Ezekiel Elliott, Braxton Miller, Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall caused headaches for opposing defenses in their time at Ohio State.
Now, they’re the NFL’s concern — and it’s been much of the same. Elliott could win Rookie of the Year, running over and through defenses with the Cowboys, while Thomas, Marshall and Miller have all made impacts with the wide receiving corps of the Saints, Jets and Texans, respectively.
With all four departing Ohio State after last season for the 2016 NFL Draft, there was concern over who would fill the voids left behind, and if the Buckeyes could maintain the offensive success they’ve come to expect in recent years.
Sadly for the rest of the Big Ten, Ohio State is doing just fine.
The No. 2 Buckeyes visit Penn State and a Beaver Stadium White Out at 8 p.m. Saturday with plenty of firepower, and the Nittany Lions know it.
“They lost those guys, (but) I still have got to give them respect,” Penn State safety Marcus Allen said. “They’re the No. 2 team in the country. ... Obviously they’re doing something right.”
Fresh off a 30-23 overtime win at Wisconsin, the Buckeyes boast one of the nation’s best offensive attacks. Ohio State’s 516.5 yards per game is first in the Big Ten and 12th nationally, while its 49.3 points per game is fourth-best in the country and is second in the conference to only Michigan’s 50.0 per contest.
That has impressed Penn State head coach James Franklin.
Elliott’s 1,821 rushing yards accounted for 56 percent of Ohio State’s ground attack in 2015, while the 1,598 receiving yards between Marshall, Miller and Thomas made up 65 percent of the unit’s production.
Consider that the quartet combined for 40 total touchdowns, and it’s crazy that the Buckeyes are where they are right now.
Or maybe not.
“They’ve really recruited so well, and they play a lot of guys. They’re playing true freshmen even if they don’t get a lot of reps,” Franklin said. “They’ve been able to keep this thing rolling, even with losing a lot of guys to the NFL. There’s an expectation of winning there.”
Plus, it certainly helps that quarterback J.T. Barrett is back in-charge of the offense.
He’s been a problem for people the last three years. Whenever you get a guy like that, that’s played so much and expects to win, those things are valuable. James Franklin, Penn State head coach
Barrett, a junior, has been a focal point of Ohio State’s offense for some time. A freshman starlet in the Buckeyes’ run toward the 2014 national championship before injury and an electric option alongside Cardale Jones last season, Barrett is in full control now.
Through six games, the Texas native has accumulated 1,641 total yards (1,207 passing, 434 rushing) and 20 touchdowns (16 passing, four rushing) all while completing 63.2 percent of his passes.
It’s no wonder why he’s the third-favorite to win the Heisman Trophy behind Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, respectively, according to Bovada Sportsbook.
“It seems like he’s been playing there forever,” Franklin noted. “He’s very poised, very mature. ... He can beat you with his experience, accuracy and decision-making, and his legs.”
The Nittany Lions understand this first-hand. Barrett led the Buckeyes past Penn State twice — once with three touchdowns in a double-overtime 2014 win, and again in 2015 with four scores.
And this season, without so many NFL-caliber contributors, Barrett has guided Ohio State to an unblemished mark with a largely inexperienced supporting cast.
H-backs Dontre Wilson and Curtis Samuel, after little use in 2015, have combined for 531 rushing and 635 receiving yards this year. Add in redshirt freshman Mike Weber’s team-leading 612 rushing yards and sophomore wideout Noah Brown’s six touchdown grabs, and the Buckeyes have weapons to build around Barrett.
“Those guys have risen up into their roles,” Penn State cornerback Grant Haley said. “They all bring size, speed and different strengths to the table.”
But it all comes back to Barrett — the dual-threat signal-caller that ripped the heart out of Penn State fans in 2014 and propelled Ohio State past the Nittany Lions 38-10 last season.
Barrett, now 21-2 as a starter after edging the Badgers, has tormented Big Ten programs, and Penn State is no different.
“He’s been a problem for people the last three years,” Franklin said. “Whenever you get a guy like that, that’s played so much and expects to win, those things are valuable.”