Sunday, October 30, 2011
Miller time: Freshman's heroics lift OSU
By Adam Rittenberg
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- About the only thing more surprising than Braxton Miller's on-the-run, nearly-past-the-line-of-scrimmage, 40-yard touchdown heave with 20 seconds left on the clock was what he had done moments earlier.
Ohio State's rocky season was on the brink. A Buckeyes team that had controlled play against No. 15 Wisconsin and dominated stretches of the second half found itself trailing 29-26 with 1:10 left. A defense that had stifled Wisconsin's high-powered offense had suffered a breakdown at the worst possible time, leading to the Badgers' go-ahead score.
A third Ohio State loss would essentially eliminate the team from the Big Ten title chase. It would mark another blow for a proud program that had taken so many shots during a miserable eight-month stretch. It would heighten questions about coach Luke Fickell's future and bring back the doom and gloom that enveloped the team during an 0-2 start to Big Ten play.
Unless a quarterback who had completed one pass in Ohio State's previous game against Illinois could work some magic in a likely passing situation, the Buckeyes would go down in defeat.
The Shoe was deflated. Miller wasn't. Before Miller took the field for the decisive drive, he let Fickell know things would be OK.
Wisconsin lost for the second week in a row when Devin Smith caught a 40-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds left in the game.
"I gave him a little, you know, 'We got it, man. Don't worry about nothing,'" a smiling Miller recalled. "I knew we had it."
He might have been the only one. A Wisconsin team that had rallied the week before at Michigan State, only to lose on a Hail Mary, surely wouldn't allow any openings for Ohio State.
But as Miller rolled to his right, he spotted classmate Devin Smith in the end zone and let it fly.
"Once I looked back, I expected him to run because that's usually what he does," Smith said. "And I saw him look directly at me. And I saw him launch the ball. The ball was up there forever and I was like, 'Will it come down?' They all said it looked like a punt."
Best punt of Ohio State's season.
Miller said it was "50-50" whether he ran or passed on the play, and made the decision to throw a split second before crossing the line of scrimmage. He even asked Fickell whether he had crossed the line (officials reviewed the play and correctly ruled it a legal pass).
"I just had to let it go," he said.
Miller didn't wink at center Mike Brewster before the final series. He just told the senior All-America candidate to give him some time on the final drive.
An Ohio State line that spurred the team to 268 rush yards and three touchdowns in the 33-29 victory obliged.
"He just made a play," Brewster said of Miller. "When we needed him to do it, he made something happen. That's what he does best."
Fickell elevated Miller to a starting role in part because Ohio State's anemic offense needed more plays to be made. After a rocky start to Big Ten play against Michigan State (5-for-10 passing, 56 yards, 1 INT), Miller showed a spark the next week against Nebraska before leaving the game with an ankle sprain.
Saturday night, he came of age.
"It's a confidence thing," Fickell said. "I've talked about it all year long or as long as Braxton has been the quarterback. It was about confidence. He's learned to grasp things a lot more.
"And we know he can throw it."
Running back Jordan Hall was on the sideline for the decisive play, shielding his eyes.
"I just looked down," Hall said. "And when I heard the crowd, I was like, 'Must be good news.'"
Turned out to be very good news for Ohio State, which remains alive in the Leaders division race entering November. Both Ohio State and Wisconsin sit 2.5 games behind division leader Penn State, which ends the season with trips to Columbus (Nov. 19) and Madison (Nov. 26).
Although the Buckeyes need help from the Nittany Lions -- and the NCAA's infractions committee, which likely will rule on Ohio State's case next month -- their once-improbable goal of reaching Indianapolis with a chance to continue a streak of Big Ten titles remains on the table.
"This is for this team, this is for this program, this is what we expect," Fickell said. "But it is that same thing. It's about confidence. It's about momentum. And you can learn and learn and learn from all different ways.
"But until you do it, there's no other way to learn it."
Wisconsin learned a tough lesson for the second consecutive week, as the Badgers once again saw a valiant comeback on the road go up in smoke in the final seconds. Considered the class of the Big Ten two weeks ago, Wisconsin now sits at 2-2 in league play, needing a lot of help to reach Indianapolis.
Like last week, the Badgers made uncharacteristic errors, including another blocked punt that led to an Ohio State touchdown. And yet they put themselves in position to win. They simply needed to stop a quarterback who hadn't thrown a 40-yard pass all season.
"It was another heartbreaking loss for us," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "... Our kids never quit. They're going to be tested in an unbelievable fashion after the last two weeks. I can't describe the feeling of having to face those guys after all they've put in."
The feeling inside the stadium was pure elation, as fans rushed the field to celebrate. The entire student section in the south end spilled onto the field.
Was Buckeye Nation waiting for this moment? After the past eight months, absolutely.
"We've faced so much adversity, whether it's on the field or off the field," said linebacker Andrew Sweat, who sealed the win by pressuring Wisconsin's Russell Wilson on the final play. "We didn't quit, where some people would think we would.
"We've gotten stronger as a team. We've gotten better. And we'll continue to get better."