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Playing The Long Game

Was Urban Playing Us All Along?

James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

I can tell you the moment I was done trying to believe Cardale was about to turn the proverbial corner. That moment arrived during last Saturday's eventual lopsided dismantling of Penn State--another game in which Ohio State got off to a glacial start. Cardale Jones lined up in a shallow shotgun, as is typical, with a back behind him. He took the snap and opened up to the right, setting the ball for a play-action handoff. And he waited. And he waited. And he waited some more, oblivious to the fact no back was coming. Zeke went to Cardale's left, passing behind the erstwhile backup QB and continuing on with the play. Eventually, Jones came to and realized no one was coming to receive his offering of a football. He pulled it in, stared his receiver down as he has all season, and threw a terrible pass.

That is the story of Cardale's 2015 in one play. For however heroic he may have been in the playoffs--and my God, was he ever the hero Ohio State needed--his performance this season looks worlds apart from the Jones of January. After seven weeks of fits and hiccups and mere glimmers of the talent OSU fans expected to see once again, Jones has been surpassed by the Buckeyes' original off-the-bench hero, J.T. Barrett.

Hits and Misses

There's almost no argument to be made against the switch. Jones came into last week's Maryland game an abysmal 2-of-12 passing in the red zone. He's thrown for only seven touchdowns. That may not sound awful, but consider that that's over seven games against some fairly mundane opponents. Cardale threw seven touchdowns in three games last season. Games against Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon. Games against good defenses (Wisconsin gets the benefit of the doubt).

Even more damning is his is suddenly AWOL ability to scramble. Who could forget the bruiser of a QB lowering shoulder and knocking Oregon's nose tackle backwards like a man possessed?

OSU's national title depended on Jones' ability to get three yards against a defense with its ears pinned back on third and fourth down. By sheer force of will, Cardale did it. In three outings last year, he ran for over 300 yards. This season? 130 yards over seven games. His best was a 99-yard night against VT. Since then, his best day was a 32-yard effort against Western Michigan.

It's not just an issue of bad blocking, either. A look at game film shows his running style to be completely different. He's trying to do what he can't do. Last year's Jones ran straight downfield like a deck cannon loose from its lashings. This year's Jones tries to juke and stutter-step his way out of the backfield, with little effect. To wit, sacks and TFLs have left him with two games of net negative rushing. That's a long slide for guy who started his Buckeye career averaging roughly one hundred yards per game.

One of the odd factors in the quarterback saga is Cardale's raw stats. Aside from only seven touchdowns, the big fella's measurables look pretty good.

93 149 1242 62.4 8.34 54

The problem, of course, has been the red zone. That 2-of-12 was a killer of drives. OSU settled for field goals instead of the touchdowns a first place team scores. Beyond that, his immeasurables (call it the "eye test" if you will) were just not there. As many commentators and talking heads noted, the offense looks lethargic, sporadic, and out-of-sync when Cardale is taking snaps.

The System Is Down

On some level it isn't fair to blame the young man. His polarizing personality aside, two things must be considered.

First, Jones started last year as third string for a reason. Both Braxton and J.T. Barrett looked better to the staff than Cardale. As such, he didn't play a meaningful down of football until the second half against Michigan, though the gutting of Brady Hoke's Michigan carcass was largely left to Zeke at that point. He started his run of greatness at the back of the pack, and he started there for a reason. Among OSU's talented QBs, he was the caboose.

The second point here is the important one: the system develops the man. With the very bright and talented Tom Herman gone, Cardale was turned over to Tim Beck for development. I can't say whether Beck is great or not (I suspect the latter), but whatever the mix of personalities and coaching is right now at OSU, it has clearly not kept Jones on an upward arc. The system in Columbus is not able to get the very best out of Cardale in 2015. We don't know the reasons--only the results. Those results have not been good. That is not Cardale's fault. Nonetheless, the team must come first.

Next Man Up

Today, Urban announced that J.T. Barrett is the starter. We've seen increasing cameos by Barrett all season. First, for a series or two. Then two weeks ago, in every red zone situation. By the end of the Penn State game, the offense was clearly his to run, and the results are undeniable.

So the question now is not which man calls the signals for the Buckeyes. That has been settled. Rather, the question now is whether this is the natural result of Cardale not emerging as the QB he was expected to be, or of something more calculated. Most OSU fans thought the former to be the case three or four weeks ago--as far back as the NIU mess, even. We wondered how Urban could not see that Barrett was the dynamic run/pass threat the offense needed to really ignite as a unit. Was the choice to start Barrett now a matter of circumstance? Or, was this moment one Urban saw coming before we did?

Did Cardale stay in for the soft part of the schedule just to keep opponents guessing down the road, with limited tape of J.T. to study as B1G play heats up? Or was there hope that he really was on the verge of reprising his playoff magic?

Your guess is as good as mine. Either way, it seems his fifteen minutes may be over.