,068 and accounted for 36 touchdowns.
He can cover up a multitude of football sins with his ability to change the direction of a game with one play.
There is no failure-proof manual to follow when back-up quarterbacks are forced to become starters. Some are unfazed by the pressure, others fail.
A year ago, Kenny Guiton was spectacular in a three-game relief stint when Miller went out with a sprained knee.
A week before Miller’s injury, Barrett was asked at OSU’s media day if his game was kind of a combination of Miller and Guiton.
He said, “That sounds good. I just try to go out there and play. But that sounds all right to me. Those are two good dudes.”
If he reminds people of either of those quarterbacks, Ohio State could still have a very interesting season.
Barrett emerged as the No. 2 quarterback once the Buckeyes began preseason practice. He came out of spring practice No. 3 behind sophomore Cardale Jones.
The 6-foot, 1-inch, 225-pound Barrett has not played in a game since halfway through his senior season in high school in 2011 when he had to have surgery to repair a torn ACL, torn MCL and torn meniscus.
Meyer says Barrett reminds him of Guiton in some ways. “This kid is kind of Guiton-ish,” he said. “He’s calm, cool, collected and has pretty good leadership skills.”
Quarterback uncertainty aside, there were lots of questions Ohio State needed to answer before Miller’s injury.
There was already a massive hole in the offense with leading rusher Carlos Hyde moving on to the NFL. Four senior starters on last season’s offensive line, the best offensive line group in recent memory at Ohio State, will have to be replaced.
Several of the receivers have been more about potential than production in their careers. And both the place kickers are inexperienced.
The defense has its own questions. The defensive backfield was an epic disaster last year and the linebackers have not lived up to Ohio State’s tradition of great linebackers in Meyer’s first two seasons.
OSU has 11 returning starters – four on offense and seven on defense.
All four starters are back on the defensive line – ends Joey Bosa and Noah Spence and tackles Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington. They could be one of the best D-lines in the country.
Linebackers Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry and cornerback Doran Grant are also returning starters.
With Miller gone, tackle Taylor Decker, tight end Jeff Heuerman and wide receivers Devin Smith and Evan Spencer are the only returning starters on offense.
Sophomore Ezekiel Elliott is expected to get the starting running back job that belonged to Hyde last year, though Rod Smith, Bri’onte Dunn and freshman Curtis Samuel all have a chance of getting carries. Receivers like Dontre Wilson, Michael Thomas, Corey Smith, Johnnie Dixon and Jalin Marshall could be difference makers.
In Meyer’s third season at Ohio State, the Buckeyes have a roster built to fit his offensive and defensive philosophies.
But that roster was assembled with the most dangerous offensive player in the Big Ten at the center of it all.
Now the Buckeyes have to play a season without him and still try to do everything they planned to do with him.