Big Picture: Barrett makes Ohio State a team nobody wants to play

Whether young J.T. Barrett and Ohio State were actually listening to the skeptics, they certainly had quite an answer for them all this weekend. The Buckeyes hadn’t beaten any ranked teams heading into Saturday’s Big Ten title game rematch at Michigan State. OSU had already suffered an embarrassing loss in their home opener against a Virginia Tech team that now has a losing record.

The gaudy stats Barrett had piled up since, well, those came against suspect competition. The Spartans, with the nation’s No. 5 defense, would be a different story. Instead, Barrett picked MSU apart, connecting on 16-of-26 passes for 300 yards and three TDs and also adding 86 rushing yards and two more touchdowns. The performance by the Buckeyes — and Barrett in particular — was a testament to what may be the nation’s most improved team this fall.

"I was excited about how well we executed the plan," Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman told FOX Sports on Sunday. "It was really neat to see them go into that environment against a top-five defense and play like that."

Herman said a big key in coping with the Spartans’ vaunted defense came from the Buckeyes’ own defensive system shift this offseason. "We now have a very similar scheme, and that’s allowed our guys to be very familiar with what they’re seeing on tape."

The Buckeyes’ old scheme was also a 4-3 and played quarters coverage, but it was a lot more off-quarters rather than the press, screwed-down, tight-run-stopping D that Michigan State plays and that Urban Meyer wanted. There are still some differences, but it gave Herman’s players a better sense of what they were dealing with last week.

To attack Michigan State’s D, Herman said the first key is to "not fall into the trap" of thinking the only throws you’ll have a shot at are the ones over the Spartans’ heads. Of course, Ohio State had to take its shots when those opportunities were there, but Herman also was able to manufacture some intermediate and shorter throws by sucking the SAM linebacker via some run action.

One of those shots came on what Herman called by far the best throw of Barrett’s career. It came in the second quarter with Ohio State facing a third-and-23. MSU brought six-man pressure in Barrett’s face. He pump-faked the safety off to the left and then fired the ball 40 yards downfield, perfectly over Devin Smith’s shoulder for a huge gainer.

THE FOX FOUR

Herman also brought up another bit of stellar quarterbacking play from the redshirt freshman that the coach said epitomized their mantra around the Buckeyes’ QB room. "We say one-on-one is not covered. Timing and ball-placement win EVERY time," Herman explained. "As a quarterback, it’s your job to throw him open."

Barrett did just that with OSU trailing 21-14 midway through the second quarter when he connected with sophomore wideout Mike Thomas on a 79-yard touchdown play that came on a slant. As Herman rewatched it on Sunday, he told his budding star QB, "If you’d be six inches to the left or just six inches to the right, that would’ve been a 10-yard completion." Instead, Barrett threw it perfectly and Thomas was able to take off and run away from the Spartans’ defense.

The most amazing part of what is going on in Columbus is a team that not only had to replace a star running back (Carlos Hyde) and four offensive linemen — but it also lost Big Ten MVP QB Braxton Miller to a shoulder injury on the eve of the season — has actually been even more explosive on offense. OSU was third in the nation in scoring last season at 45.5 points per game. This year, they’re up to 46.0 and 49 points per game in their last five.

Since the Va. Tech loss, a more assertive, more aggressive Barrett has thrown 23 TDs and just three INTs and also run for seven more TDs. He hasn’t been flawless the whole time — OSU was sloppy in the second half at Penn State, and last week Barrett did miss a few wide open throws early against Illinois — but the kid is playing about as well as any QB in the country whose name isn’t Marcus Mariota. "(Barrett’s) been a joy to coach," Herman said. "He’s such a gym rat, such a competitor."

Herman said in his 18 years as a coach he’s never been around a team that has improved as much from the start of a season as this Buckeyes team has.

Of course, they still have only one win over a ranked opponent on their resume and may get an opportunity for only one more — in the Big Ten title game. It’s a stretch to think they’ll have a strong enough case on paper for the playoff committee to save them a spot in the Final Four, but there’s still a lot of football left to play and upsets often happen in November.

Oh, and there’s one other intriguing issue looming for Ohio State: What’ll happen next fall if, as expected, Miller comes back to OSU for his senior season? Does Barrett, as terrific as he’s playing, go back to the bench?

Herman laughed. "Really, I’m just trying to beat Minnesota right now," he said.

