Jones took advantage of the fact that his Los Angeles Chargers played on Thursday last week and was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, last Saturday to watch what felt like an otherwise familiar scene unfold in Ohio State’s final regular-season game. He said he was in the Michigan Stadium press box when starting quarterback J.T. Barrett left the game because of a leg injury.
Haskins replaced Barrett in the second half of a one-possession game against rival Michigan. He ended up leading Ohio State to a double-digit victory in his first meaningful time running the offense.
In 2014, it was Jones who replaced Barrett after he broke his ankle in the second half of a one-possession game against Michigan. He ended up leading Ohio State to a double-digit victory in his first meaningful time running the offense.
Jones drove the Buckeyes 80 yards and scored a touchdown on his ninth snap that day. Haskins’ first drive last Saturday went 79 yards and reached the end zone on his ninth snap.
The victory in 2014 kept the Buckeyes as a controversial hanger-on in the College Football Playoff discussion ahead of a Big Ten championship game against West Division winner Wisconsin. Ditto for 2017.
“It really is [similar], now that you talk about it,” Haskins said Saturday shortly after the win. “I hadn’t thought about it.”
Ohio State and Jones, of course, went on to beat the Badgers 59-0 the following week in 2014, squeezing into the final playoff spot. Jones led the Buckeyes over Alabama and Oregon to win a national championship.
The parallels between the fourth Big Ten championship game and this year’s matchup in Indianapolis are striking. The similarities are too many not to notice, yet to those who will be on the field Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, it is ancient history.
“You said three years ago; that feels like 25 years ago,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said earlier this week. “This is a different year, different team, different people involved. Certainly it was one of those moments that you’ll never forget, but I think it’s unfair to our current players to say, ‘This is what we expect out of you.’ This is a whole new group.”
Meyer’s counterpart this time around, Paul Chryst, was coaching at Pittsburgh when Jones & Co. posted 59 points on Wisconsin. Gary Andersen coached the Badgers in that blowout, his last game as their coach before leaving the program for Oregon State. Chryst didn’t watch his alma mater lose that game live, and while he used parts of the video to get to know his new roster in the months that followed, he says he doesn’t think he has watched the game start to finish.
Ohio State’s coaches and players see plenty of similarities between the two Wisconsin teams. The Badgers still win with a swarming defense and a punishing run game fueled by “giant human beings up front,” according to Meyer. Wisconsin — 12-0 and one more win from a playoff berth of its own — has grown under Chryst. Since the 59-0 loss, Wisconsin has lost only six games by a total of 49 points.
The most noteworthy difference in the 2017 matchup is that Haskins’ relief performance looks more likely to be a one-time stopgap, unlike when Jones started all three postseason games for the Buckeyes in 2014. Haskins’ contribution — Ohio State trailed when he entered last week’s game, and the confidence he inspired in teammates and coaches will make it easier to insert him Saturday night if Barrett’s mobility is limited — will still be a crucial one if his team manages to beat Wisconsin and get enough help to snag a spot in a College Football Playoff semifinal.
All signs point to Barrett being healthy enough to return to action this weekend.
“He looks good, good attitude, working good,” offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said Tuesday night. “We’re being smart with [his practice] volume so we make sure he’s there by Saturday.”
The déjà vu probably won’t continue into Indianapolis this weekend for several reasons, but Ohio State is still trying to take some lessons from its past. The first of which, Meyer said, is that Jones’ saga from a third-string quarterback to “woke up and he’s holding a gold trophy” is a good reminder for all of the Buckeyes who are playing understudy roles on the team’s talented depth chart.
All-Big Ten tackle Jamarco Jones was a freshman who played sparingly in the 2014 season. Before he took the field against the Badgers, former offensive line coach Ed Warriner’s advice was: “Don’t mess up.” Jones said the more long-lasting pearl of wisdom he takes from that game comes when he thinks back on the single-minded focus in practice that week.
In a week full of buzz about Barrett’s injury and Ohio State’s standing in the postseason mix, players say they remember a week of practice focused solely on winning a Big Ten title. That has been the rallying cry in another week full of interesting headlines.
“I guess there’s an appropriate comparison,” center Billy Price said when asked about the circumstances this week compared with 2014, when he was a starter at guard as a redshirt freshman. “It was a very crisp practice week, very physical, very focused. We’re going with that same theme this year.”
The two scenarios might not be perfect mirror images, but 2014 is similar enough to give the Buckeyes a bit of a road map for what they hope is an identical-looking finish to this season.