Bill Rabinowitz?and Tim May
COLUMBUS: To Ohio State sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller, last year’s Michigan State game is a blur.
That probably is a good thing. If every play from that game remained a fresh memory, Miller might be scarred for life.
Last year’s Big Ten opener against the visiting Spartans was Miller’s second start. The first, against Colorado, had gone reasonably well.
Michigan State exposed Miller and Ohio State’s offense as overmatched in a 10-7 victory. Miller couldn’t generate anything on the ground. Repeated sacks resulted in a net rushing total of minus-27 yards.
Miller completed 5 of 10 passes for 56 yards. Thirty-three yards came on one pass, but that blip of progress was erased by an interception a couple of plays later. Coach Luke Fickell replaced Miller at the start of the fourth quarter with Joe Bauserman, who led the Buckeyes to their only touchdown with 10 seconds left.
As the Buckeyes (4-0) watched tape of last year’s game to prepare for the conference opener this year at Michigan State (3-1) on Saturday, Miller was struck by how small he looked in last year’s game.
“I looked at my body,” Miller said last night. “I was like 190 [pounds]. I was skinny. I’m more developed as a quarterback, and I’m trying to learn each day.”
Miller has gained 26 pounds of muscle since that game, but the biggest transformation has come between his ears. He has gone from hoping for success as an unready freshman to expecting success as a burgeoning sophomore.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence.”
With good reason. Miller is the nation’s 15th-leading rusher, averaging 110 yards. He’s 25th in all-purpose yards with an average of 299 a game.
“He’s a lot different now than he was,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. “It’s typical [progress] from year one to year two.”
Tight end Jake Stoneburner couldn’t even remember that Miller played last year against Michigan State, let alone started. He said Miller has made a 180-degree turn from a year ago, with leadership the biggest change.
“He’s more mature,” Stoneburner said. “[Knowing] when to run the ball and when not to. When to throw it and when not to. When to be assertive with some guys or assertive with coaches to say, ‘This is open’ or ‘This is not.’ Last year, he was really, really reserved. That’s probably the biggest progress he’s made.”
His value to the Buckeyes probably can’t be overstated. His ability to juke defenders can turn a nothing play into a touchdown. His throwing mechanics, though still not perfect, are much improved from where they were a year ago or even a few weeks ago.
Last week, Meyer began to give Miller the freedom to make changes in play calls.
On Saturday, as in 2011, Michigan State’s defense will provide a stiff test for Miller and the Buckeyes.
A year ago, the Spartans entered Ohio Stadium with the country’s top-ranked defense, though that was achieved against weak competition. This year, they rank sixth.
Miller said Michigan State excels at disguising their defense. The Spartans like to play man-to-man coverage with their excellent cornerbacks, Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard.
“This is a force-you-to-go-over-the-top defense,” Meyer said. “This is a defense that’s very physical. They’re going to devote a lot of people to stop the run. [Miller] is a big part of our run game, so there aren’t going to be as many seams.”
Miller said he looks forward to the challenge.
“We had a couple struggles,” he said, referring to last year’s game. “We’ve got it together now.”
Hyde expected back
Meyer said he expects junior running back Carlos Hyde to play Saturday.
Hyde suffered a sprained right knee on Sept. 8 against Central Florida. Although medical personnel have cleared him to return this week, he will wear a brace as a precaution, Meyer said. Hyde suffered a sprain of the medial collateral ligament.
“But he’s cleared,” Meyer said. “He’ll play.”
There should be times when Hyde, a power back, and Jordan Hall, a hybrid running back-receiver in the spread offense, will be on the field at the same time for the first time. They will join quarterback Miller, another important part of the running game.
Meyer said cornerback Bradley Roby (shoulder sprain) will play. A decision on safety C.J. Barnett (ankle sprain) will come later this week. Defensive lineman Michael Bennett (strained groin muscle) will make the trip, but the decision on whether to play for this first time this season likely won’t be made until Saturday.
Putting on a spread
It doesn’t take much memory power for Ohio State’s offensive players to recall their effort against Michigan State a year ago in a 10-7 loss.
“We didn’t do anything,” Stoneburner said.
But they will bring their new offense to Spartan Stadium to take on Michigan State and its successful defense. There is a sense, Stoneburner said, that the new offense should give the Buckeyes a chance.
“Their defense is incredible,” Stoneburner said. “It was incredible last year. It’s incredible this year. But they haven’t faced an offense like us. Braxton is a year older … and I think they are going to face something completely different. Our spread is rarely seen in the Big Ten, especially with a quarterback like him.”
Former Ohio State player Jason Winrow, 41, who died on Sunday at his home in Westerville, will be honored with a memorial service at 4 p.m. today at the Fawcett Center, 2400 Olentangy River Road.Winrow, a three-year starter on the offensive line and all-Big Ten his senior season in 1993, is survived his wife, Nancy, and three children. A benefit fund on their behalf has been set up, and donations can be made at any Chase bank.
Blocked punt? Not really
Punter Ben Buchanan was left with a black-and-blue souvenir from that punt blocked by Alabama-Birmingham.“My foot looks kind of like the Michelin Man’s right now,” Buchanan said earlier in the week. But calling it a blocked punt is technically inaccurate. Buchanan’s foot didn’t make it to the ball before UAB’s Calvin Jones knocked it away. Teammate Nick Adams picked up the ball and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown.“I didn’t even punt the ball,” Buchanan said. “I kicked the guy right in the shin. It was not a very pleasant feeling.”