THE LATEST FOX FOUR TOP 10

The Week 11 FOX Four is out, and here is my individual ballot:

1. Florida State: Again, had their issues early with an unranked opponent, but the Noles are one of only two remaining unbeatens from Power 5 leagues, and I still have more faith in them than any other team to find a way to win. The Noles’ win over UVA wasn’t inspiring, but neither was MSU playing UT-Martin.

2. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs routed UT-Martin, a sub-.500 team that plays in the Ohio Valley Conference. Anyhow, if MSU wins at Bama this week, I’ll move them back into the No. 1 spot.

4. TCU: Gary Patterson’s team keeps rolling, notching a fourth win over a ranked team in the past six weeks. The 21-point win over K-State sets up the Frogs pretty well, and their 30-7 win at Minnesota looks better after the Gophers’ dominant performance against Iowa moved them to 7-2. Still, they have kind of a leader-in-the-clubhouse vibe right now with Bama, Baylor and ASU all with the potential to leapfrog the Frogs.

5. Alabama: Beating LSU at Tiger Stadium at night is Bama’s most impressive win. The Tide can really move up if they knock off MSU this weekend in what shapes up to be a playoff elimination game.

WEEK 12 WINNERS & LOSERS

6. Baylor: So much for all that talk about the Bears can’t beat a ranked team on the road. Baylor blasted OU in Norman. The Bears also hold a big win over TCU. But the Bears’ woeful non-conference schedule stings. That said, if Baylor wins out — which means it’d beat K-State in December — I’d lean toward ranking the Bears ahead of TCU, seeing as a head-to-head result with teams with the same record trumps a softer non-conference schedule tying back to a Minnesota game.

7. ASU: The Sun Devils smashed Notre Dame, 55-31, forcing five turnovers and sacking Everett Golson seven times to wreck ND’s playoff hopes. The Sun Devils have come a long way, especially on D, since getting clobbered by UCLA at home earlier in the season. If ASU can win out — beating Arizona and then Oregon in the Pac-12 title game — they’re going to the playoff.

8. Ohio State: Winning at Michigan State the way the Buckeyes did, lighting up the Spartans’ vaunted D, was quite a statement and shows just how far this young offense has come from that September debacle against Va. Tech. The problem is the rest of the Big Ten is so mediocre, OSU may not have enough on its resume to push past FSU, a one-loss Pac-12 champ, potentially two one-loss Big 12 teams or maybe even a two-loss SEC champ. 

9. Ole Miss: A win over Presbyterian isn’t going to impress any playoff committee member, but the attrition around the Rebels in the rankings helps, especially since they do own a win over Bama and still have a game with unbeaten Mississippi State remaining.

10. UCLA: I was tempted to have Auburn here, but the Tigers just lost at home to unranked Texas A&M, which had looked awful the previous month and had barely survived ULM. The Bruins did have back-to-back home losses a month ago, but on balance, Utah and Oregon are at worst on par with the teams Auburn lost to while the Bruins’ blowout win at ASU suddenly looks very impressive. Plus UCLA just beat a good Arizona team last week, has won four in a row and is playing better than the Tigers are at this point.

Most stunning result of the weekend: Seeing Texas A&M, a 23-point underdog, go to Auburn and beat the No. 3 Tigers. It’s the second time in three seasons Kevin Sumlin has taken a team started by a freshman QB into the state of Alabama and engineered an upset over a top-three opponent. But this win seemed even more improbable than when Johnny Manziel sparked the Aggies to a win in 2012 over then-No. 1 Bama in Tuscaloosa.

Back then, Manziel had already emerged as one of the best players in the country. In this case, true freshman quarterback Kyle Allen was making just his second college start and his first one on the road. Allen, whose development is detailed in my new book, The QB, came to College Station with a ton of hype, but he was very shaky last week against ULM.

Against the Tigers, in a much more hostile setting, Allen looked like a totally different QB. He led the Aggies to four TDs on their first five drives with each coming via a touchdown pass. Allen has a terrific arm, but what impressed his coaches the most against Auburn was how well he managed the atmosphere, as evidenced by some very savvy reads he made pre-snap to counter-punch against Tigers veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson.

"Kyle really operated it well and made a couple of very mature checks," Aggies OC Jake Spavital told FOX Sports on Sunday. "He’s very intelligent." A prime example of one of those checks came in the red zone, where the Aggies had gone up-tempo and were planning a run play, but the young QB spied lanky wideout Josh Reynolds in one-on-one coverage with the DB having outside leverage. Allen left the run play "on" but checked to Reynolds running a slant. At the snap, Allen popped his feet and fired a quick TD pass to the sophomore receiver.

