NCF Nation: Jeff Heuerman


Michigan State's 2014 season will be remembered most for the way it ended: a furious fourth-quarter comeback against Baylor in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, giving the Spartans a signature win.

But the Baylor triumph, combined with the results of the College Football Playoff semifinals that took place later on Jan. 1, provided Michigan State another distinction. No team in college football has better losses than the Spartans, whose only two setbacks came against the teams that meet Monday for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T.

"It's crazy how things work out," Spartans safety Kurtis Drummond said, "that your two losses come to national title contenders."

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota, Kurtis Drummond
Chris Pietsch/Associated PressMarcus Mariota kept the Spartans off-balance with both his legs and his arm.
MSU fell Sept. 6 at Oregon and Nov. 8 against Ohio State at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans led both games for stretches before stumbling midway through. They piled up yards in both contests -- 466 against Oregon, 536 against Ohio State -- but couldn't slow down their opponents' potent offenses, which combined for 95 points and 1,059 yards against a typically formidable Spartans defense.

The Spartans aren't offering title game predictions, but they weighed in on several elements of the mega matchup.

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota

Michigan State faced only half of Monday's quarterback pairing, as Ohio State's J.T. Barrett was still healthy for the game in East Lansing, Michigan. Mariota had 318 pass yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and 42 rush yards in Oregon's Week 2 win against the Spartans.

"I remember his composure and his confidence," Drummond said. "He's not a guy who's going to make the first guy miss and just take off running. He can do that, but he's a guy who can still throw the ball downfield."

Mariota made the game's defining play with his feet, and then his arm. Michigan State led 27-18 in the third quarter and appeared to have sacked Mariota on third-and-long, but the Oregon star escaped several would-be tacklers before shoveling the ball to Royce Freeman for a first down.

Oregon converted another third down moments later and reached the end zone, sparking a 28-0 run to end the game.

"He's extremely gifted in terms of riding the fake-out," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "You can see a couple times in the film where our guys are sitting right there and eyes on the ball, eyes on him and we lose him. And then, in the pocket getting out of problems, he's a fast guy, he's extremely elusive."

The offenses

Both offenses fall under the spread canopy and have similarities in personnel and operation.

For years, Oregon's pace has staggered opposing defenses, especially when the Ducks get rolling. They lead the FBS this season in scoring percentage after the initial first down is gained, scoring on 66.2 percent of such possessions. Dantonio said Ohio State doesn't operate as quickly as it did with Braxton Miller at quarterback, but a tempo element remains.

"They both create run-pass conflicts," Dantonio said. "They both have coaches that are on the cutting edge of what we see now as offensive football."

The skill-position contingents are similar: fast and physical backs such as Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott and Oregon's Freeman, big-play receivers such as Oregon's Darren Carrington and Devon Allen and Ohio State's Devin Smith and Michael Thomas. Oregon has six players with at least 20 receptions who average more than 13 yards per reception; Ohio State has four.

"Oregon has guys who ran track, Ohio State has guys who ran track," Drummond said. "They both have explosive-type players out there on the edges, guys who can make plays on the ball."

One difference, Drummond noted, is that Ohio State lines up its tight ends closer to the line of scrimmage. The Buckeyes' Jeff Heuerman is a strong blocker with the ability to catch passes. Oregon lost standout tight end Pharaoh Brown to a season-ending leg injury in November.

The defenses

There are more differences in scheme -- Oregon runs a 3-4, Ohio State a 4-3 -- and personnel with these less distinguished units. Oregon's height at defensive end with Arik Armstead (6-foot-8) and DeForest Buckner (6-foot-7) stood out to both Dantonio and MSU offensive coordinator Dave Warner.

Ohio State isn't quite as tall up front but boasts power inside with tackles Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington.

"That’s going to be a test for both offenses, to try and establish the run game," Warner said. "They've both got some run-stoppers up front."

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Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesOhio State forced Connor Cook and Michigan State to pass more than they otherwise would have liked.
Offensive balance was among Michigan State's top goals entering both games, but the Spartans became pass-heavy in both contests, especially as they fell behind in the second half.

The Ducks' defensive backs also caught Warner's attention. Oregon safety Erick Dargan had the first of his team-leading seven interceptions against the Spartans.

"Those guys are playmakers, so you've got to be pretty smart as far as how you attack them in the pass game," Warner said. "We had a little bit of success but screwed up there toward the third and fourth quarter. Those guys don't let you get away with many mistakes."

Keys to the game

The offensive firepower on both sides has many anticipating a shootout. It's why Warner thinks conversion rates -- third downs and touchdowns -- will be so important.

Michigan State's inability to convert a red zone opportunity late in the first half against Ohio State -- a holding penalty nullified a touchdown run and the Spartans subsequently missed a short field goal attempt -- turned the momentum and MSU never recovered. Ohio State and Oregon rank third and fourth nationally in third-down conversions, so the team that better moves the chains will have a significant edge. Ohio State is better (20th nationally, 35 percent conversions) at preventing third-down conversions than Oregon (60th, 39.5 percent).

"Third downs become very critical, whether it’s third-and-short or third-and-long," Warner said. "When you get in the red zone, you want to get touchdowns, not field goals. Those things become even more important when you're going against a high-powered offense."

Dantonio expects turnovers and special teams to loom large. Oregon used three third-quarter takeaways against Florida State to pull away from the Seminoles. Ohio State committed two early turnovers against Alabama but rallied to win the turnover margin 3-2.

Oregon leads the nation in turnover margin (plus-20), while Ohio State is tied for 15th (plus-10).

"This isn't a game," Drummond said, "where it's going to be easy to win beating yourselves."
NEW ORLEANS -- No. 4 Ohio State is a significant underdog against No. 1 Alabama in Thursday's College Football Playoff semifinal game at the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Yes, I'm on record picking Alabama, but I don't count out the Buckeyes. Here are 10 reasons why they can pull off the upset:

1. Urban Meyer
It all starts here, doesn't it? Meyer has won two national championships, so there aren't many other coaches you'd want on this stage. Of course, Alabama's Nick Saban has four titles and a 2-1 career record against Meyer. But with nearly a month to prepare for this game, Meyer and his standout staff figure to have found some areas to exploit and surely used every motivational tactic at their disposal.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Jason Mowry/Icon SportswireEzekiel Elliott and Ohio State can run with anyone in the nation.
2. Speed kills
Alabama players have said it all week long: Ohio State has as much speed as any SEC team. And it's not just lip service. With guys like Devin Smith, Ezekiel Elliott and Jalin Marshall on offense, plus some linebackers and defensive backs who can fly, Meyer has put together an SEC-like team in Columbus. "There's speed in Ohio, too," said Ohio State safety Vonn Bell, who's from Georgia. "I found that out." The Buckeyes match up well with Alabama at many of the skill positions and will be able to let it fly on the Superdome turf. It's not 2007 anymore.

3. Bosa and Bennett
Is Ohio State deep along the defensive line? Nope, and that is a concern. But the Buckeyes have two All-Americans in defensive end Joey Bosa and tackle Michael Bennett, both of whom could cause problems for Alabama's offensive line and get to quarterback Blake Sims. Great players tend to rise to the occasion, and Bosa and Bennett could take over the game if they're at their best. They've both done it before.

