Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott, left, runs past Navy safety Parrish Gaines (2) and linebacker Chris Johnson (46) for a touchdown. ASSOCIATED PRESS
BALTIMORE — Ohio State coach Urban Meyer privately fumed.
His fledgling quarterback had just floated an interception three yards short of the end zone, and the fifth-ranked Buckeyes appeared lost.
Every one of OSU’s defining offensive strengths from last season — Braxton Miller’s virtuoso playmaking, Carlos Hyde’s thumping rushes, an immovable veteran offensive line — were but a worn memory early Saturday against Navy.
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Red-shirt freshman J.T. Barrett’s short sideline throw into the hands of Midshipmen safety Parrish Gaines ensured Ohio State did not score a first-half touchdown for the first since 2011.
“I was counting to 10 backward a couple times,” Meyer said. “I didn’t say what I normally would say to a quarterback in that situation. Which is good. I’m maturing.”
For one day, Meyer was willing to cut his team some slack.
Barrett and the new-look Buckeyes answered, rallying for four second-half touchdowns in a 34-17 season-opening win at M&T Bank Stadium.
In his anticipated debut, Barrett completed 12 of 15 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns — including an 80-yard strike to Devin Smith that nudged Ohio State ahead for good late in the third quarter.
“The best thing about this game is that we won it and it's in our rear-view mirror,” Meyer said.
This was no ordinary opener, from the archaic Navy triple-option offense that piled up 370 yards rushing — Heisman darkhorse quarterback Keenan Reynolds attempted only four passes — to the unique respect Ohio State had for its opponent.
The Buckeyes’ entire team shook hands with the Midshipmen before the game, and joined them in the end zone afterward as the hosts and their student body sang the Navy alma mater. Navy’s players then followed OSU to the opposite end zone for the singing of “Carmen Ohio.”
Few had much idea what to expect from an Ohio State breaking in eight starters on offense, including Barrett.
The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Texan cast aside any visions that he could emerge as college football’s next superstar red-shirt freshman quarterback, following Heisman winners Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Florida State’s Jameis Winston.
Barrett managed a conservative game plan and, though he rushed for 50 yards on nine carries, appeared to be wading through quicksand in comparison to Miller.
Yet, to state the obvious, Ohio State’s coaches did not ask him to emulate Miller.
“Coming in after Braxton, people expect you to do some crazy stuff,” Barrett said. “But I'm not Braxton. I’m J.T. I tried to play my game.”
Ultimately, that and a big-play defense were more than enough.
The biggest swing early in the second half was when defensive end Joey Bosa sabotaged an option pitch and Darron Lee returned a fumble 61 yards for a touchdown to push OSU ahead 13-7.
“It was a bad pitch, completely on me,” said Reynolds, who rushed for 42 yards and a touchdown. ”We knew coming in that we couldn’t turn the ball over, that we had to be perfect. That was a huge momentum swing.”
After Navy responded with an 84-play touchdown drive, Barrett and Ohio State’s offense settled in.
Asked if he was nervous beforehand, Barrett smiled and said, “Oh, definitely, it was my first game since high school. There’s anxiety, nervousness. Nothing crazy, but I was antsy and ready to go.”
At the least, Meyer said Barrett, who became the second OSU freshman to start the season at quarterback since at least 1950, didn’t seem rattled after the interception. Sophomore receiver Dontre Wilson said his close friend and fellow Texan “was still smiling, even after the pick.”
Barrett threw the go-ahead touchdown to Smith, then watched the Buckeyes’ playmakers do their thing.
Ezekiel Elliott ran for a 10-yard TD, while Wilson had 44 yards rushing and another 46 receiving yards. Freshman running back Curtis Samuel had 45 rushing yards on seven carries.
In all, Meyer said he graded Barrett’s day a “B.”
“The positives were he managed the game, he was an unbelievable presence on the sideline, and he was accurate when we asked him to throw the ball downfield,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said.
“I come away with it really pleased, understanding that we need to get a few [negatives] fixed.”
Ohio State finished with 420 yards of total offense to Navy’s 390.