By Jeff Rapp
While Buckeye Nation was rejoicing at the news that Ohio State head coach Luke Fickell was inserting hotshot freshman quarterback Braxton Miller into the starting lineup, Miller had a different reaction.
He told himself he had to work even harder.
Miller, though, seems to strike the right balance between serious preparation and on-field looseness and it all paid off as the frosh was a standout performer in OSU’s 37-17 win over Colorado Saturday before 105,096 fans at Ohio Stadium.
Senior Joe Bauserman, who started the first three games of the season, did appear as the Buckeyes (3-1) disposed of the Buffaloes (1-3). In fact, he looked comfortable as well, connecting on both pass attempts for 27 yards one week after going just 2 of 14 in the air in the 24-6 loss to Miami (Fla.).
But Sept. 24, 2011 clearly was the beginning of the Miller era. He was a modest 5 of 13 passing for 83 yards but fired a pair of scoring strikes to classmate Devin Smith and added the exact same number of yards on the ground. Even adding in the loss of 21 yards on three sacks, Miller had 83 yards rushing.
Not a bad day for someone who was carrying the weight of a troubled offense on his young shoulders.
Afterwards, however, Miller basically shrugged.
“Well, the guys kept talking to me to be out there, be comfortable, do what I do,” he said. “And I was excited to play.
“And I know we had to get a “W.” So I just had to do what I had to do, run the ball. And the offensive line did a really good job, receivers and running backs.”
Especially helpful was the play of another emerging star, tailback Jordan Hall. He more or less replicated his breakout performance of a week ago with 16 carries for 84 yards.
He also got the whole party started by returning the opening kickoff 45 yards, setting up a field-position advantage the Buckeyes would enjoy all day and enabling Miller to operate with a short field on the game’s first score – a 1-yard plunge by Hall.
The junior running back/returner also electrified the ’Shoe with a 90-yard kickoff return in the second half.
“I saw the lane to the right, hit the lane,” Hall said. “Kind of mad I didn’t finish it off, but we scored on the drive.”
Carlos Hyde, in fact, scored on the next play by sprinting to the pylon ahead of Buffalo defenders for a 5-yard touchdown run. That allowed the Buckeyes to take a 34-10 lead into the fourth quarter and in total control.
A good chunk of that score was built on the dominance of special teams. Not only was Hall a handful on kicking plays – he also had a 12-yard return on a punt and caused Colorado’s rugby style to backfire a couple other times – the Buckeyes got a gift field goal before halftime after recovering a muffed punt and also benefited from Drew Basil’s career-best three field goals. That effort included a 47-yarder, also a career high for Basil.
The effort on defense also was noteworthy as Colorado’s lethal passing game was stymied in the first half and the Buffaloes finished just 3 of 13 on third-down conversions. OSU safety Christian Bryant had a team-high six tackles in his first start as a Buckeye, Storm Klein added a sack, the secondary provided mostly sticky coverage and John Simon again led the charge up front with several pressures on QB Tyler Hansen.
But the day belonged mostly to Miller, who drew quick approval from teammates and fans and caused misery on the other sideline.
“I felt like our defense did a decent job but we did not tackle him,” Colorado head coach Jon Embree lamented. “He did a good job on eliminating losses where we should have had them for negative gains. We had shots but just couldn’t bring him to behind the line of scrimmage.”
Hall also was impressed.
“Braxton did a good job,” he said. “He was calm. He’s going to be special. You see how he makes people miss when the blocking breaks down, and he had some good passes that were missed.
“He was calm in the pocket. He controlled the huddle. And you don’t usually see that with a young quarterback. I just told him, ‘This is your huddle, so take over.’ He did a good job of that.”
Miller was able to elude defenders behind the line of scrimmage on several plays and often got a reactionary block from his linemen and tight ends.
“We a couple more pass protections that gave Braxton a chance at some step-up runs, which he did today,” tight end Reid Fragel said. “I thought he did a good job with that.”
When asked to assess Miller’s poise and decision making, Fickell said, “I thought it was good. I think the great thing is sometimes you take a couple shots and to see how you respond and get hit in the back and take a couple of runs. And to see how he handles those things, a dropped pass, different things like that.
“So I thought he did a great job. I thought all the guys on the sideline did a really good job. There’s a lot of guys around him that have played a lot of football, they’re going to help him out.”
Among those providing aid was All-American center Mike Brewster, who tried like Hall and others to keep his new QB at ease.
“I think it just shows how confident he is in his ability,” Brewster said. “And I need him to be relaxed out there and just play, how he has his whole life. And I think that’s what he did today.”
What Else Went Right
Miller is now the team catalyst but the turnaround from last week’s major missteps at Miami wasn’t merely the result of a personnel move. The Buckeyes new they needed an attitude adjustment as well.
“This whole week at practice we knew we had to change our attitudes,” fullback Zach Boren said. “We had to keep fighting. We wanted that to be our mentality.”
“We took a big step,” Brewster said with satisfaction. “It shows that after no matter what was said last week and no matter what happened, this team is going to keep fighting. I knew this team would bounce back.”
Much of the talk centered on playing quicker and with more purpose, and the defense looked a step faster all day as a result.
“One thing Coach Fick mentioned is we have to play with a lot of emotion, and that’s what guys were doing,” cornerback Travis Howard said. “Once you start getting your emotions going, you confidence goes up, and that’s what allows you to make plays and slows the game down.”
OSU had a staggering 27 missed tackles in the loss at Miami and addressed the issue all week in preparing for Colorado, which came in with more than 900 yards passing in three games.
“Last week we were flying around the ball but a lot of guys weren’t wrapping up,” Howard said. “This week, the whole mentality was to swarm the ball. If one guy missed it, another guy was going to be there to make the tackle.”
Added defensive lineman Adam Bellamy, who added a fumble recovery to the defensive effort, “This week in practice we put a big emphasis on keeping our knees bent and staying forward. We had to have a different mentality going into this week’s game. We had to learn from our mistakes and move forward.”
The coaches also saw they could get the game tilted in their favor with a couple big plays on special teams and stressed that aspect all week. Embree admitted his specialty units are littered with inexperienced players and that he had concerns entering the contest.
To the Buckeyes’ credit, they pounced.
“I think our number one thing going into this game was special units had to make plays,” Fickell said. “I mean, that was the top of the list, that had to come out with a good feeling there, that we did a good job there making some plays and trying to use that as a weapon.”
Colorado was particularly overmatched on kickoff returns as eight of them totaled just 101 yards. That combined with solid placement punting by OSU’s Ben Buchanan and a couple CU penalties pinned them into an average starting point of their own 18 on 12 offensive series. Conversely, OSU’s average field position was at the Colorado 47.
Smith was another bright spot. He had three catches for 64 yards and hauled in TD passes from Miller from 32 and 17 yards. He also had another acrobatic catch on the sideline that should have been ruled a reception. In fact, Fickell said he was tempted to challenge the call.
“This is what I envisioned for myself, making big catches and scoring touchdowns,” he said. “I had to come out and show I could be a big-time receiver.”
The confidence only swelled for the homestanding Buckeyes after they shut down Colorado in the first quarter and jumped out to a 17-0 lead. The week prior, the defense was gashed for from large gainers and OSU found itself in an early 14-0 hole at Miami.
“One of the keys this week was definitely starting fast,” Simon said. “We got a couple three-and-outs right off the bat. That helps us get situation a lot faster, helps our offense out.”
The defense also aided the cause by slowing down wide receiver Paul Richardson, who entered with 360 yards receiving on 18 catches. In their last appearance at Ohio Stadium, the OSU defenders struggled to contain Toledo wideout Eric Page, but Richardson managed only four catches for 38 yards. He arrived with an average of 20.0 yards per catch but didn’t have a play of that length against the Buckeyes.
Hansen finished with 238 yards in the air but didn’t get untracked until the fourth quarter.