4. No pressure
Ohio State's players have shown no sign of nerves this week in New Orleans. They have been relaxed and engaged during interview sessions, and they horsed around a lot during Tuesday's media day at the Superdome. As the No. 4 seed whom no one expects to advance, the Buckeyes really have no pressure on them here. Plus, it's a team that's playing a whole lot of freshmen and sophomores. They might just be young enough to not realize they're not supposed to win. Things might go wrong Thursday night, but Ohio State shouldn't be too tightly wound.

5. Turnovers
Underdogs often need to win the turnover battle to succeed. Luckily for the Buckeyes, that's one of their specialties. They ranked in the top 20 nationally in turnover margin at plus-9. Alabama, meanwhile, is at minus-1 for the season. Ohio State is particularly good at picking off passes, finishing No. 4 in the FBS this season with 21 interceptions. If Sims isn't careful with the ball, he could see Buckeyes running the other way with it.

6. Cardale Jones, man of mystery
Alabama's defense doesn't have much tape to peruse of Jones, who's making only his second career start, and maybe he can play that to his advantage. Jones was impressive in his starting debut against Wisconsin when he had only six days to prepare after the injury to J.T. Barrett. He now has had almost a month to get ready and study Alabama's defense, so he should be more polished. Yes, the Crimson Tide probably will try to confuse him, but he's 6 feet 5 with a cannon for an arm. Tide safety Landon Collins compared him to Cam Newton. Maybe Jones will enjoy a Newton-like rocket ride to stardom.

7. Hunger game
The Buckeyes are sick of the Big Ten bashing. They're tired of SEC adoration. They're eager to prove themselves on this kind of national stage, especially the young players who hope to make a name for themselves. Remember this is a team that was one win away from the BCS national title game a year ago and suffered that disappointment. The Buckeyes are also still playing for the memory of deceased former teammate Kosta Karageorge; Bennett will once again wear his No. 53 jersey. Alabama is certainly not complacent, but it's a program that has won three national titles since 2009 and is perched atop the college football world. Ohio State is very hungry to get there.

8. Offensive explosiveness
Let's not forget: Ohio State is one of the best offensive teams in the country. The way to beat Alabama is to attack them in the deep passing game, an area where the Buckeyes excel. You saw what Auburn did to the Crimson Tide, right? Meyer's offense can similarly spread out Alabama and use tempo to its advantage. Ohio State averaged 45.2 points this season and scored 59 on a Wisconsin team that came into the Big Ten title game in the top five nationally in total defense. "They've got more explosive plays than anybody we've played this year," Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said.

9. Block 'O'
Almost nobody runs on Alabama. The Tide led the nation in rush defense and allowed less than three yards per attempt, thanks in large part to their enormous and gifted front seven. But don't underestimate the Ohio State offensive line, which gelled into a terrific unit after a slow start. Add in Jeff Heuerman, who's a tremendous blocking tight end, and running back Ezekiel Elliott, whom Meyer has called one of the best players he has ever had at springing others free. The Buckeyes also do a lot of different things in their running game, with jet sweep action, motions and shifts, and a quarterback run threat. That's why they ran for 260.8 yards per game, 10th best in the country. If anyone can run on Bama, it might just be these guys.

10. Voodoo
We admit: Ohio State is going to need some luck or fortune to win this game. It just so happens that we're in New Orleans, where weird and mystical things are commonplace. Alabama fell victim to Oklahoma in this city last year in a result that looks stranger in hindsight. Maybe there's a voodoo priest in the French Quarter who's secretly a fan of the Scarlet and Gray.

B1G media days: Best of Day 1

July, 28, 2014
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CHICAGO -- The season has unofficially started in the Big Ten.

Coaches are talking about the importance of taking it one game at a time while chasing a conference title. Players have busted out their finest suits and are raving about how difficult the offseason conditioning program was at their schools. And the media grabbed some free food between interviews.

There is one more day to go before the circus leaves Chicago, but before we get to that, the Big Ten blog is handing out some awards to put a bow on the opening day.

Best-dressed player: Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond. The honors could just as easily have gone to teammates Shilique Calhoun or Connor Cook, the former for his bow tie and the latter for his accessorizing with his enormous championship ring. But Drummond stole the show as the sharpest of the Spartans, who clearly looked the part of returning conference champs.

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Most fun-loving players: The bright spotlight and huge crowd around him might have kept Ohio State coach Urban Meyer a bit guarded, but his players certainly welcomed the attention and weren't afraid of being playful with the media. Tight end Jeff Heuerman loosened things up by locking quarterback Braxton Miller in a headlock, and after that, both decided to moonlight as media members by sneaking over to ask Meyer a few questions toward the end of a session -- a rare glimpse at the personalities off the field of two of the league's best talents on it.

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Biggest missed opportunity: The Wisconsin-LSU matchup to open the season is appealing enough at a neutral site. But the Badgers and Tigers could have taken the intrigue to another level by hosting those games at two of the loudest, most hostile stadiums in the country -- if only Gary Andersen had been around a couple of years earlier. The Badgers' coach said he "would have said yes" to a home-and-home series at Camp Randall and in Death Valley, a tantalizing what-might-have-been if the Tigers might have been as willing as Andersen.

Most appropriate Twitter handle: Nebraska’s Kenny Bell (@AFRO_THUNDER80). The 6-foot-1 receiver was probably the easiest player to pick out of a crowd, as his puffy afro towered over opposing players. Bell’s play didn’t earn him an award last season -- he was honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team -- but we just couldn’t go one more day without recognizing that 'fro.

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Best-dressed coach: Penn State’s James Franklin. Every day, the head coach spends 22 minutes to shave his head in every direction and trim that goatee ... so it seems slightly surprising that he is probably the coach who spends the most time on his head, considering he’s bald. But, hey, it takes time to pull that look off -- and he was also looking dapper with that Penn State lapel, blue tie and matching pocket square. Franklin often jokes that he doesn’t need to sleep, so maybe he uses some of that extra time to pick out the right clothes.

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Quote of the day: Penn State linebacker Mike Hull has learned under three head coaches -- Joe Paterno, Bill O'Brien and Franklin -- during his career, and their personalities really couldn’t have been any different. Hull laughed while providing their takes on social media as an example.

“Yeah, I’ve seen the whole evolution,” he said. “Joe didn’t know what Facebook was, O’Brien called Facebook ‘Spacebook’ and, now, Coach Franklin probably has every social media there is to have. It’s crazy.”

Most Big Ten quote: “How are you going to approach the Rose Bowl?” -- Michigan coach Brady Hoke, lamenting some aspects of the College Football Playoff in years, like this season, when the Granddaddy of Them All is to serve as a national semifinal game. Hoke suggested that some of the pageantry associated with the game -- for instance, the Beef Bowl team competition at Lawry’s, a prime rib restaurant in Beverly Hills -- will be eliminated because of the high stakes and need for a regular game-week regimen. Of the traditional Rose Bowl, Hoke added: “It’s the greatest experience in America for kids.”

Most Iowa quote (maybe ever): “Sometimes, old school is a good school.” -- Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz on his program’s resistance to some of the offensive innovation that has swept college football.

Best quote about a player not in attendance: “I don’t like standing too close to him because it seems like the wind is always blowing through his hair. When he smiles, this little thing comes off his tooth like in the toothpaste commercial.” -- Penn State coach James Franklin on sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
If the preseason All-America teams are any indication, the Big Ten will have a very good year in the offensive backfield -- both carrying the ball out of it and penetrating it.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has averaged a gaudy 8.1 yards per rushing attempt during his career.
Running back and defensive line appear to be the league's two strongest position groups -- possibly by a wide margin -- entering the 2014 season. Athlon on Monday came out with its preseason All-America teams, following up Phil Steele, who released his last week. Three Big Ten players made Athlon's first team: Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett and Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. Four other defensive linemen -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory (second team), Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun (second team), Ohio State's Joey Bosa (fourth team) and Iowa's Carl Davis (fourth team) -- made one of the remaining three teams, and two other running backs -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (second team) and Michigan State's Jeremy Langford (fourth team) -- also appear.

