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Buckeyes should follow Michigan State's lead on quarterback decision

An FBS coach who has closely observed Ohio State's offense in recent weeks recited the phrase we heard all offseason about the Buckeyes' quarterbacks.

"It's a good problem to have," the coach said of having Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and (potentially) Braxton Miller all available to take snaps.

Then the coach added, "But it's still a problem."

Ohio State's quarterback situation amazingly, unfathomably, has become a problem just three games into 2015 season. Coach Urban Meyer sounded exasperated after Saturday's 20-13 win against Northern Illinois, a game in which Jones and Barrett combined to pass for just 133 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions.

The grand plan to use two proven quarterbacks -- one (Barrett) who put Ohio State in position for a national championship run and another (Jones) who finished it off in spectacular fashion -- had become compromised. An offense loaded with nationally elite players and/or tremendous depth at every position looked slow and inefficient. The most shocking part was Meyer's admission that top-ranked Ohio State hadn't been ready for Northern Illinois' 3-4 alignment -- the same look it eviscerated against Wisconsin and Alabama en route to the national title game.

A two-quarterback system seemed like a luxury for Meyer. It's no longer feasible. On Wednesday, Meyer named Jones the starter for Saturday's game against Western Michigan. He would be wise to stick with him.

Meyer only needs to look at the team directly behind Ohio State in the polls to see the benefit of being decisive and committed at quarterback. Two years ago, Michigan State was reeling from a 17-13 loss at Notre Dame, a game featuring controversial calls and a controversial quarterback decision, as MSU's coaches went with opening-game starter Andrew Maxwell rather than Connor Cook on the final possession. Cook was visibly shaken afterward, saying, "I don't know why they pulled me." Despite a superb defense and good potential on offense, the Spartans went into an open week with a murky outlook because of their quarterback quandary.

They emerged from it with a starter: Cook. Since then, they've gone 24-2 with a Big Ten championship, a Rose Bowl championship, a Cotton Bowl championship and consecutive top-five finishes.

"We felt like we needed to make a decision and weren't sure which direction we wanted to go and weren't sure when we made the decision that it was the right way to go," Michigan State offensive coordinator Dave Warner told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "We just felt like something needed to happen. I know coach [Mark Dantonio] said at that point in time, 'If we go in this direction, we need to stick with him, through the good and the bad. We can't keep shuffling guys in and out.'"

It's not an apples-to-apples comparison between No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan State. Both Buckeyes quarterbacks have proven they can win at the highest levels, while Cook was a relative unknown and Maxwell had struggled as Kirk Cousins' successor at MSU.

But like the Spartans' situation, Ohio State hasn't had one quarterback create clear separation. Committing to one player without overwhelming evidence makes coaches nervous.

"It's real hard," Warner said. "We had the incumbent in Andrew Maxwell and we felt like we needed to make the move to a guy who didn't have the experience. There was a lot of uncertainty there."

Meyer has much more certainty with Jones than MSU did with Cook, and he can provide more certainty to the rest of the offense by sticking with him. Those who have observed Ohio State's offense see the quarterback confusion paralyzing the rest of the unit.

The system might be the same, but the preparation process changes when two very different quarterbacks are in the mix. Strengths quickly become liabilities.

"The offensive line suffers from those different game plans the most," a coach said. "When you’ve got a confused offensive line, a really good offensive line becomes average."

Ohio State's offensive line, which mauled teams in last year's title run and returned all but one of its pieces, has looked average. Michigan State's offensive line was a much bigger question mark in 2013. So were the Spartans' wide receivers.

Not surprisingly, the Spartans' line improved after the coaches committed to Cook. So did the wide receivers. MSU hasn't looked back since.

"Our offense trusted us to make the best decision," Warner said, "and once we did, it helped. Now they knew who the guy was going to be. In the long run, it helps to have the guy who steps in making plays. It worked out for the best as he made plays week in and week out."

Ohio State knows Jones can make plays. Sticking with him should allow the entire offense to make strides.

The Buckeyes' quest to repeat as champions likely comes down to their Nov. 21 home date with Michigan State. But they would be wise to copy the Spartans' strategy with the most important position on the field.