SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The physical stopwatch has been put away since training camp. Now J.T. Barrett has to just trust the clock in his head.
Ohio State spent the month of August helping to train the mind of the junior quarterback to understand how much time he’d have in the pocket, when to make a decision with the football and how long he would have before pressure -- and some pain -- would arrive. The Buckeyes took the most productive plays from training camp and measured the time span from snap to pass down to the tenth of a second. That number, 2.7 seconds, became the metric by which plays would be judged a failure or a success.
The trick is making sure Barrett doesn’t let his 2.7 seconds expire too often, particularly against a pass rush as fearsome as the unit No. 2 Clemson will turn loose on Saturday in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.
“I can’t hold the ball,” Barrett said on Tuesday. “I have to make sure I get it out in a timely fashion. There were some things I could have done better to help the offensive line out, and that’s just getting the ball out as far as timing and things like that.
“It’s out pretty fast when we’re on time.”
The Buckeyes were running late a bit too often toward the end of the season, and opposing defenses have plenty of sacks to show for it.
Ohio State allowed just five sacks in its first six games, an encouraging start for an offense featuring three first-time starters on the offensive line. In the next six games, Barrett was sacked 20 times. The Buckeyes largely kept winning anyway on the way to the College Football Playoff, including in the rivalry win over Michigan when Barrett was constantly under pressure and sacked a season-high eight times. But Clemson is one of just four teams in the nation with a more prolific pass rush than the Wolverines, which might even shorten that unofficial shot clock Barrett has to work with on Saturday.
Obviously, Barrett is not solely responsible for the recent issues bogging down the passing attack, since he’s not doing the blocking or running any routes. But that’s one part of a complicated formula that he can control as the Buckeyes look for a solution to slow down the Tigers and get their explosive offense back on track.
“If it was just one thing, it would be easier to fix,” offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. “It’s not always obvious, but it helps you as a coaching staff to all be on the same page. Like, ‘What do you think should have happened here?’
“Because you have to be able to go into a guy like J.T. and you have to be real clear about it. I mean, you’re coaching one of the elite minds and players in college football, in my opinion, and he wants to execute every play perfectly. And if he doesn’t, he’s upset. You have to give him, ‘How do I make this work? What do I have to do better on my end?’”
The Buckeyes could hardly be more specific than they were back in the summer during training days or when the stopwatch was out in the film room. And sticking to that short window with the football in his hands was clearly at the top of his list as Barrett prepared for his first practice this week in Arizona.
But there are plenty of other factors at play, starting with some improvements in protection and including a bit more help from a young group of receivers. And as the countdown to kickoff also winds down, the Buckeyes don’t want to waste a single second.
“You put a microscope on the things that don’t shine, and it’s a work in progress -- always,” guard Billy Price said. “There are so many elements to a pass game itself, so many different directions it can go: Was J.T.’s step good? Was the receiver good? Did I block the guy long enough? How was my pass set?
“When the number is that staggering, when you’re talking six, seven, eight sacks, it’s not a good feeling. You know, it gives us an opportunity to work, an opportunity to grow. Obviously it was not going right, so try to take that ... address the problem and try to grow.”
The clock is ticking.