Inside the exhausted, overwhelmed and exultant Ohio State locker room Saturday night, a hundred or so Buckeyes had not yet started to digest the past four hours of unforgettable football. Players and coaches danced and hollered and found ways to burn off the leftover adrenaline from a dramatic comeback victory they were all still trying to process. Hoarse-voiced offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson introduced “our man and your leader” J.T. Barrett to lend his perspective.
The quarterback, fresh off a prove-you-wrong performance for the ages, addressed his teammates with all the gusto of a metronome.
“This is what it’s all about,” he said, plain and calm. “Everything we go through in the offseason ... it’s for moments like that. And now everybody sees it.”
Barrett has been through plenty, and at times that has included more fiery locker room passion when Ohio State needed it. His words on Saturday night, though, were a better fit for the steady guidance he provided throughout a tumultuous 39-38 season-altering victory over No. 2 Penn State.
The senior completed 33 of his 39 passes, including the last 16 he attempted while erasing a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit. In the final quarter alone, he threw for 170 yards and three touchdowns, including a game-winning pass to tight end Marcus Baugh in the final two minutes of play. Afterward, he said he didn’t do anything new or different in the spotlight. The team needed to throw a lot of passes to win, so he threw them.
Barrett didn’t need to pound his chest this weekend. The rest of the Buckeyes were happy to do it for him. Coach Urban Meyer gushed about his guy. Meyer called Barrett “professional,” “damn near perfect” and said he had trouble thinking of anytime he’s witnessed better quarterback play. That’s high praise coming from a man who previously coached No. 1 pick Alex Smith and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.
“I think that H-word is appropriate after today's game,” Meyer said.
Barrett’s performance should indeed rocket him into the thick of the Heisman conversation as the calendar flips to November.
Only two quarterbacks (West Virginia's Will Grier and Missouri's Drew Lock) have thrown more touchdown passes than his 25 thus far. He ranks fifth in completion percentage and is one of two players, along with N.C. State’s Ryan Finley, who has attempted at least 200 throws and only been intercepted once.
He’s guided the Buckeyes offense to 46.3 points per game and back into serious contention for a third trip to the College Football Playoff in his four years on the field. Along the way, he’s set a slew of Big Ten and school records. If Ohio State wins the last four games on its schedule, Barrett will leave school with more wins than any other starting quarterback to wear the Scarlet and Gray.
“You guys can figure out all the records,” Meyer said. “I'll just tell you, man to man, this is one man talking about another man, I don't know if I've ever had more respect for a human being and as a person. You earn respect and you witness people in very dire straits at times, tough situations.”
Six weeks ago, after a loss to Oklahoma on a big early-season stage, Meyer fielded questions about whether Barrett was the guy to lead Ohio State’s offense. Fans were eager for one of the young guns waiting behind him. Perhaps, the thought went, they would have the extra juice needed to make the big play in the big moment than was lacking of Barrett’s impressive resume.
Barrett, by all accounts, did not waver or question himself. Unlike other Heisman candidates, he doesn’t trade in the currency of spectacle. He won’t run over opponents like Tebow, run circles around them like Johnny Manziel and Lamar Jackson or throw lasers through them like Jameis Winston. Barrett’s strength is in his steadiness.
Spectacular plays (and this is certainly not a knock on those who have provided those flashes of magic in the past) make it easy to bend a narrative and cast those who pull them off in a hero’s role. For example, if Penn State had held on to its lead Saturday night, it would be easy to view Saquon Barkley's two first-quarter touchdowns -- including the opening kick return -- as game-changing plays and forget about the fact that he finished with only 2.1 yards per carry. He made the plays when his team needed him, the story would go.
It’s hard to see Barrett’s greatest strengths without looking through a broader lens. What was the highlight play of his best performance? It’s tough to say. Even the game-winning touchdown pass was a matter of making the right read and putting the ball where it needed to be. His magic comes in being able to do his job snap after snap, week after week, year after year.
Barrett’s path to the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City isn’t strung together with eye-popping highlights. It’s thus far been a steady march, undeterred by whatever obstacles are tossed in his way.
Now that everybody sees it, as Barrett told his teammates in the locker room, it’s safe to assume he’ll continue with the same straightforward approach while Meyer and others sing his praises.
“He said ‘the H word,’ so I'm going to say the same thing, that H word. I don't really focus on it,” Barrett said in the aftermath of his big moment. “Next week we've got to go beat Iowa. That's what I'll go focus on.”