As sheer entertainment, Ohio State's quarterback saga provided a little something for everyone last season. Drama! Suspense! Heartbreak! Heroes!
This fall's sequel already had plenty of intrigue, and the plot is picking up — just in time for Saturday's game against the Gophers. Part II features the same cast of characters — J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller — that were central to the story during last season's run to the national championship. They will play roles both new and familiar Saturday at Ohio Stadium, as Jones resumes his place in the starting lineup, Miller steps in as a wild card and the suspended Barrett watches.
Barrett, who replaced Jones as the starter in an Oct. 24 victory over Rutgers, was charged with drunken driving during last Saturday's bye week and will not play against the Gophers. That gives Jones a chance to reboot after an underwhelming start to the season, while Miller, converted from quarterback to wide receiver and H-back after shoulder surgery, could steal a few scenes with the special plays drawn up for him at his old position.
It's a complicated plot for the Gophers defense to follow. And though the cast changes have forced Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Ed Warinner to improvise, they are confident Jones and Miller can produce a hit. The top-ranked Buckeyes are 8-0, and a victory Saturday would tie Florida State's FBS record (set between 1992-95) by extending their conference winning streak to 29 games.
"We have to make sure we have a good game plan that fits [Jones'] strengths, then bring along the package with Braxton Miller as a backup quarterback," Warinner said. "We've had a package [of plays] each week with Braxton at quarterback, and you've just seen a small sample size that we've used in recent games.
"We won't let what's behind us now affect what's in front of us. We're preparing to go win a game with the players we have."
The Buckeyes' instability at quarterback dates to August 2014, when Miller — the returning starter and a two-time Big Ten MVP — reinjured his surgically repaired shoulder. Barrett outdueled Jones in camp, went 11-1, was named Big Ten quarterback of the year and set 17 school records as he amassed 3,772 yards and 45 touchdowns passing and rushing.
Jones took over when Barrett broke his ankle in the regular-season finale against Michigan. He led the Buckeyes to victories over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and Oregon in the national title game, and he started Ohio State's first seven games as a junior this fall.
But Jones's inconsistency kept the uncertainty alive. Barrett — a superior runner — replaced him in several games and became the go-to quarterback in the red zone, where Jones had been particularly ineffective. Barrett made his first start of the season against Rutgers, throwing for three touchdowns and running for two more.
Six days later, with the Buckeyes enjoying a break, he was stopped by Columbus police at a sobriety checkpoint. Jones picked him up from custody, and Meyer suspended his quarterback for one game.
"We're disappointed it happened, we did what we did and we've got to move forward," Meyer said. "Cardale had a great week of practice last week. He handled everything like a man. He's 10-0 as a starter. That's not even a hesitation.
"I'm not worried about [Miller]. I'm very comfortable. He's had an incredible week of practice."
Miller has caught 19 passes for 280 yards and rushed for 207 more as part of a Buckeyes offense that has gathered steam over the past few weeks. Meyer said Barrett has been working with Miller this week to help prepare him.
The Gophers, like other teams this season, were preparing to face either Jones or Barrett. Miller's introduction into the mix creates a new wrinkle.
"The unknown is the role that Braxton picks up from here on out, because I'm sure there will be something there," interim coach Tracy Claeys said. "And how well we handle that will probably have a big outcome on the game. You're talking about one of the best athletes in the Big Ten, and you just don't know where he's going to line up now."
About the only thing that is certain is the Buckeyes' long-running quarterback drama will stay at center stage for at least another couple of weeks. Even so, Warinner expects a command performance Saturday.
"Everybody here is businesslike," he said. "We want to win this football game. And no obstacle, no speed bump, is going to get in our way."