Urban Meyer will count on J.T. Barrett to lead the Buckeyes' offense after Braxton Miller's injury. BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH
COLUMBUS — A season of great promise appeared to be fading. In a time of uncertainty not unlike the one confronting Ohio State, the 1985 Oklahoma Sooners had lost their star quarterback to a season-ending injury.
It was no small misfortune. Sophomore Troy Aikman was the homegrown boy with the golden arm brought in to modernize the Sooners’ antiquated offense, a prototype who went on to become the first overall pick of the NFL draft and a Hall of Famer.
Oklahoma did not have another passing quarterback, much less one with game experience.
Aikman’s top two backups were freshmen — a greenness underscored when he broke his leg with nine minutes left in the first half of the previously unbeaten Sooners’ 27-14 loss to Miami.
After Aikman burned the Hurricanes’ secondary for 131 passing yards, Oklahoma barely moved the ball in his absence.
“We’ll have to play with freshmen quarterbacks, because I can’t make Troy well,” Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer told reporters after the game, the Sooners’ fourth of the season.
“I guess we can put in a call to Oral Roberts.”
Yet there would be no miracle from the televangelist.
Switzer instead readjusted the offense around 18-year-old Jamelle Holieway, and all the Sooners did was rally to win the national championship.
With an oppressive defense and an option maestro under center — Holieway only completed 27 passes all year — Oklahoma thumped the rest of its opponents by at least two touchdowns, including top-ranked Penn State in the Orange Bowl.
“Obviously, we would have won the national championship with Troy as our quarterback too,” Switzer said this week of Aikman, who transferred to UCLA after the season. “We were fortunate that we did have a great option quarterback. Jamelle stepped right in, and all of the sudden we’re leading the nation in rushing. We didn’t miss a lick.
“We changed our offense. We didn’t throw the ball 25 times a game anymore. We went back to a pure wishbone again, and our statistics just rocketed.“
A generation later, his message to Ohio State after losing Braxton Miller is simple.
“You know what you do? You go on,” Switzer said. “As a team, you say, ‘We’re going to win with whoever the hell we stick in there. We’re going to rally around him, we’re going to go play, and we’re going to win.’ ”
As Ohio State turns to redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett, history provides a blueprint on navigating a foundation-rattling twist — for better or worse.
Some teams mobilize and thrive, others stagger.
“It’s a huge test,” Meyer said. “That’s what you prepare for. It’s all to be determined.”
Few teams enjoy the pie-in-the-sky fate of Oklahoma. The Buckeyes, for instance, lost three games in 1985 after reigning Heisman runner-up tailback Keith Byars broke a bone in his foot during the preseason, while their national title dreams detoured two years later when star receiver Cris Carter was ruled ineligible for accepting money from an agent. OSU went 6-4-1, and coach Earle Bruce was fired.
Yet gloom has given way to unforeseen success too.
“A lot of times,” Meyer said, “if it’s a special team, they actually get stronger.”
Take his first year at Utah in 2003, in which incumbent starting quarterback Brett Elliott broke his wrist in the second game of the season. The Utes’ top backup was a lightly recruited sophomore from California shown interest mostly by schools in the Ivy League.
“A skinny kid came jogging in, I can’t remember his name,” Meyer deadpanned. “Alex Smith or something like that. He did pretty good.”
Smith went 9-1 the rest of the year and led the Utes to a perfect season in 2004 before becoming the top overall pick in the NFL draft.
Meyer sees injuries the same way as did his idol, former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes. Players recalled Hayes often preaching about the Young Turks, a group of Army officers during the Ottoman Empire.
“The Turkish soldiers were imprisoned by the British, and the Brits would watch the Turks, determine who their leaders were, and remove them from the group,“ said Dan Cutillo, a Perrysburg native who played defensive tackle at OSU from 1970 to 1973.
“[Hayes] then would say within a very short time another Turk would rise up to lead, to keep the men intact. He’d say, ‘Someone may get hurt. Who among you will step up to lead us on the field?’ ”
At Ohio State, the question rings louder than ever.