COLUMBUS, Ohio — Three games in, Urban Meyer’s Ohio State offense is still very much a work in progress.
It’s also one that makes the most progress when speedy sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller takes the snap and just makes something happen.
That’s both good and bad news for the 16th-ranked Buckeyes. The good news is that evolution continues with new formations, a new tempo and a spread look that creates running lanes for Miller. The bad news is that opposing defenses already are keying on Miller and that he’s taking a bunch of hits.
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Miller has run for 377 yards and five touchdowns in three games, meaning defenses are chasing more than they’re actually hitting him. And Miller was good enough running and throwing last week to earn Big Ten Player of the Week honors for his efforts in a too-close-for-comfort win over Cal, when he threw a career-high four touchdown passes and ran for another in a 35-28 win that was more a matter of survival than work of art.
The same can be said for the state of the offense, which is still run-heavy with Miller and not where it wants to be with the passing game. Meyer said he noticed Miller was cognizant that he took too many hits in the first two weeks of the season and seemed to be trying to force passes rather than trust his instincts and just go.
“I had a talk with him, and that was my responsibility,” Meyer said. “I came out and said it’s too much (running), it’s too much. It’s getting back to him. He just needs to play the game.
“He is a young player. It’s not (his) job to evaluate. Go play and we’ll make it work. So we’ll need him to carry the ball a lot. He has to carry the ball for us.”
The Buckeyes are searching for balance on several fronts — between the run and the pass, for someone else to carry the ball into the second level of the defense and for enough explosive plays out of the passing game to make defenses pay for committing too many players and devising schemes specifically designed to contain Miller.
Miller carried 17 times for 161 yards vs. Miami (Ohio) in the opener, 27 times for 141 yards vs. Central Florida and then 12 times for 75 yards last week, with 55 of those coming on an early highlight-reel touchdown. The coaching staff wants to keep him away from the big hits but knows the offense is best with Miller challenging defenses — and usually beating them — on the perimeter. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman acknowledged that 27 carries was too many but 12 is not and said the Buckeyes won’t hesitate to keep calling Miller’s number if he’s the best option.
“We have to be able to fit the scheme to the personnel,” Herman said. “He’s, obviously, by far the most dynamic kid I’ve ever coached at that position. You get tempted because he’s so elusive with his feet . . . to say, ‘Let’s just get in an empty backfield and run him.’ And then, if they pack the box, we’ll throw it.
“You hope that temptation can be tempered in the game plan every week. When is the right time to do it? I think we did a decent job of managing that against Cal. Everybody talked about the 27 carries against Central Florida, and I don’t know off the top of my head how many of those were called runs, but not a lot of them. A lot were scrambles.
“You go into the game saying he can really help you win the game with his feet, but you have to then be cautious of how often you ask him to do that, too.”
Maybe it’s been circumstance more than anything that’s made Miller the go-to runner. Starting running back Carlos Hyde suffered a knee sprain against Central Florida and is out at least another week. Jordan Hall, a senior who probably fits best in the pivot/slot position, saw his first game action vs. Cal after missing the entire preseason following a freak foot injury over the summer. Young backs Bri’onte Dunn and Rod Smith didn’t get a carry last week with Hyde out, a sign that Meyer doesn’t quite trust them yet in a tight game.
“We’re trying to figure out who can touch the ball and take it a little bit, break a tackle and do something with it because we see other guys doing it,” Meyer said. “We don’t do that enough. We don’t break enough tackles. We need some highlight reels on Ohio State, other than Devin Smith making a great catch. So we need to see some highlight reels other than Braxton Miller and Devin going up and making a play.”
Both Meyer and Herman said Cal employed defensive schemes in the game the Buckeyes didn’t see from one season-plus of Cal film. Because Cal held Miller to 75 yards rushing — essentially half of what he averaged in the first two games — there’s a good chance Ohio State will see those schemes again.
“Cal had a spy on Braxton the whole game,” Ohio State fullback Zach Boren said.
Said Herman: “I’ve seen defenses the last (two) weeks that I never even dreamt of in my mind.”
The Buckeyes adjusted and will continue to adjust. They’ll keep running Miller, too, though the emergence of Smith and some semblance of a downfield passing game will be a plus. So, too, will Hall shaking off the rust, Hyde getting back and maybe the younger players proving that they’re ready.
It’s an Ohio State offense full of potential weapons that now has one. He’s just a sophomore, he wears No. 5 and he’s very, very fast.
“Braxton is going to run the ball,” Boren said. “Trust me.”
Said Meyer: “It’s rather obvious he’s going to have to carry the ball a lot for us.”