Steele had Bennett and Calhoun on his first team, Gregory and Bosa on his second team and Davis on his third team. Like Athlon, he lists Gordon as a first-team running back and Abdullah on the second team. It's interesting to see Calhoun getting a bit more love than Gregory, even though Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks and is projected as a higher draft pick.

Not sure about you, but I can't wait for Calhoun and Gregory to share the field Oct. 4 at Spartan Stadium, or for longtime friends Gordon and Abdullah to match up on Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium. Both matchups should be fun to watch all season.

It's not unusual for defensive line and running back to headline the Big Ten. Both positions historically are strong in the league, especially defensive line. A potential concern is that only one quarterback -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- and zero wide receivers make any of Athlon's teams. Steele has two Big Ten wideouts, Maryland's Stefon Diggs and Michigan's Devin Funchess (has played tight end but listed as a receiver), on his third team. Still, it's clear these are two positions where the Big Ten continues to need upgrades.

Other Athlon preseason All-America selections include: Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff (second team), Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman (third team), Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond (third team), Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston (third team), Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (fourth team), Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes (fourth team) and Northwestern punt returner Venric Mark (fourth team).

The Big Ten is tied with the Pac-12 for third among overall Athlon All-America selections with 18, trailing both the ACC (27) and SEC (26).


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always trying to find new ways to motivate his players.

Last spring, he had a banner put up in the Ohio State field house reading “The Chase …” in reference to the Buckeyes’ championship pursuits. Meyer said he thought about changing the display for the 2014 offseason. In the end, though, he stuck with the same one.

“We didn’t accomplish it,” Meyer told ESPN.com. “We chased it but didn’t catch it. So the chase is still on.”

Ohio State, of course, nearly made it to its desired finish line. After going 12-0 for the second straight season under Meyer, the Buckeyes just needed to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game to clinch a date with Florida State for the BCS national title. Instead, they fell 34-24 to the Spartans and closed the year on a two-game losing streak with a 40-35 setback against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer says Ohio State is still trying to finish "The Chase."
So the chase continues, albeit with a much different-looking team in the 2014 starting gate. Gone is four-fifths of the offensive line that formed the backbone of the Big Ten’s top-scoring offense the past two seasons. Also gone are reigning Big Ten running back of the year Carlos Hyde and top receiver Corey “Philly” Brown, as well as the two biggest stars on defense -- linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby -- who opted to enter the NFL draft.

Experience is lacking in many key areas, but Meyer is ready to let some talented youngsters loose, including true freshmen. In retrospect, he wishes he had done so last year, when defensive end Joey Bosa and receiver Dontre Wilson were the only first-year players to make a big impact until safety Vonn Bell started in the Orange Bowl.

“We redshirted too many last year, and that was our fault,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding, and we just didn’t do a good job, especially on defense. When they show up on campus, we need to get them ready to play.”

This spring, early enrollees Raekwon McMillan (linebacker), Curtis Samuel (tailback) and Johnnie Dixon (receiver) were all heavily involved and have secured roles in the fall. Redshirt freshman are also at or near the top of the depth chart at strongside linebacker (Darron Lee and Chris Worley) and cornerback (Gareon Conley and Eli Apple), while true sophomores like safety Cam Burrows and tailback Ezekiel Elliott could force their way into the starting lineup.

“When you talk about inexperience, that’s a good thing right now,” said Chris Ash, who was hired from Arkansas as co-defensive coordinator to help fix Ohio State’s pass defense. “There aren’t a lot of habits that we have to change to fit what we’re trying to do. We don’t have older guys that are comfortable with where they’re at in their careers.”

An already young offense became even greener this spring because of injuries to three senior leaders: tight end Jeff Heuerman, receiver Evan Spencer and quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes will no doubt look a lot different when Miller returns from shoulder surgery. During the 15 spring practices, the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year often stood behind the offense and wore a camera on his head so coaches could go over what he was seeing on the field.

“We're exhausting every avenue and even inventing different avenues to make sure he's engaged and getting mental reps,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “We're doing the best we can with a bad situation. He has embraced it and is working his tail off, making sure he’s getting the most out of it.”

Herman says the Buckeyes should be more explosive on the perimeter this season, with guys like Wilson, Dixon, junior college transfer Corey Smith, sophomore Michael Thomas and freshman Jalin Marshall at receiver and a stable of athletic tailbacks. The safeties are longer and quicker than they have been in the past, and the defensive line -- which could be one of the nation’s best -- will have four starters who all used to be defensive ends.

The objective is clear: more speed. To that end, Meyer has hammered a new mantra in the players' heads: “4 to 6, A to B.” That means play hard for four to six seconds and get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's hard to interview an Ohio State player these days without hearing the phrase.

“That’s all he’s been preaching this spring.” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “He said he’s not really worried about technique and all that stuff. It’s just about playing hard, because if you play hard, effort makes up for mistakes.”

Washington said the defense was greatly simplified this spring, with only about four or five different calls to learn. Aggressiveness trumped scheme.

“The culture of Ohio State is to go hard, not trick you,” Meyer said. “I just felt like there was too much stuff last year, instead of just going hard.”

By moving faster and playing harder, the Buckeyes hope to overcome their youth and track down what they've been hunting. They have been tantalizingly close.

“We’re still on a chase,” Washington said. “We’ve just got to finish it.”

Talented Buckeyes kept under wraps

April, 14, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer seemed to be guarding a secret, and it couldn’t be deciphered by reading between the lines.

The Ohio State coach joked about being a little bored by his spring game, expressed some frustration about the lack of offensive execution and stressed that there was plenty of work to do at a few key positions heading into the offseason.

But the truth about how good his third team at Ohio State might be was tucked away on the sidelines, leaving little to truly evaluate between them as the Gray beat the Scarlet 17-7 on Saturday at the Horseshoe. And based on the number of players he held out of the spring-closing scrimmage, it might be a safe bet that Meyer is actually feeling pretty good about what he has returning in the fall.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe spring game didn't say much about Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. And he seems fine with that.
“There were guys out there who will either never play or they’re not ready to play now,” Meyer said. “Like, [Ohio State sports information director] Jerry [Emig] hands me stats, I’m not sure what to do with these. I don’t care.

“... We all know what we saw out there. It’s not the Ohio State Buckeyes.”

Exhibition games rarely provide much of a reliable gauge for how good a team might truly be, and in the case of the Buckeyes, that might have been by design.

Braxton Miller was already on the shelf as he finishes up his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Having the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year and a three-year starter at quarterback out of the equation obviously changes the complexion of the Ohio State offense. Cardale Jones was productive enough throughout camp to win the backup job, but his 14-of-31 passing performance Saturday was yet another reminder of the importance of having a healthy Miller to lead the attack.

Meyer indicated there was some uncertainty about his receiving corps after the spring game, but he had enough faith in Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson that he didn’t feel the need to press either of them into action over the weekend -- aside from a cameo appearance by the latter in a race against students at halftime.

