Shortly after 8 on Monday night, as a wave of hurt-your-ears noise crashed through the Shenandoah Valley, the biggest question of the college football offseason got its answer.
Cardale Jones took the first snap for Ohio State.
After eight months of ceaseless debate on which star quarterback would start for the Buckeyes — Jones or J.T. Barrett — the free world could exhale.
A more defining question would be settled more quickly.
How good are these Buckeyes?
With Jones mostly picking up where he left off last year and quarterback-turned-receiver Braxton Miller reintroducing his playmaking wizardry to the nation, Ohio State began its national title defense in resounding form by rallying to a 42-24 victory over Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium.
Jones brushed off an uneven second quarter to throw for two touchdowns and run for another while Miller — a former two-time Big Ten MVP playing his first game in 20 months after two shoulder surgeries — came up the biggest of them all.
A year after Ohio State was stunned by the Hokies in Columbus, Miller helped the Buckeyes rally from a 17-14 halftime deficit and even the score.
Jones connected with Miller for a 54-yard touchdown pass on the third play of the third quarter to put Ohio State ahead 21-17. It was the first of 28 unanswered points for the top-ranked Buckeyes, and not even the highlight of Miller’s night.
Later in the third quarter, Miller lined up in the Wildcat formation, taking a shotgun snap and dashing and spinning 53 yards for a touchdown. His spin move appeared straight out of a video game and will endure among the highlights of his acclaimed career.
Afterward, Miller, who finished with two catches for 78 yards and six rushes for 62 yards, broke down in the visitors’ locker room addressing his teammates.
“It feels great to be back, man,” Miller said. “The coaches believed in me. My teammates believed in me. It was emotional.”
Jones completed nine of 18 passes for 186 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He rushed for 99 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.
Barrett played the final two series in relief, completing his only pass for a 26-yard score to Michael Thomas.
Jones’ start ended an eight-month national obsession over the Buckeyes’ quarterbacks debate — and revealed the best-kept secret in college football.
Coach Urban Meyer kept the decision classified up until game time, going so far as to have Jones and Barrett split snaps with the starting offense during warmups.
Almost no one outside the program had any read on whether Ohio State would turn to its 6-foot-5, 250-pound postseason star (Jones) or the sophomore captain perceived as a more natural fit in Meyer’s spread-option offense (Barrett). Before the game, an unnamed Virginia Tech coach told ESPN, “If it isn’t [Barrett], we’d be shocked.”
Even Jones insists he was in the dark. While Meyer hinted that he informed the players of his decision on Saturday, Jones said he learned of his starting appointment only seconds before his first snap.
Jones and Barrett both joined the huddle before the first series, leaving the two quarterbacks looking around for direction.
“Honestly, we went out in the huddle and we didn’t know,” Jones said. “I was kind of taking a couple of steps back to the sideline. Then [Meyer] was like, ‘No, you’re in.'”
Meyer said Jones spent much of preseason camp well ahead of Barrett but characterized the battle as “close” by the end.
“Cardale finished the season as the starter and that kind of started the thinking that he had to get beat out, and he wasn’t beat out,” Meyer said. “We’ve got two good players and they’re going to play.”
Jones validated Meyer’s choice early. He led Ohio State on a 64-yard touchdown drive to open the game, punctuating the stomp down the field with a 24-yard laser off his back foot to Curtis Samuel.
The Buckeyes’ next drive lasted all of one play: an 80-yard touchdown run by Ezekiel Elliott that pushed the visitors ahead 14-0 and silenced the crowd.
Yet just when Ohio State appeared about as invincible as its press clippings suggested, the championship honeymoon ended. The Buckeyes staggered through the second quarter, with an interception by Jones and a fumbled punt by Elliott at the OSU 38 leading to two Tech scores and even more questions.
Beyond the mysterious disappearance of Elliott, who only four carries against the Hokies’ overstocked defensive front in the first half, the biggest fittingly centered on the quarterback. Jones did not complete a pass in the second quarter and finished the half 6-of-13 for 95 yards and a touchdown and an interception.
Meyer said at halftime that he would entertain a switch to Barrett if Jones’ struggles continued.
Jones found Miller down the right sideline to put OSU in front for good at 21-17. Miller followed with his head-turning touchdown run, Jones ran untouched for a 10-yard score, and the Buckeyes’ defense held strong — although Tech was clearly hurt by the loss of quarterback Michael Brewer.
Brewer, who burned Ohio State last season and completed 9-of-13 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, left the game early in the third quarter with a left shoulder injury after defensive tackle Adolphus Washington drove him into the turf.
Brewer did not return. His replacement, Brenden Motley, finished 4-of-9 passing with a late touchdown and an interception.
Contact David Briggs at: [email protected], 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.