MADISON, Wis. — One quarterback opened the season as a Heisman Trophy favorite. The other quarterback has played like a Heisman frontrunner in his absence.
Not a bad problem to have at Ohio State, is it?
Braxton Miller is the unquestioned star of the Buckeyes’ show, but backup Kenny Guiton has played brilliantly the past two games, albeit against lesser teams. Guiton ranks tied for fourth in the country in passing touchdowns (13) and has thrown just two interceptions.
Miller, who has not participated since spraining his left knee two weeks ago against San Diego State, has been cleared to play this week when No. 4 Ohio State (4-0) plays host to No. 23 Wisconsin (3-1) at 7 p.m. CT in The Horseshoe.
Quarterback controversy? Not according to Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.
“I keep thinking I just love both those players,” Meyer told reporters at his weekly Monday news conference. “If Kenny was a better wide receiver than one of our receivers, he would be playing receiver. If Braxton was a better running back or something, but they are not.
“And so someone has to come off the field. I just haven’t decided how we are going to do it. I know Braxton, if he has a good week of practice, will start. We’ll see how practice goes this week.”
Guiton became the first Ohio State quarterback ever to throw 12 touchdown passes over a three-game span, tallying two following Miller’s injury against San Diego State, four against Cal and six against an overmatched Florida A&M team last Saturday. All of Guiton’s scores came in the first half against the Rattlers on the way to a 76-0 victory.
But those numbers are not indicative of which player provides Ohio State with the best opportunity to win games in Big Ten play, nor of the impact Miller can truly have on a game.
Miller, a junior, has been the team’s starter since his freshman season and finished fifth in last year’s Heisman Trophy voting. Miller (2,068 yards) is just 13 yards shy of becoming Ohio State’s all-time rushing leader among quarterbacks. He also ranks 10th on OSU’s career passing yards list (3,405 yards).
On Monday, Meyer said Miller was at “90 percent,” though he hoped his quarterback would be at full strength by the time kickoff arrived.
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said Ohio State’s quarterback situation wouldn’t change his team’s approach as it prepared for the game.
“I don’t think it matters,” Andersen said. “Whoever’s in there. One guy might do that better than the other. Here comes this guy or that guy or let’s expect this offense or that offense. It’s still a tough offense regardless.”
If Miller is indeed the starter, members of Wisconsin’s defense can take solace in knowing they have slowed the Buckeyes’ standout in past matchups. As a freshman two seasons ago, Miller threw for just 89 yards, though he passed for the game-winning touchdown in the final minute of a 33-29 victory.
A year ago, Miller completed 10 of 18 passes for 97 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions during Ohio State’s 21-14 overtime victory at Camp Randall Stadium.
Miller also ran 23 times for just 48 yards — a yards-per-carry average of 2.1. It was his lowest passing output of the season and his second-lowest rushing performance.
“I thought we did a really good job of keeping him in the pocket when we were pass rushing,” Badgers nose guard Beau Allen said. “We kind of did something different where, I’m not the biggest fan of this obviously, but we took some lighter, faster guys and put them in to try to keep him in the pocket. I thought we kind of rattled him. And then when he did escape the pocket, we did a great job of tracking him down.”
Badgers linebacker Chris Borland noted Wisconsin maintained control of the edges to not allow Miller to escape for long rushing gains. Miller’s longest run last season against the Badgers went for 10 yards.
Can the Badgers implement the same scheme despite operating out of a 3-4 base defense this season instead of a 4-3?
“Yeah, I think we have the personnel more so this year,” Borland said. “When we have four guys with their hands in the dirt, that’s a little harder to contain option looks, spread looks. The 3-4 works to our advantage. It’s really all the same guys back from last year.”
Saturday’s game will surely represent a contrast of styles. Ohio State ranks No. 4 in the country in scoring offense (52.5 points per game), while Wisconsin ranks 10th in scoring defense (10.5 points per game).
Wisconsin’s defense this season is predicated on being aggressive, but the Badgers will have to find a happy medium to avoid surrendering the big play — or several big plays against Miller’s fully healthy legs.
“You’ve got to contain the quarterback run game,” Andersen said. “But you’ve also got to understand they’re going to get theirs. They’re going to get some plays. The key is how do you react to the next play?”