BEST COLLEGE FOOTBALL STADIUMS

Another check came on a third-and-1 in A&M territory, where Allen noticed a different Tigers defensive front and examined the leverage of the linebackers and opted to check to a speed option, something the Aggies hadn’t run all game. The play went for 11 yards and a first down, and the drive led to a field goal.

It certainly helped Allen’s cause that the Aggies’ run game came through, going for 176 rushing yards and a five-yard per carry average. The challenge now for Allen and the young A&M squad is carrying over the momentum from the big win with a rested Mizzou team coming in, sporting one of the better D-lines in the SEC. After all, it was just two months ago that A&M had a newbie QB that had the college football world buzzing after his first start. It’ll be interesting to see how Allen responds.

BODY BLOW THEORY BITES NOTRE DAME

Notre Dame’s playoff hopes went down with a big thud in the desert. ASU, which had allowed visiting UCLA to score 62 earlier this season, harassed Everett Golson, sacking him seven times. He’d been sacked only 14 times in the Irish’s first eight games this season. ASU also forced Golson into five turnovers, including three in a four-minute stretch in the first half. ASU’s 55 points are the most the Irish have allowed in 14 years.

The Irish looked like they were playing at a bit of a different speed than the Sun Devils, and it certainly didn’t hurt the Body Blow angle that reader Brad Thompson, an ND fan, pointed out days before the game. Notre Dame came into the game banged up, missing their defensive leader Joe Schmidt, who was lost for the season with an injury in last week’s Navy game. The Irish now drop to 2-6 in their last eight in the game following their meeting with Navy and its triple option attack, and teams this season are now 2-7 the game after playing the Middies and 1-7 the week after that.

WILL KANSAS KEEP BOWEN?

Kansas blew out Iowa State 34-14 for the Jayhawks’ first Big 12 win of the season. The performance is exactly the kind KU brass was hoping to see from interim coach Clint Bowen’s team. I’m told they are hoping Bowen, a local guy who is well-liked in the KU community and viewed as something like the anti-Charlie Weis, can show enough to prove he should be kept as the head coach beyond 2014. This win might actually be enough, although it certainly wouldn’t hurt if KU can be at least competitive in their final three games, which are against TCU and at OU and K-State.

THIS WEEK’S SCOOBY WATCH

Arizona’s terrific sophomore LB Scooby Wright had "only" 10 tackles, two TFLs and one sack in the Cats’ win over Colorado. Wright now has 13 sacks through nine games. The year before he arrived at Zona, the Cats’ whole team had just 16 sacks in 13 games.

MY HEISMAN TOP FIVE

1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

COLLEGE FOOTBALL'S BEST UNIFORMS

2. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State

3. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin

4. Duke Johnson, RB, Miami

5. Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona

At this point Mariota has a decent size lead, I think, but it’s not quite his Heisman to lose. I could see Prescott narrowing the gap quite a bit if he can lead MSU to a win over Bama. The other guys with a big opportunity: Duke Johnson and Jameis Winston, since Miami hosts FSU this weekend. Realistically, I think both are longshots to actually win the Heisman this year. They’d need both Prescott and Mariota to lose or at least really struggle. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I’m skeptical no matter how well Winston could play the rest of this season if enough Heisman voters would put him on their ballots.

CHECKING ON A FORMER FROG

While TCU is having a glorious season, I noticed that former Horned Frogs standout DE Devonte Fields has 51 tackles and 5.5 TFLs in 11 games for an 11-0 Trinity Valley CC team averaging 61.5 ppg. Former Houston QB Kyle Postma is completing over 68 percent of his passes and has a 36-9 TD-INT ratio. 

WAZZU’S NEW QB

Connor Halliday was the nation’s most prolific passer before he was sidelined for the rest of the season due to a leg injury. Washington State turned to freshman former walk-on QB Luke Falk, and his line in a 39-32 win at Oregon State: 44-of-61, 471 yards, five TDs, zero INTs.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE I

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE II

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE III

As outstanding as Marshall QB Rakeem Cato is, the Thundering Herd are averaging a gaudy 9.01 yards per rush on first downs. In the past seven seasons, the highest an FBS team has averaged on first downs was Nevada’s 7.36 yards back in 2009.

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.