And after watching what could be one of the most talented defensive lines in the country terrorize a rebuilding offensive line throughout camp over the last month, Meyer certainly didn’t need to see any more from Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett or Adolphus Washington to boost his confidence heading into the summer, adding to the list of starters who effectively were allowed to take the day off.

Cornerback Doran Grant was largely an observer as well, though he did make an appearance to win the halftime derby and became the “fastest student” on campus. Projected first-team guard Pat Elflein was a scratch, and presumptive starting running back Ezekiel Elliott only touched the football three times. Tight end Jeff Heuerman was on crutches after foot surgery, but he’ll be back in time for the conditioning program next month.

So while the game itself left little worth remembering aside from what appeared to be marked improvement and depth in the secondary and another handful of mesmerizing catches from Michael Thomas, there were actually clues littered around Ohio Stadium that Meyer is poised to unleash his most talented team since taking over the program in 2012 and rattling off 24 consecutive wins.

The trick was knowing where to look.

“[The spring game] was a chance to see some young guys [who] really haven’t played, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how much they will play,” Meyer said. “This is a chance for a lot of guys in our program who work very hard, and to be able to get some guys play or catch a pass in Ohio Stadium or whatever, in the big picture it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s a great thrill for a lot of people.”

The real thrills, of course, don’t come for a few months. And based on the amount of players who didn’t get to actually step between the lines on Saturday, Meyer might not-so-secretly have plenty to be excited about by fall.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Immediately following the loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and several of his assistants hit the road to recruit.

Recruiting is as much salesmanship as anything, so the coaches had to act like they were in a good mood around the prospects they visited. It wasn't easy to do.

"You had to go walk in with a smile, and it was the phoniest smile you've probably ever seen," Meyer said Thursday. "And then you get back, and you see the players you care about and see the pain on their face."

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesUrban Meyer admits losing in the Big Ten title game hurt, but he says the Buckeyes have moved on from that disappointment.
We've seen this before. A team falls just short of reaching the national championship game, as the Buckeyes did that night in Indianapolis, and proceeds to sleepwalk through its consolation bowl game. So it's natural to wonder about the motivation for Ohio State in tonight's Discover Orange Bowl against Clemson when it came so close to playing for the national title on Monday night.

Buckeyes players and coaches won't pretend they weren't crushed by that loss to the Spartans. But they also say they're plenty driven to win this BCS game, both for themselves and, to a lesser extent, the Big Ten.

Meyer called a team meeting after he got back from that recruiting trip. For the first time in 25 games as Ohio State's coach, he had to address the players after a loss.

"We had a real emotional meeting," he said. "Well, I don't know if emotional is the right word, but it was just like you would with any type of family members going through a hard time. From that point forward, they've been fine."

The carrot of a national title might have vanished, but other potential rewards remain. Ohio State has not won a postseason game since the 2011 Sugar Bowl (which would later be vacated), meaning the majority of the team has not tasted a bowl victory. The older players suffered through a 6-7 season in 2011, including a Gator Bowl loss, and dealt with probation last year.

"With coach [Jim] Tressel my freshman year, we won a Rose Bowl and then a Sugar Bowl, and then it kind of went down," fifth-year senior offensive tackle Jack Mewhort said. "So to show that we pulled ourselves back out of it and got back on top would be real important to us older guys. I don't think it's in our nature as competitors to be sulking or to be held down by something that has happened."

Meyer has traveled this road before. In 2009, his Florida Gators lost to Alabama in the SEC title game with a BCS Championship berth on the line. A not-so-sexy matchup with Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl awaited. Even through some serious distractions -- Meyer said he planned to step down before the bowl game then changed his mind -- the Gators ripped the Bearcats for an impressive 51-24 win.

Meyer takes detailed notes during each week of the season and said he reviewed the notes from that Sugar Bowl preparation to see how he handled the disappointment. He chatted about it with former Florida star Mike Pouncey at practice earlier this week.

"I would anticipate, from everything I've seen with this team, the competitive spirit is there," Meyer said. "I've also been in situations where I didn't feel the competitive spirit, and that's where you've got [to use] the secret Tshirt or the secret handshake to get guys to play hard. I don't feel that."

It doesn't hurt that the Orange Bowl means 80-degree temperatures, South Beach excursions and an escape from the winter in Ohio. The Buckeyes also have several players from Florida.

"We're having a great time," said tight end and Naples, Fla., native Jeff Heuerman, who, it should be noted, said this before he caught the stomach bug that plagued the Buckeyes this week. "South Beach is a ton of fun. But we're trying not to do anything differently than any other game week, and we've been super successful with what we've done."

If Ohio State needs any further motivation, then the chance to salvage some Big Ten pride could provide it.

The league is guaranteed a losing record in the postseason after going 2-4 in its first six games. But Michigan State gave the conference a BCS win by beating Stanford in the Rose Bowl, and the Buckeyes can add another one if they get by Clemson. Two BCS wins and a victory over an SEC team (Nebraska beat Georgia in the Gator Bowl) would mean a highly successful bowl season for the Big Ten.

"Playing in the Big Ten, people sometimes have been down on us the last couple of years," Mewhort said. "That kind of lights a little fire under you that makes you want to go out and represent your conference well. I think that would be great for us and the Big Ten."

Meyer said he watched the end of the Rose Bowl and found himself rooting hard for the team that handed him his only loss as Ohio State coach.

"Any time a member of your conference does well in a big game like that, I do think it's important," he said. "Because the truth is the upper-level Big Ten teams are excellent football teams. The conference is getting better. Guys are working extremely hard to close the gap on the SEC."

The Buckeyes' main concern is finding a way to beat an ACC power tonight. They might not get that done, but it shouldn't be because of a lack of interest in the proceedings.
More than once this season I watched a Michigan State receiver make a great catch or a long run and thought: poor Andrew Maxwell.

Although quarterback Connor Cook deserves a lot of credit for MSU's offensive turnaround, he undoubtedly benefited from a wide receiver corps that cleaned up its act. Maxwell consistently fell victim to dropped passes, part of the reason why he completed just 52.5 percent of his attempts in 2012.

Here's a list of the Big Ten's most improved position groups this year:

Michigan State wide receivers: They were hard to watch in 2012, and their repeated drops proved costly for a team that lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. The overall numbers aren't much different in the two seasons, but Michigan State's wideouts all did a much better job of eliminating drops and making plays. Macgarrett Kings emerged as a threat and is tied with Tony Lippett for the team lead in receptions (39), while Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery emerged as big-play threats, averaging 15.4 and 16.4 yards per reception, respectively.

Minnesota offensive line: After an injury plagued 2012 regular season, the line made strides in the Texas Bowl and continued the momentum this fall. Minnesota improved its rushing average by 49 yards per game and racked up nine more rushing touchdowns. David Cobb eclipsed 100 rushing yards in five of his final six games, putting up 101 yards against Michigan State, the nation's top rush defense. Minnesota also tied for fourth in the league in fewest sacks allowed (21). A program that once churned out great offensive lines each year is getting back to its roots.

Iowa defensive line: Like Minnesota's offensive line, Iowa has a great tradition along the defensive front but endured some down years after an incredible run of NFL draft picks. The Hawkeyes' defensive line got back on track this season, and coach Kirk Ferentz labeled the line as the team's most improved unit. Drew Ott and Carl Davis emerged and Iowa improved to seventh nationally in total defense, 11th in scoring defense and 17th against the run.