“It was definitely satisfying,” Howard said. “We knew they had a nice passing attack and had a good receiver in Paul Richardson and we knew we had to go out there and basically shut him down.”
What Lies Ahead
Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said the Buckeyes entirely in nickel and dime packages, a ploy that the team is likely use more of in Big Ten play and as the young defensive backs develop.
The strategy also allowed freshman linebacker Ryan Shazier to get more playing time. Shazier made a couple huge hits on special teams and also added to the defensive effort with five tackles.
“Ryan did a nice job today,” Heacock said. “He’s a good athlete. He can run around. And when we get into that nickel and dime situation, he’s a good guy to have on the field.”
Miller zipped his 32-yard scoring pass to Smith and showed off his arm strength on a couple other throws but he airmailed one touch pass on the move and also had trouble connecting early in the game.
The receivers continue to need lots of work. Verlon Reed struggled again to get open and Evan Spencer did not end up making a catch. In fact, the only other OSU receivers to record a reception in the game were Chris Fields and T.Y. Williams with one apiece. Williams juggled a toss from Bauserman but hung on for a 12-yard gain.
The Buckeyes showed more offensive capability but are nowhere near polished in the passing game with the Big Ten season beckoning.
“We’re good at running the ball, we know that,” Boren said after OSU amassed 226 yards on the ground against the Buffaloes. “We have a nasty offensive line that just has that attitude and has that edge and we have backs who are going to hit the hole fast and just get north-and-south with the ball. We know we can run the ball well and it’s about intertwining the pass and play-action and stuff like that.”
“Obviously the whole goal of an offense is to be balanced,” Fickell said. “I think that’s the number one most important thing. To me you don’t want to lead the nation in rushing, because if you lead the nation in rushing you probably can’t throw the football. If you lead the nation in passing, you probably don’t run the football too well. So we’ve got to continue to figure out how we can be a little bit more balanced in everything we do.”
It will help greatly, of course, to welcome back seniors DeVier Posey, Boom Herron and Mike Adams to the offense. They are multiyear starters at wide receiver, tailback and left tackle, respectively and will be done serving five-game suspensions at the end of next week.
Posey will be an immediate shot in the arm and Adams should reclaim his LT spot and allow more depth up front. Herron also is too talented not to mix in at tailback but he’ll have a lot of competition with Hall and Hyde playing well and Rod Smith and the speedy Jaamal Berry also available.
“We’re just going to feed off each other and just make the defense have to account for all of us,” Hall said. “I think when he gets back, it will definitely spark the offense even more.”
The veteran members of the defense also sense that there is tweaking ahead – and maybe even the addition of new looks and personnel groupings.
“We can always do things new,” Simon said. “We’ve got the best defensive coaching staff around and they are always game-planning for the opposition we are going to face.”
No matter what different forms the Buckeyes take, their task will be monumental. Contending for a seventh straight Big Ten title will require holding up against a ledger that includes dates with Michigan State, Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin in October alone.
It starts with a visit from the Spartans on Saturday (3:30 p.m. Eastern, ABC or ESPN).
“We’ve got a tough schedule coming up but these early games have prepared us – great teams, great competition coming in,” Simon said. “We’re going to have to correct some things from today, them making plays and things like that because Michigan State will capitalize on that, but I think we’ll be ready on Saturday.”
OSU’s defense will be challenged once again with MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins triggering a balanced and physical offense.
“They’re a good offense,” Heacock said. “Anytime you face a senior quarterback, it’s tough. And they can run the ball and they’ve got a nice offensive line, a physical offensive line. But anytime you play them it’s going to be a bloodbath of a game.
“We’re going to have to be physical, we’re going to have to play hard and I think we’re going to have to make improvement.”
Howard said trying to win the Big Ten is now at the top of the to-do list.
“Most definitely it’s the goal,” he said. “Anytime you’re Ohio State, the goal is to win the Big Ten.”
“I’m so excited, I can’t wait,” Brewster said of the MSU test. “If we can get this thing to 4-1 and then get the other guys back, I think it would be beautiful.”