COLUMBUS – Ohio State heard people talking. How could they not hear them?
They certainly heard the boos from some fans on Saturday when a pitchout from quarterback J.T. Barrett lost a yard when six yards were needed to get a first down on a third-down play in the second half.
After lighting up Bowling Green for 77 points, Tulsa for 48 points, Oklahoma for 45 points and Rutgers for 58 points, the Buckeyes’ offense had struggled in wins over Indiana and Wisconsin and in a 24-21 loss at Penn State last Saturday night.
The Buckeyes’ inability to hit the deep pass in those games had been analyzed, discussed and, of course, widely criticized. The deep passing game has been by far the most questioned part of the offense.
Saturday’s 24-20 win over Northwestern didn’t answer all the questions or settle all the doubts about the passing game. But it was a start.
Barrett (21 of 32 for 223 yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions) connected with K.J. Hill for a 34- yard catch late in the game and also had four other completions of 15 yards or more.
But 12 of his 21 completions were to running backs and tight ends and Noah Brown, with five catches, was the only wide receiver with more than one catch.
During the stretch when the offense has struggled, receivers getting open and getting separation from defensive backs has been one of the big issues. Last week at Penn State, pass protection was added to the list of problems when the Nittany Lions sacked Barrett six times and pressured him at least a dozen other times.
The pass protection was much better Saturday. Northwestern sacked Barrett only once. And the receivers got open more, but still not enough.
“I see the same thing everyone else that watches us sees,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said about the issues that need to be corrected. “I think we’re going to get that figured out.”
The negative attention the passing game has received has not gone unnoticed by the players.
“We feel like people were on our backs,” said Hill, whose catch was a big part of OSU’s 63-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter that gave it the lead for good after Northwestern had tied the game at 17-17.
“We’re just trying to work hard in practice and get everybody off our backs. That’s all we can do,” he said. “I feel like we’re getting better but we’re nowhere near where we want to be.”
Offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said, “The offensive line played much better and in general our offense played much better.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys. We had emotion and energy early (in the season) and then it was like, ‘This is hard.’ But we bounced back. This team worked its butt off this week,” Warinner said.
“I think we did what we needed to do. One of our objectives was to score on the opening drive and then in the second half when we needed to get a drive and score we did.
“They (Northwestern) made adjustments throughout the game. We came back to some plays and the second time they didn’t work. We just had to keep working and working to find some things that we thought would give us opportunities and our players came through and made plays,” he said.
The work will continue on Saturday night when Nebraska comes to Ohio Stadium.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.