Rob Oller | Five years ago, Ohio State's national title aspirations fell on an unprepared Cardale Jones
As quarterback J.T. Barrett lay on the field, his broken right ankle encased in an air cast, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer made the call.
Send in the clown.
As Meyer put it, “The big boy was about to enter the game.”
Make no mistake, Cardale Jones was both big (6 feet 5 and 253 pounds) and more little boy than “grown-ass man,” as Meyer liked to describe his toughest, most mature players.
Nothing about Jones indicated the redshirt sophomore was about to enter Ohio State lore; that is, further lore. At that moment, late in the third quarter of the 2014 Michigan game, the jokester from Cleveland was better known for his tweeting than for his talent.
“Never a bad guy, but just a clown,” Meyer said this fall during an event for The United Way.
Meyer wasn't alone in worrying whether Jones had the right stuff. Watching Barrett carted off the field at Ohio Stadium, center Jacoby Boren thought, “Oh (bleep).”
“Cardale is an awesome guy. A fun person to be around. But he's always been kind of a goofy kid,” Boren said this week. “And that's our starting quarterback now.”
Fans shared Boren's concern. Without Barrett, No. 6 Ohio State would be lucky to hang on against Michigan, much less defeat No. 11 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.
Five years later, a similar speculative scenario: What if Justin Fields' knee injury against Michigan had ended his season? Would the No. 1 Buckeyes be able to defeat No. 8 Wisconsin on Saturday with Chris Chugunov at quarterback?
Jones did have one trick up his sleeve. He could sling a football nearly end zone to end zone, which Wisconsin — and Alabama — discovered too late, when the QB connected deep multiple times with receiver Devin Smith.
“The thing about Cardale was he could throw the ball. I didn't have any doubt about that,” former OSU safety Tyvis Powell said.
But was the arm accurate? After Ohio State beat Michigan, Meyer devised a game plan for Wisconsin that limited Jones to throwing outside the hashmarks to avoid the risk of interception.
Meyer also was concerned with Jones' leadership ability.
“I knew we had a good team, but the term that kept coming to my mind was, 'solve the mystery,'” he said. “And the mystery is this: putting something greater ahead of yourself. That's so hard to do.”
Jones wasn't necessarily doing it, which became an issue when Braxton Miller was lost for the season to a shoulder injury after throwing a pass near the end of fall camp.
“We have this J.T. Barrett kid, who turns out to be a beast of a leader,” Meyer said. “And at that time a guy named Cardale Jones was kind of a knucklehead. If you're a third-string knucklehead, that's OK because you're not going to play. But when Braxton threw that ball, Cardale now became a backup knucklehead. And there's a chance you're going in the game.”
Chance became reality at Michigan, carrying into Wisconsin and beyond. The backup knucklehead, who once suffered a sprained ankle during a Thursday practice because he failed to get taped, was now the next man up. And he had never started a game.
Could he finish against Michigan?
“I grabbed his shoulder pad (after Barrett's injury) and I'm looking at him and I want to strangle him but I don't,” Meyer said. “I'm (saying), 'Cardale, you can do this. You can do this.' And inside I'm thinking, 'You have no chance.'” So I hit him on the rear end, he goes in there and his first pass — it was like he punted the ball.”
Buckeye Nation knows the rest of the story — 59-0 vs. Wisconsin, then wins against Alabama and Oregon in the playoff. But what of the inside story?
“I've never seen a transformation of a young man like I did with Cardale,” Meyer said. “I mean, instantaneous. He tried to grab hold of that team.”
For Meyer, one play against Wisconsin changed everything. After Jones went off script by throwing an incomplete pass deep over the middle, he returned to the sideline and immediately blamed himself.
“He goes, 'Coach, it was my fault,” Meyer said. “My gosh, love and ownership are the greatest forms of motivation. I grabbed his shoulder pad and said, 'Go tell the offensive line what you just said. Be loud and firm.' I backed out of the way and he starts screaming, 'Guys, that's my fault.' And I saw the linemen in shock, because that was from Cardale's heart.”
Fast forward to the morning after Ohio State won the national title.
“We're in Dallas and I'm walking into the breakfast room and there's my man Cardale … and I sit down and go, 'What was that, man?'” Meyer said.
Through tears, Jones explained that he had solved the mystery.
“He said he could not let his teammates down,” Meyer recalled. “He said, 'I could not let Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett down. That's why I changed.'”