Ohio State wide receivers: Urban Meyer blasted the group during spring practice last year and wasn't overly impressed with the results during the 2012 season. Only one receiver (Corey Brown) recorded more than 30 receptions and only two (Brown and Devin Smith) had multiple touchdown catches. Brown and Smith combined for 97 receptions and 18 touchdowns this season, and Chris Fields had six scores. Along with tight end Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State's passing game looked more efficient for much of the fall.

Illinois quarterbacks: I could pick almost every position group on offense for the Illini, who transformed under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit. But Nathan Scheelhaase's development truly stood out, as the senior led the Big Ten in passing by a wide margin with 3,272 yards, more than double his total from 2012. Scheelhaase completed two-thirds of his attempts and consistently stretched the field as Illinois finished 22nd nationally in pass offense.

Indiana running backs: The Hoosiers emphasized the run game during the offseason and saw the desired results during games. After finishing 10th in the league in rushing in 2012, Indiana improved to fourth, averaging more than 200 yards per game. Tevin Coleman emerged as a big-play threat and averaged 106.4 rush yards per game and a whopping 7.3 yards per carry. Teammate Stephen Houston wasn't too shabby, either, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Michigan State knew it was probably going to the Rose Bowl whether it won or lost in the Big Ten championship game. But all week long, the Spartans insisted they had no interest in backing their way into Pasadena.

After knocking off No. 2 Ohio State at Lucas Oil Stadium, Michigan State's players could hold their heads high as they clenched roses in their teeth. By building a 17-0 lead early and then mounting a comeback after blowing all of it, the Spartans did Saturday what no one else could do in the past two years: Beat Urban Meyer's Buckeyes.

As a result, Ohio State isn't going to the BCS title game, and the folks in East Lansing, Mich., now have some new friends in Auburn, Ala. Here's a quick look at how the No. 10 Spartans' 34-24 victory went down.

It was over when: Michigan State's Denicos Allen stopped Braxton Miller on a fourth-and-2 run from the Spartans' 39-yard line with 5 minutes, 41 seconds to go. Six plays later, Jeremy Langford broke free for a 26-yard touchdown run, giving Michigan State a 10-point lead with 2:16 left. Michigan State scored the game's first 17 points and the final 17.

Game ball goes to: Connor Cook. Michigan State's sophomore quarterback came into the game with a much lower profile than his Ohio State counterpart. But Cook showed that he's got a bright future, too, along with a poise beyond his years. The offense rested on his right arm most of the game as the Buckeyes shut down the running game for three quarters. Cook completed 10 of his first 13 passes and finished 24-of-40 for 304 yards and three touchdowns. His final score came on a throwback pass to wide-open tight end Josiah Price that gave the Spartans the lead for good.

Stat of the game: We wondered who would win the battle between the nation's top rushing defense and Ohio State's Big Ten-best running attack. The Buckeyes -- and their offensive line -- won that showdown handily, gaining 273 yards on 40 carries against a defense that entered giving up 64.8 yards per game on the ground. Miller and Carlos Hyde each ran for more than 100 yards, doubling the number of 100-yard rushers Michigan State had allowed all season. But the Spartans held Ohio State to just 25 rushing yards in the fourth quarter as they kept the Buckeyes scoreless for the final 14:24.

Unsung hero of the game: Darqueze Dennard came into the game with a huge reputation as a potential All-America cornerback and the leader of the Spartans' "No-Fly Zone" secondary. He backed it up with a couple of big-time pass breakups, including one in the end zone after he was beaten on a route by Devin Smith. Ohio State wasn't able to get much done on Dennard's side of the field.

What it means: Michigan State is going to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988, and it will play Stanford in a battle of two of the hardest-hitting defenses in college football. The Spartans are 12-1, won all nine Big Ten games by at least 10 points and should finally get the respect they deserve. Coach Mark Dantonio got a program-defining victory after leading the team to double-digit victories in three of the past four years.

Ohio State will be bitterly disappointed about its missed chance to play Florida State for the national title, and the 24-game winning streak under Meyer is gone. The Big Ten's national title drought now will reach 12 years. All is not lost for the Buckeyes, however. They should still get chosen for an at-large bid to a BCS bowl, probably in either the Sugar Bowl or Orange Bowl.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Ohio State Buckeyes were losing it: the game, their composure and possibly their perfect season.

They admittedly became too wrapped up in the emotion of The Game. They started by yapping at Michigan players before and after the whistle. Things quickly got much uglier. A brawl following a Buckeyes kickoff return early in the second quarter resulted in two Ohio State players (starting right guard Marcus Hall and H-back/returner Dontre Wilson) and one Michigan player (linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone) being ejected for throwing punches.

"Disappointed with that; I don't know where that came from," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "That's unacceptable."

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AP Photo/Carlos OsorioDontre Wilson was one of two Ohio State players ejected after this second-quarter brawl at Michigan.
Hall exited the field with both middle fingers raised to the crowd. No, he wasn't making the "H" in O-H-I-O. The image quickly made its way around Twitter.

It could have been the lasting image from Ohio State's first loss under Meyer, one that would have ended the Buckeyes' quest for the crystal football.

Instead, No. 3 Ohio State provided some other snapshots not soon to be forgotten in one of the most memorable editions of The Game in its storied history, one Meyer called an instant classic. The Buckeyes will remember running back Carlos Hyde, responding from his fourth-quarter fumble, triggering an overpowering six-play, 65-yard drive that he capped with a 1-yard touchdown run with 2 minutes, 20 seconds to play. Hyde finished with more rushing yards (226) than any Buckeyes player has ever had against Michigan.

They'll also remember redshirt freshman nickelback Tyvis Powell stepping in front of a slant pass to Drew Dileo on the game's decisive two-point play to record the clinching interception. Linebacker Ryan Shazier said the Buckeyes had prepared for two conversion plays from Michigan and the Wolverines ran one of them.

Most of all, they'll remember a 42-41 victory against a Michigan team that gave its best effort in months.

"That was our season on the line," Powell said. "We had 12-0, Gold Pants, chances for the national championship. It just hit me, like, 'Wow, I kind of just saved the season.'"

Quarterback Braxton Miller, who had 153 rushing yards and three touchdowns to go along with two passing touchdowns, noted that every game doesn't go perfectly and teams must handle adversity. But Ohio State hadn't faced any real adversity in weeks, not since an Oct. 19 home game against Iowa, which led at halftime and tied the game entering the fourth quarter. That day, the Buckeyes turned to Miller, Hyde and the Big Ten's best offensive line to mount long, sustained drives.

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Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller rushed for three touchdowns and threw for two at Michigan.
It was a similar formula Saturday as Ohio State's defense had no answers for quarterback Devin Gardner and a suddenly dynamic Michigan offense, which stirred from its month-long slumber with a brilliant game plan that produced 603 yards and 31 first downs. The Wolverines gained just 158 yards the previous week at Iowa; they had 208 in the first quarter Saturday.

"They kind of looked like a different team," said Shazier, who added 14 more tackles to his swelling season total. "But we knew that would happen. ... It's called a rivalry."

It's a rivalry Ohio State continues to dominate, winning nine of the teams' past 10 meetings. There was little talk afterward of Michigan State and the upcoming Big Ten title game, or the lack of style points in beating an unranked opponent, or where the Buckeyes would wind up in Sunday night's BCS standings.

The road ahead, at least for now, didn't matter much to Meyer or his players.

"We're living in the moment right now," tight end Jeff Heuerman said. "It was such a crazy ending. Everyone's head is still spinning. A win's a win, and we'll take it however we can get it. What's 12 times two? Twenty-four straight wins.

"I'm an econ major. I shouldn't have said that out loud."

Ohio State's overall stock likely fell Saturday, particularly a defense that "didn't execute very well," Meyer said. But it's easy to invest in an offense that has looked unstoppable during Big Ten play, averaging 46 points and 531.3 yards in eight league contests.

The Buckeyes answered three Michigan touchdowns Saturday with touchdowns of their own.

"They matched score for score, and that's tough to do on the road," Meyer said.

Hyde has 1,249 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns in league play, telling ESPN.com that he runs "angry" because of his three-game suspension to begin the season. While Meyer knew his defense needed a breather before the two-point play, the Buckeyes offense was ready for overtime, if needed.

"[Michigan] went for two because they didn't want to go to overtime," Hyde said. "They knew what was going to happen. We would have scored; I have no doubt. We were having success all day."

The days ahead will bring bigger challenges for the Buckeyes, starting with the potential fallout from the fight. The Big Ten is reviewing the officials' report from Saturday's game, as well as video from the fight, to determine if additional discipline is warranted.

Meyer noted after the game that since the fight occurred in the first half, any suspension might not carry over. But the Big Ten typically has added a full game to any player ejected for throwing punches.

"Am I concerned? We're going to enjoy this win, get on the bus and go home," Meyer said, before adding, "I'm concerned about everything."

The fight still could end up costing the Buckeyes, but it didn't on Saturday. They regained their composure just in time, made just enough plays to beat a rival and preserved perfection for another week.

Next stop: Indianapolis.

OSU graphicESPN Stats & Information No Ohio State player has ever rushed for more yards against Michigan than Carlos Hyde did Saturday.


WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- For all the accomplishments, there was a hole on Braxton Miller’s résumé that he had to address.

A Big Ten player of the year trophy sits on the shelf at his parents’ house. The Ohio State quarterback was productive enough last season to finish fifth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy. And he is the starter for a team that hasn’t dropped a game in its last 21 tries.

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AP Photo/Michael ConroyCarlos Hyde racked up another 100-yard rushing performance in Ohio State's win over Purdue.
But he came up short in a wild overtime loss the last time the Buckeyes hit the road to take on Purdue. Miller was injured in the second half of last season’s game as Ohio State ultimately needed another extra session to win while he was being examined at the hospital.

So for all those accolades, Miller still really didn’t have a win of his own to point to against Purdue, an omission he quickly addressed in a 56-0 rout for No. 4 Ohio State on Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium.

“Absolutely, this was self-comfort,” Miller said. “Two years ago was a hard-fought game with a crazy ending. Last year, just crazy how I got knocked out with my collarbone and things like that.

“After the last two years with this team ... you just have to come back the next year stronger with a chip on your shoulder.”

Collectively, the Buckeyes played as if there was a boulder on their shoulders as they once again made quick work of a Big Ten opponent while doing everything they can to stay in the national title conversation by stacking up style points.

Ohio State still can’t do it all on its own at this point, but Miller & Co. are certainly building a more compelling argument for themselves.

And the quarterback wasn’t the only player or position group erasing a few résumé gaps in the blowout.
  • Tight ends: The Buckeyes always intend to involve their tight ends in the offense, but it usually amounts to little more than lip service. They certainly mean it this season. Purdue had no answer for Jeff Heuerman on Saturday as he was consistently left alone in the secondary and racked up 116 yards on five catches with a touchdown. The junior was the first Ohio State tight end to post 100 receiving yards since 1996. Backup Nick Vannett tacked on 21 yards and a score in the rout.
  • Defensive backs: The secondary rarely lived up to its billing as the strength of the defense during the first half of the season, but since being publicly challenged by coach Urban Meyer, it has bounced back and, despite the loss of senior safety Christian Bryant to a season-ending injury, asserted itself as perhaps the best unit in the Big Ten. Doran Grant jumped a throw on the second snap of the game for an interception he returned for a touchdown to set an early tone, and the Buckeyes never let up in coverage as they combined with a tenacious pass rush up front to hold Purdue to 89 passing yards.
  • Kenny Guiton: Purdue’s old nemesis continued to add to his credentials as one of the nation’s best backup quarterbacks. Guiton was given almost a full half of work, and even lined up in the same formation with Miller for the second consecutive week, and again the offense never missed a beat. The senior captain completed 8 of his 11 throws for 59 yards and a touchdown, and he was explosive as a rusher in accounting for 98 yards and two more scores.

The Buckeyes could point to more feats if they wanted to, like how Meyer’s 21-game winning streak to start his tenure is the longest in college football since Larry Coker debuted with 24 straight wins at Miami in 2001-02. Or for another historical perspective, the Buckeyes have scored 50 points or more in consecutive games three times under Meyer -- and had done so only four times in 122 seasons before he arrived.

All that really mattered, though, was beating the next opponent and staying unbeaten, since that will ultimately be the only thing that determines their fate. But the Buckeyes had plenty of icing on the cake along the way.

OSU offense finally getting whole again

September, 27, 2013
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Braxton Miller & Carlos HydeJamie Sabau/Getty ImagesLast year, Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde drove the Buckeyes offense. This week, the duo returns.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The face of the program has spent more time in sweats than pads on game days.

Last year's top rusher and automatic touchdown machine in the red zone has played in only one game, and even then he was barely used.

An offensive line that needed to manage a couple of injuries coming out of training camp has been called on really only once for a full shift as a complete first-team unit.

And yet, as Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman glanced down at a box score to make sure his numbers were right after a wildly prolific performance he was comparing to a similar outing the week before, a smile started creeping across his face.

How much better can the No. 4 Buckeyes get on offense? Until they actually get everybody on the field, they might be only scratching the surface.

"Our offense has been rolling," Heuerman said on the heels of routing Florida A&M 76-0. "We had 603 yards [last week], I think we had 608 [against California], so these last two weeks, our offense has really been clicking.

"But seeing Carlos [Hyde] back out there was good, that's definitely a player who carries a big load with us. And I think getting Braxton [Miller] back this week will spark some things up."

The fire already has been burning pretty steadily for the Buckeyes early in the season, and Urban Meyer's spread attack has been ruthless and close to unstoppable while racking up more than 52 points per game outside of Big Ten play. And while the competition hasn't been all that stiff, Ohio State also has been working without two of its most critical contributors essentially throughout the first four weeks and has barely missed a beat.

There was time to plan for the absence of Hyde in the backfield, because his three-game suspension was handed down far enough in advance to make other arrangements at running back coming off his breakout, 17-touchdown junior campaign. But the knee sprain Miller suffered on the seventh snap of the second game had a chance to significantly disrupt what Meyer wanted to accomplish early in the season as Ohio State tried to build toward Saturday's meeting with No. 23 Wisconsin, particularly given how critical the junior quarterback was to the game plan last year on the way to a fifth-place finish in the Heisman Trophy race.

[+] Enlarge Jordan Hall
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsJordan Hall filled in admirably at running back, gaining 422 yards and scoring eight touchdowns.
And while Kenny Guiton has scribbled his name all over the school record books filling in for Miller, and Jordan Hall has emerged as one of the most productive rushers in the country at this point of the season, neither of them were held up as reasons the Buckeyes could contend for a national championship this fall. They both help make a compelling case for how much depth Meyer has at his disposal, but they were expected to play complementary roles for a reason -- and plugging the starters back in could produce some pretty scary things for defensive coordinators to think about.

