COLUMBUS: Saturday’s announced spring game crowd of 81,112 in Ohio Stadium seemed inflated.
Despite the stream of cars traveling south on Interstate 71, the wait for parking spots at a rest area outside Columbus and traffic on campus more befitting a frenzied fall morning, the attendance figure sounded suspicious in light of the 78,526 fans who showed up for Alabama’s A-Day on April 15.
But when it came to the state of the Buckeyes’ passing game, first-year Ohio State coach Urban Meyer felt no need to impose any positive spin.
“What we don’t know, and unfortunately even after this spring game I still don’t know, can we throw the ball?” Meyer said. “We’re taking one of the worst passing teams in America a year ago and we’ve got to find out if we can do that.”
It was an honest and startling assessment after starting quarterback Braxton Miller led the Scarlet to a 20-14 victory over the Gray.
Miller completed 24-of-31 passes for 258 yards with one interception. Half of his completions (for 131 yards) went to Michael Thomas, a true freshman from Woodland Hills Taft High School in Los Angeles and Fork Union Military Academy.
Asked what he had to do to impress Meyer, Miller said, “I have no clue, just keep working.”
As for what he wants to work on, Miller said: “More leadership and making better decisions. Everybody tells me when you walk in the Woody [Hayes Athletic Center] act like a leader, act like a QB.”
It had to disturb Meyer that after Miller went 4-for-4 for 51 yards on a 65-yard touchdown drive on the Scarlet’s first possession, Miller looked erratic.
Miller and backup Kenny Guiton were instructed not to run, but Miller took some coverage sacks and was credited with 10 rushes for minus-19 yards. Miller was picked off by sophomore defensive back Adam Griffin on a badly overthrown ball. A defender tipped one of Miller’s completions into the hands of tight end Nick Vannett.
Meyer is looking at the big picture, and there are some ugly statistics he cannot skew.
Last year, Ohio State ranked 107th in the nation in total offense out of 120 teams. Its 318.5 yards per game average put it in the same embarrassing territory as Akron (115th, 277.75) and Kent State (119th, 253.5).
The Buckeyes’ passing game was even worse, their rating of 115th besting only Temple, Eastern Michigan, UNLV, Navy and Army.
Even though Ohio State is banned from participating in a bowl this season as part of NCAA sanctions, Meyer still feels the urgency to transform the passing attack. He showed just how serious he was Saturday, standing behind the offense for the entire game, about 5 yards behind the quarterback.
His predecessor, Jim Tressel, was known to venture onto the field during spring games in his 10 years, but never spent as much time on the turf as Meyer did.
“Throwing the football is like anything, you can get better and better and better,” Meyer said. “You teach off the videotape, that was the purpose today.”
Meyer went so far as to grade Miller, a sophomore from Huber Heights Wayne outside Dayton, like an NFL scout would.
“Release, I’ll give him an A,” Meyer said. “Arm strength, I’m probably going to say a B, but I’m very critical. Accuracy, a C to B, we’ve got to get him more accurate, but he’s getting better. He had a very productive spring, but we grade our guys real hard. He’s got a lot of talent.”
He didn’t get as detailed with Guiton, a junior from Houston.
“Kenny Guiton is a much-improved player,” Meyer said. “His arm strength is there; he doesn’t let it go for some reason. His accuracy is not bad, but he doesn’t let it go. We have to figure out why. He threw a pick today, if he lets it go it wouldn’t have been a pick.”
Meyer is also looking for playmakers. Although the posting of his first depth chart is a week away, he listed his top six, in order, as running back Jordan Hall, tight end Jake Stoneburner, running back Carlos Hyde, receiver Corey “Philly” Brown, Thomas and receiver Devin Smith.
“We identified our chiefs and we also identified our strengths,” Meyer said. “I just told ’em, ‘It has to be the best offseason in the history of college football. That has to happen and it starts Monday.’ ”
Meyer didn’t sound like he was talking about lifting weights and studying the playbook. The underlying theme was that the Buckeyes must learn how to throw and catch, and the sooner the better. His reputation is riding on it.