Saturday, September 15, 2012
Miller's genius covers up Ohio State's flaws
By Brian Bennett
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Braxton Miller wore a T-shirt bearing the likeness of Wile E. Coyote and the words "Super Genius" to his postgame Ohio State interview session.
That didn't seem quite right. While Miller's brilliance for the Buckeyes this season can't really be questioned, he's more like their Road Runner, able to escape out of seemingly impossible jams.
The sophomore went "beep beep" again on Saturday, leading No. 12 Ohio State off the cliff against a California team poised to pull the upset in Ohio Stadium. But Miller's heroics -- which included the game-winning 72-yard pass to Devin Smith with 3:26 remaining -- left the Golden Bears grasping at air in the Buckeyes' 35-28 victory.
"When you need someone to make a play, Braxton's the guy," tight end/wide receiver Jake Stoneburner said. "He's been doing it since he's been here. In the clutch, you've got to give it to Number 5. He'll do something with the ball."
Braxton Miller was at his finest this season late in games as he led Ohio State to a 12-0 mark.
Miller's five total touchdowns will put him squarely in the Heisman Trophy discussion. But his highlight film might distract you from some other important news: despite its ranking and its pedigreed coach, Ohio State is still a long way from being one of the nation's best teams.
The Buckeyes (3-0) were frankly lucky to beat a mediocre Cal team that lost at home to Nevada in Week 1. In fact, if not for three missed field goals by the visitors, they might have suffered their first loss under Urban Meyer. They certainly can't expect to play like this in the Big Ten opener two weeks from now at Michigan State and enjoy similar results.
One of the biggest -- and most surprising concerns -- for this team right now is its defense. Though blessed with a talented defensive front and veterans in the back end, the Silver Bullets have yet to fully fire. They gave up 512 total yards to the Golden Bears, including 224 on the ground.
Meyer wanted to see a better pass rush, and he got that with six sacks. But Cal did an excellent job at countering that pressure with runs and short throws. Missed tackles, a problem all of last year, were a major issue again Saturday.
"Terrible," Meyer said. "Terrible. I wish I had some magic answer for you. We don't tackle well right now. ... It's time to play Ohio State defense, and that wasn't Ohio State defense at all."
Cal's Brendan Bigelow bounced out of a crowd of Buckeyes defenders in the third quarter to rip off an 81-yard touchdown run, the longest rush ever by an opponent at the Horseshoe. Even worse, after Ohio State regained the lead at 28-21 in the fourth quarter, Bigelow needed only two carries to take his team 75 yards for the tying score.
"I know I had him a couple of times right in my reach," Ohio State defensive lineman Nathan Williams said. "I don't know what happened after that. We pride ourselves on stopping the run around here like always, and to give up a couple of long plays like that, it's a backbreaker."
The Buckeyes looked ready to break the game open early, running out to a 20-7 lead early in the second quarter. But then they went nearly 25 minutes without scoring, gaining only 20 total yards on their next seven possessions.
Cal confused Ohio State with switching defenses and kept loading the box in an effort to stop Miller from taking off and running. It worked beautifully.
Even the return of Jordan Hall, who made his season debut after a summer foot injury, didn't help the offense get moving too much. Hall carried 17 times for 87 yards but was mostly tied up on zone read plays. He looked more like Percy Sledge than Percy Harvin.
"I was a little rusty," he said. "There were some times when I lost my footing when I should have stayed up. There were a lot of runs I could have finished."
Once California took its first lead early in the fourth quarter, Meyer appeared to dip into his old Florida playbook. There was a nice option pitch to Hall. There was the throwback to the tight end. And Miller finished the drive with the famous Tim Tebow jump pass from the goal line to Stoneburner.
"We've been working on that since he's been here," Stoneburner said.
The winning play, though, was a pure Miller creation. The call was intended to be a pass to Corey Brown. But after Miller scrambled to his right, Cal's safety came up to guard against the run, leaving Smith more open than a Berkeley hippie commune. Miller said when he saw Smith a good 10 yards clear of the defense, he thought, "Oh my god."
It was another unbelievable play involving Ohio State's Road Runner. But Meyer knows his team can't rely on that for much longer. The Big Ten season is coming after next week's tune-up against UAB, and defenses like Michigan State's will force Miller to make more conventional plays in the passing game.
"It's kind of turning into that kind of a world for us right now," he said.
Miller might make the Buckeyes look like super geniuses right now, but they've got to figure more things out on both sides of the ball to avoid tripping up soon.