BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – College football games are long. College football seasons are longer.
Ohio State fans may eventually look back and laugh at the 2½ quarters they spent hyperventilating here Thursday night. The worry produced by a temporarily vulnerable secondary, a fruitless downfield passing game and a punchless interior running game all disappeared as the game against Indiana wore on. It was yet another reminder that these 60-minute referendums on the fitness of a program are subject to change, radical change. As are the 12-game regular seasons as a whole.
In the final analysis, the Buckeyes’ 49-21 victory at Indiana likely will serve them well in the jockeying for the College Football Playoff. It was a spread-covering win in the kind of setup that can catch a big favorite by surprise – on the road, in conference play, on a Thursday night stage that often brings out the best in the home underdog.
Now Ohio State needs to root for the Hoosiers to win games and make this victory look better over time. And to tinker with its own product.
Here’s what the Buckeyes know they have going forward:
• An emerging new star at running back.
His initials don’t stand for Just Kidding. J.K. Dobbins looks like the real deal after running for 181 yards on 29 carries, breaking Maurice Clarett’s school record for most rushing yards in a freshman debut game. Dobbins got his chance because returning starter Mike Weber was nursing a tweaked hamstring, and he broke the door down and might have taken the position away.
When asked who his starting running back is going forward, coach Urban Meyer thought about it for a second and said, “J.K. Weber.” It was an excellent hedge.
Dobbins has had a week of conflicting emotions. He is from La Grange, Texas, situated about halfway between Houston and Austin. The Colorado River runs through town, and it flooded the city when the deluge from Hurricane Harvey came through. Dobbins said his family was unaffected by the flooding, but many of his friends were directly impacted.
“I’m probably the only positive thing right now going on in my town,” Dobbins said. “I want to bring my city up.”
He brought the thousands of Ohio State fans who infiltrated Memorial Stadium up. At game’s end they were chanting Dobbins’ name. He smiled into the stands and gave an “O-H” arm salute on his way to the locker room.
“I kind of felt like I was going to do what I did,” said the 202-pounder.
So did the Ohio State staff. Dobbins, an early enrollee in Columbus last winter, showed some of his considerable talent in spring practice. He followed with more throughout preseason practices, creating an expectation that the kid would show up in a big way right away.
“He’s my dog,” said senior center Billy Price. “I told J.K., ‘You know which butt to follow.’ ”
It took a while for those butts in the interior of the line to create some significant creases for Dobbins. But when they did, the freshman maximized his chances. He has vision, nimble feet, very good hands and elite speed.
After his first nine runs went for five yards or less, he snapped off a 35-yarder complete with two dazzling cutbacks. Later there was a 27-yard run, and a 24-yard gain that came after spinning off a tackler at the line of scrimmage.
“He has breakaway speed,” Meyer said.
(Worth noting: When Clarett set that freshman rushing record in 2002, it began a national championship season for the Buckeyes.)
• A quarterback who will not make critical errors.
J.T. Barrett was not terribly accurate throwing deep – again. He was, at times, overly tentative throwing the ball – again. The coordinator cure-all that was expected to arrive with fired former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson is still very much a work in progress.
But here’s what else Barrett didn’t do Thursday night: He didn’t turn the ball over. The fifth-year senior can be more conservative than Ted Cruz at times, but he’s been around long enough (a decade, it seems) to know that the surest predictor of success in football is turnover margin. And Barrett had zero of those against Indiana.
Here is Barrett’s interception ratio by seasons: one every 34.7 passes as a freshman; one every 36.8 passes as a sophomore; one every 54.1 passes as a junior. And here, in his first game as a senior, he had none in 35 attempts. It was his fourth straight Big Ten road game without an interception, a span of 127 passes.
Still, the inability to connect on some deep balls produced a spasm of unpleasant recall for Ohio State fans. Last year the Buckeyes’ passing game shrank as the season went along, as Barrett misfired and receivers failed to separate from defensive backs.
That was the case Thursday for quite a while. Barrett missed a couple of potential big throws, and senior receiver Parris Campbell continued a career of fitful production by dropping a touchdown. But then, all of a sudden, Barrett hit Campbell in the third quarter on a crossing route and he broke it 74 yards for a touchdown. Less than three minutes later, Barrett found Johnnie Dixon over the middle and he ran away from the Hoosiers for a 59-yard score.
Still, those were more catch-and-run plays than a true vertical passing game.
“It’s been a minute since we hit some deep balls,” Meyer said. “… We’ll get better.”
• The vaunted pass rush is legit – and it will need to be until the young secondary improves.
On a night when Indiana threw 68 passes, Meyer was mildly disappointed that his defensive line produced five sacks. But give credit to the Hoosiers for a smart game plan that featured a lot of quick throws to the perimeter to negate some of that rush. The longer Richard Lagow held the ball, the more likely it was that a Buckeye was going to get to him.
That put pressure on a young Ohio State secondary, and results there were mixed. At times, Indiana’s big receivers toyed with the Buckeyes’ cornerbacks in one-on-one matchups. That likely will stand out on film to their next opponent, Oklahoma, and its Heisman-finalist quarterback Baker Mayfield.
“Our defense was exposed big-time in the first half,” Meyer said. “Our pass defense was awful. It was not complicated, they were just picking on the corners. The corners have got to step up and see what’s coming in nine days against Oklahoma. If we don’t get that right, that’s a problem.”
Fixing things after a 28-point road win is a good problem to have. It’s a long season, and Ohio State did what it needed to do for openers.
More college football coverage from Yahoo Sports: