By Jim Naveau
BALTIMORE — Two hours after Ohio State’s 34-17 win over Navy on Saturday, all the Navy logos had been scrubbed and washed from the artificial turf at the Baltimore Ravens’ M&T Stadium.
Much like Navy’s hold on the game, they were temporary, not permanent.
But for too long for comfort for Ohio State, Saturday’s season-opening game looked like it could become an indelible, unforgettable moment for Navy. And an unforgettable moment for all the wrong reasons for OSU.
Navy led 14-13 until just over four minutes were left in the third quarter. It was within three points until Ohio State scored twice in the final 8:54 of the game to pull away to win its season opener.
In the end, though, it turned out to be just a little scare, not a season altering shock after the Buckeyes came on strong in the second half.
“The best thing about this game is we won and it’s in the rear view mirror,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.
“With the team we’re playing next (Virginia Tech), we’ve got a lot of work to do. But I’ll take this win. I’m very proud of our guys for fighting through in the second half,” he said.
Much of the pregame focus was on redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett, who was making his first start and trying to fill the huge hole left in Ohio State’s offense by Braxton Miller’s season-ending shoulder injury.
Except for a first-half interception, Barrett was solid, completing 12 of 15 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns, including an 80-yard strike to Devin Smith that put OSU ahead for good at 20-14 late in the third quarter.
The Buckeyes’ problems came in other areas, most notably a slow start by the offensive line and a defense that allowed Navy 370 yards rushing.
“J.T., I thought did O.K. I’d grade him a B,” Meyer said. “Every new player is going to have a certain amount of mistakes.
“We wanted to open it up a little bit more in the first half. When we didn’t it wasn’t because of him, it was because our offensive line made a couple of mistakes,” he said.
It wasn’t until late in the third quarter that OSU’s defense began to slow down Navy’s triple option offense.
“We came into the game knowing Navy wasn’t a pushover team. They’re a good team. They run the triple option to perfection,” defensive lineman Michael Bennett said. “I’ve never gone up against running backs that run harder than they do. Their offensive line is undersized but they were rough and gave us trouble all day.”
Navy led 7-6 at halftime when Ohio State had to settle for only a pair of field goals by freshman kicker Sean Nuernberger in the first half.
Early in the third quarter, it looked like OSU had turned the game in its direction when defensive end Joey Bosa crashed into Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds and caused a fumble, which linebacker Darron Lee picked up and returned 61 yards for a touchdown.
But Navy responded with a four-play, 85-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by Reynolds to regain the lead at 14-13 with 11:15 left in the third quarter.
Barrett’s pass to Smith got the lead back for OSU, though. After a Navy field goal cut the lead to 20-17, Ezekiel Elliott scored on a 10-yard run and Barrett connected with Michael Thomas on a 9-yard touchdown pass in the final 8:54 of the game.
Navy wondered what might have been if it could have avoided Ohio State’s two long scoring plays.
Smith’s catch was on Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo’s mind after the game.
“The hard part of that play was we were in two-deep coverage. We were going to try to keep them underneath. Plays like that are normally things we don’t allow. We make people earn what they get,” he said.
Reynolds said his bad pitchout which turned into a fumble was “all on him.”
“That was just a mistake and it turned out to be a very critical mistake. It was our only turnover and it went for a touchdown. We knew coming in that we couldn’t turn the ball over, that we had to be perfect and that was a huge swing in momentum.”