BALTIMORE — Urban Meyer enjoyed little sleep this week as Ohio State went through its final rehearsals for today’s season opener at M&T Bank Stadium.
Yet what unnerved the Buckeyes coach was not the ahead-of-time debut of J.T. Barrett — just the second freshman quarterback to start the season at OSU since World War II.
No, he said, “What is keeping me awake at night is Navy.”
This isn’t the usual debut snoozer.
These Midshipmen are billed as a better incarnation of the 2009 team that nearly stunned Ohio State in Columbus. After winning nine games last season, Navy returns 15 starters, including the Heisman Trophy-contending frontman of a triple-option offense that continues to bewilder opponents.
“Every possession is going to be critical when you play wishbone or academy teams like this,” Meyer said. “You’ve got to get first downs, and you’ve got to march it down the field. You go three-and-out with these teams, then you've got a problem. So that’s what is keeping me up.”
Meyer has set aside time in each preseason practice to prepare for a team unlike any other the fifth-ranked Buckeyes will face this year. Navy does everything a little differently, from its undersized 3-4 defense — the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Barrett outweighs all but four of the unit’s starters — to its near-extinct triple option.
Junior quarterback Keenan Reynolds deftly runs the read-and-react offense. Last year, the Midshipmen ranked second nationally with 325.4 rushing yards per game.
The 5-11, 195-pound Reynolds — whose only other college suitors were Air Force and Wofford — set a major-college record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 31. Only Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders (37 TDs) and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball (33) have run for more.
“The Navy coaches and some people I’ve talked to think that he’s the best that they’ve ever had,” Meyer said. “That takes your breath away a little bit."
Ohio State also knows its opponent won’t be rattled by the stage. The Midshipmen have 21 wins against power-conference teams since 2003 — and just missed another almost five years ago to the day.
That day at Ohio Stadium, Navy pulled within two points with 2 minutes, 23 seconds left, setting up a potential game-tying two-point conversion. But linebacker Brian Rolle sealed Ohio State’s 31-27 win when he intercepted a pass from Ricky Dobbs and returned it for two points.
Players said the key to slowing Navy this time is matching its discipline.
“There are going to be some butterflies for the first game, and guys are going to want to make plays,” linebacker Joshua Perry said. “But we know as a defense you have to be selfless in this game. The D-linemen might make one tackle in this game, and the middle linebacker running sideline to sideline might have a lot more than that. You’ve just got to play your assignments in order to succeed.”
The same idea applies to Barrett: Don’t try to do too much. Coaches said they will dial back the game plan for Barrett’s first outing, cognizant that it was only last week that his life became overturned.
Barrett, summoned after star Braxton Miller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, follows Art Schlichter in 1978 as the Buckeyes’ second freshman quarterback of the modern era to start the opener.
“We don’t ask the quarterback to be a rocket surgeon,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said, mixing his expressions. “But we might actually make an even more conscious effort to keep it simple.”
Though Meyer said backup quarterback Cardale Jones could play if Barrett struggles, there is no plan to play two quarterbacks. The job belongs to Barrett, and coaches are confident he will prove why today.
“He’s a grown dude,” Herman said. “The moment and the enormity of what he’s about to do may or may not hit him. But it hasn’t hit me, and it probably won’t hit me because I see him every day in practice. I know what he’s capable of.”