"The expectation level on offense is real high," Meyer said. "We have some weapons, you know, and I kind of like where we're at.

"The best way to think about it is checkers. There are some pieces on the board, and I like the checkers that we have right now. So, it's just a matter of our staff putting them together at the same time, getting them healthy and making sure they're in great shape."

Putting two pieces with the skills of Miller and Hyde on the board actually might change the game completely as the Buckeyes get healthy and whole again offensively.

There was nothing wrong with checkers. But now they might be able to play some chess.

"I've never heard of having too many weapons being a bad thing," wide receiver Evan Spencer said. "We know as players that pretty much everybody can go in and get the job done.

"The sky is the limit for our offense. We've got so many weapons, and we can do so many different things, I mean, I can't even imagine all the things we can do."

They certainly haven't shown all they're capable of with the football yet, regardless of what the stats sheet has shown. Once again fully loaded, Heuerman and the Buckeyes might soon have even more reasons to smile.

Teammates expect Braxton Miller back

September, 9, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Maybe it was routine, maybe it was coincidence, but a couple of Braxton Miller's favorite targets just happened to roll into the training room around the same time he was rehabbing his knee sprain.

Philly Brown didn't even know exactly what the injury was his quarterback was receiving treatment for on Monday morning, perhaps one sure sign the wide receiver isn't concerned about it lasting long. Jeff Heuerman was aware of the specifics of the play the knocked Miller out, but the tight end also didn't seem all that worried after chatting with the focal point of the Ohio State offense.

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Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller has a history of quick recoveries, which has his teammates feeling optimistic.
While the coaching staff might not be quite as convinced yet that Miller will be on the field on Saturday at California as he worked through a 48-hour period to gauge the progress of a sprained MCL in his left knee, his teammates in the passing game clearly anticipate him being available to throw them the ball, regardless of his uncertain status early in the week.

"I saw him [Monday] morning; he was in here getting treatments, and I talked to him for a few minutes, so he's kind of taking it day to day," Heuerman said. "But Braxton is a tough a kid, and if he can play, he'll definitely be out there playing for the team. I know our trainers and our coaching staff will do everything they can to have him ready, and I know how bad he wants to be out there.

"If he can be out there, he'll definitely be out there."

Obviously neither Heuerman nor Brown are doctors, and coach Urban Meyer made clear that he wouldn't be rushing Miller back to the practice field or to a decision until a more clear picture of what he's dealing with develops. The first step was making it through the first two days after the injury, which in this case happened on the seventh snap of the opening drive of Ohio State's easy win over San Diego State on Saturday.

Miller didn't return to action after an evaluation in the locker room, though Meyer has indicated he could have put his star junior back behind center if he was needed. If not for that precautionary measure, Miller would have yet another example of the physical resiliency he has shown with the Buckeyes, filed away with his in-game return from big shots like he took last year at Michigan Sate or his remarkably rapid recovery from a hospital visit during the Purdue game last year back to the starting lineup the next week.

And if he's healthy enough for a similar turnaround this week, the Buckeyes won't stand in his way at game time on Saturday.

"If he's healthy to play and play like Braxton plays, which he's not your pocket quarterback and does a lot of things us ... he'll certainly go," Meyer said. "We are not saving him or holding back. This will be everything we've got to win the game.

"I just think we have to always have Plan B ready."

That hasn't been an issue for the Buckeyes, who haven't missed a beat with Kenny Guiton coming off the bench at times to relieve Miller during the program's current 14-game winning streak.

But despite Guiton's abilities to fill in and operate the spread offense without Ohio State needing to scale back its play-calling all that much, there is a reason Miller is the starter and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting last season. And for all the confidence those targets have in Guiton to get them ball just as well as Miller might, they are clearly expecting the latter to plow through that rehab they checked on Monday and resume throwing to them again pretty quickly.

"I'd be very surprised [if he doesn't play]," Brown said. "Braxton is a real hard worker, and I saw him earlier, he was in the training room rehabbing, so I expect him to do what a leader does. He'll be in the training room, and I think he'll be fine.

"I think it's basically if he's healthy, he's going to play if he feels good enough and confident enough with whatever the injury is -- I don't even know what it is."

Based on Miller's history of bouncing back quickly, the latest injury might not even last long enough for Brown to find out anything about it.
On Wednesday, the head coach and one player from each Big Ten Legends Division team participated in a spring football teleconference with the media. On Thursday, it was the Leaders Division's turn. Here are some notes and updates from the call:

Illinois
  • Head coach Tim Beckman said the junior college players he brought in helped with depth and age issues on his young team. "We have 40 football players that have never been in our spring football until this year," he said. Of the juco imports, Beckman said wide receiver Martize Barr has quick hands and good playmaking skills, both in the passing game and on kick returns; Eric Finney has earned a starting job at the Star linebacker position; Abe Cajuste is adding depth by playing both defensive tackle and defensive end; and Dallas Hinkhouse is making an impact at offensive tackle.
  • Beckman sung the praises of offensive lineman Corey Lewis, a sixth-year senior who has battled back from five knee surgeries and has become a team leader. "Corey Lewis comes to my office probably four or five times a week, just to talk," he said. "To me, he is what college football is all about." Beckman said that Lewis has "had a special spring" and hinted that he has earned a starting job.
  • Quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole will take most of the snaps in Friday's spring game so they can get more experience in the new offense. Beckman said Scheelhaase has "got a step in front" because of his experience, but the competition continues.
  • Scheelhaase on reasons for optimism in 2013: "Establishing an identity. That's something I don't know that we necessarily had last year, on offense or defense or as a team in general.
Indiana
  • Like many of you, head coach Kevin Wilson would like to know the new Big Ten division alignment. The reason? It's harder to recruit without being able to tell a prospect where he'll be playing his freshman season. Wilson added that if the league does indeed go to an East/West split, he'd like to see the Hoosiers placed in the East since they're located in the Eastern Time Zone.
  • Wilson said run defense and takeaways are two huge priorities for the Hoosiers' defense during the offseason. He noted that the Big Ten doesn't boast a large group of elite pass offenses, so IU must prepare better for run-driven attacks. Indiana finished last in the Big Ten in both run defense (231.3 ypg) and takeaways (13). Cornerback Greg Heban said the defense is working on takeaways every day in practice. "Every time the ball touches the ground, the defense is scooping it and scoring it," Heban said, "trying to give us a feel of what it's like."
  • Both Wilson and Heban praised the play of junior cornerback Tim Bennett this spring. Other spring standouts include linebacker T.J. Simmons, a freshman early enrollee, and Steven Funderburk, a junior-college transfer.
  • Heban called this "easily the best spring I've been around." He has seen more physical play and better effort on both sides of the ball, and the team also is having more fun than in past springs.
Ohio State
  • Head coach Urban Meyer said running back Rod Smith won't play in Saturday's spring game because he recently suffered a concussion. Before that, Meyer said Smith was one of the five most improved players on offense this spring. Meyer listed Carlos Hyde and Smith as the team's top two running backs, while Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball are even for the No. 3 spot.
  • Although the receivers have been better this spring -- especially Corey Brown and Chris Fields -- the depth is still nowhere near where it needs to be for Meyer's spread offense. "We’re way behind on quality of depth at that position," Meyer said. "That's a major, major concern." Moving Jordan Hall to H-back should help, and Meyer noted that the Buckeyes boast two good tight ends in Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett.
  • Buckeyes offensive tackle Jack Mewhort paid close attention to the way John Simon and others led in 2012. He's ready to take on a greater load this season. "I welcome that," he said. "I see that as an honor, being compared to a guy like John Simon. I also see it as a challenge. I feel the pressure to step up and get guys going in the right direction." Mewhort also has seen quarterback Braxton Miller recognize his leadership responsibilities more this spring and get after teammates when he needs to.
  • Meyer said he puts more emphasis on spring practice and the spring game than most coaches. He has told his players that there will be a depth chart after spring ends, and while changes are possible in the summer, they're not likely. "In spring ball, you're trying to win a spot," he said. "During the fall, we're trying to win games."
Penn State
  • Quarterbacks Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson are receiving equal reps during practice and, not surprisingly, have endured some ups and downs. Head coach Bill O'Brien praised both players' intelligence, noting that they aren't making mental errors during workouts. "These guys have had productive practices," O'Brien said. "Has every play been great? No. But the word patience is a very important word here. Coming from pro football, I definitely have to learn more patience with all these young players. I think I have, but I can do a lot better." Senior guard John Urschel, who was highly entertaining during the teleconference, said he's the wrong person to ask about quarterbacks but praised Bench and Ferguson for picking up the system and showing leadership.
  • Urschel said the first-team offensive line right now consists of himself and Miles Dieffenbach at guard, Ty Howle at center and Donovan Smith and Adam Gress at the tackle spots. Of Howle, he said, "I could talk about Ty all day. If you ask me, he's one of the most underrated players on our team. ... Honestly, when I got here, I thought Ty was the best offensive linemen in our year, of the seven of us." Urschel also said Dieffenbach "started a lot for us last year but really is starting to take his game to the next level."
  • O'Brien said Zach Zwinak would get the start at running back if the season opened now, but all three backs -- Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch -- have had good springs. Lynch, a redshirt freshman, has "improved every single day of spring practice."
  • O'Brien is excited about Penn State's starting linebackers -- Glenn Carson, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman -- but admits the lack of depth at the position is "something I think about 24-7." He said it's vital to get Carson, Hull and Wartman through the rest of the offseason healthy, and hope for contributions from others like Ben Kline and incoming freshman Brandon Bell. Penn State won't shift players to linebackers because "there’s really nobody to move" and will instead closely monitor reps the rest of the spring and in preseason camp.
Purdue
  • Head coach Darrell Hazell said the Boilermakers have made major improvements in the last three and a half weeks. "Anytime you put in three different schemes, there's a little bit of a learning curve for the first couple weeks," he said. "You could see guys start to really get comfortable the last five or six practices."
  • Hazell said he has "three capable guys" right now at quarterback with Rob Henry, Danny Etling and Austin Appleby. He reiterated that he would keep the competition open until two weeks before the opener at Cincinnati. Of Etling, a freshman early enrollee, Hazell said: "For a young guy, a guy that should be at his prom, I think he's got tremendous poise. He's smart and really studies the game."
  • Hazell said backup tight end Justin Sinz and center Robert Kugler are two guys that have really caught his eye this spring. He called Kugler a "very much a leader on the offensive line."
  • Cornerback Ricardo Allen said Hazell has instilled an "all is one" mentality. "If one person does something, we all have to do it. We all wear black socks. We all wear the same uniform. We all tuck our shirts in. I feel like we're becoming closer as a team, and it's helping us build."
Wisconsin
  • Head coach Gary Andersen confirmed Curt Phillips and Joel Stave have separated themselves in the quarterback competition. It's a "mixed bag" of who takes snaps with the first-team offense, but both will continue to rotate through the rest of the spring and into fall camp. "The way they've separated themselves is simply production," Andersen said. "They know exactly where they sit and so does the rest of the team. … If they put all their friendships aside, their depth chart would look exactly like our depth chart."
  • Andersen praised the offensive line for tackling another transition, as the group works with its fourth position coach (T.J. Woods) since the 2012 Rose Bowl. The line has seen varying looks from the defense in practice and had players move around to different positions, in part because of injuries. Wisconsin had only seven healthy linemen a week ago, but Andersen is hopeful the number will rise to nine or 10 by next week's spring game. "Those kids have grinded through it every single day," Andersen said. "They're a tough-minded group."
  • Badgers senior linebacker Chris Borland said losing defensive end David Gilbert to recurring foot problems is a blow but the team has others to step in like Tyler Dippel, Brendan Kelly and Jesse Hayes, a redshirt sophomore who has stood out this spring.
  • Much like his old boss Urban Meyer, Andersen believes in constant competition and declares winners and losers in each practice. Andersen also mixes in some fun with a dance-off and throwing footballs into trash cans. "Some of them are a little bit quirky, but through the years establish some things we like," he said.
  • Borland said the strength program has brought the biggest changes in the transition to Andersen's staff. Cardiovascular work is stressed more, as is preventative care. Head strength and conditioning coach Evan Simon operates at a faster pace and uses more of an instructional approach than Ben Herbert, who stressed motivation.
Recognizing the best and the brightest from Week 8 in the Big Ten:
  • Wisconsin RBs James White and Montee Ball: Ball was slowed by an ankle injury early, so the Badgers' "other" star tailback took up the slack. White had a career day, rushing 15 times for 175 yards and three touchdowns and masterminding the Wildcat in Wisconsin's 38-13 win over Minnesota. Then Ball got going late, too, finishing with 24 carries for 166 yards and two scores of his own. Must be nice to have that kind of backfield depth.
  • Ohio State QB Kenny Guiton: When Braxton Miller went down at the end of the third quarter against Purdue, the Buckeyes were in big trouble. They looked like they were toast when they trailed 22-14 with a minute left. But Guiton led the amazing comeback, first with a 39-yard pass to Devin Smith and then with a 2-yard touchdown throw to Chris Fields. Guiton also hit Jeff Heurman for the two point conversion to tie the score with three seconds remaining. The Buckeyes went on to win 29-22 in overtime, and Guiton joined Ohio State lore in the process. He may have to play a lot more going forward, if the Miller injury is as serious as it looked.
  • Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez: Little came easy for Martinez and the Huskers at Northwestern, but the junior stepped up in the clutch, leading two touchdown drives in the final eight minutes as Nebraska rallied for a 29-28 win. Martinez completed 27 of 39 passes for 342 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He added 65 rush yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, recording his second big game against Northwestern (this time, in a win).
  • Michigan kickers Brendan Gibbons and Matt Wile: Remember when Michigan's kicking game was the worst in the Big Ten? Feels like a long time ago. The Wolverines needed their kickers to be perfect in a 12-10 win against rival Michigan State. Wile hit a 48-yarder on his first collegiate attempt in the second quarter, while Gibbons went 3-for-3 on his tries, including the game-winner from 38 yards out with five seconds left. Brunette girls are smiling all over Ann Arbor again.
  • Penn State QB Matt McGloin: McGloin's magical senior season continued with a terrific night in Iowa City. McGloin ran Bill O'Brien's offense crisply and efficiently, finishing 26-of-38 for 289 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions, in the Nittany Lions' 38-14 win.
  • Penn State's defense: A rare sixth sticker goes out to the Nittany Lions' 'D,' which nearly pitched a shutout in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes didn't score an offensive point until the final five minutes and finished with just 191 yards (20 rushing). Jordan Hill, Michael Mauti and others had big games, but the entire defense played great.

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