COLUMBUS, Ohio — Critical areas and key players to watch as No. 4 Ohio State and Iowa return from bye weeks and dive back into the Big Ten season on Saturday at the Horseshoe (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2). Something has got to give: In a classic strength-against-strength showdown, there can only be one winner. Iowa has had one the stoutest rush defenses in the nation so far this season, and it has put up a brick wall in front of the end zone through six games, refusing to allow a single touchdown on the ground. The Buckeyes are averaging more than 280 yards per game running the football, and Carlos Hyde is as close to a sure bet to score in the red zone as there is in the country. Ohio State is well aware of the job the Hawkeyes did in slowing offenses down in the first half of the year, and it has taken it as a personal challenge to break that scoring streak that the Hawkeyes are bringing with them on the road.
Better Braxton: Both uncharacteristically hesitant as a rusher and careless with the football, Braxton Miller had two items at the top of his bye-week checklist after a rocky outing in a victory over Northwestern — make sure his knee is totally healthy and keep a vice grip on the ball. Miller admitted that he wasn’t quite feeling “like his old self” entering the off date, and the extra time to rehab and rest his left knee following two physical outings since returning from his early-season sprain should provide a boost for the Buckeyes. As for the pair of fumbles, Ohio State coaches went so far as to have him keep a football in his hands during stretching to emphasize ball security moving forward, and Miller should have plenty of opportunities to prove that lesson has been learned.
+ EnlargeJerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsBraxton Miller is taking steps to be more protective of the ball after two fumbles at Northwestern.On the line: For all the attention the Hawkeyes have received for their work against the rush, the Buckeyes have actually been even better as their rebuilt defensive line has zipped through the development process and anchored a unit that currently ranks sixth in the nation, allowing 86.2 yards per game. With defensive tackle Tommy Schutt returning from a broken foot to play his first game of the season on Saturday and end Adolphus Washington getting healthier after groin and ankle injuries, Ohio State might actually get even stingier with more depth and talent on the defensive line. Iowa’s rushing attack hasn’t been nearly as productive as Ohio State’s, but establishing a presence on the ground will be a priority as Iowa will try to set up play-action passes and attack an inconsistent secondary. Island living: The draft stock Bradley Roby came back to improve this season hasn’t exactly suffered during the first half of the season, but it also hasn’t soared yet. The redshirt junior cornerback hasn’t been as consistent in locking down receivers in one-on-one situations as he was a year ago during his breakout campaign, but when he’s on his game, few in the country are more capable of shutting down a side of the field and refusing to allow a target room to operate. Through five games since returning from suspension, Roby has 28 tackles and two interceptions and came up with a crucial blocked punt for a touchdown against Northwestern…
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The ability to make all the throws was always evident. Tom Herman had seen the impressive arm strength plenty on the practice field, and for some of the criticism the Ohio State offensive coordinator’s prized pupil has taken for his accuracy, Braxton Miller is more than capable of fitting a football into a tight spot.
+ EnlargeAndrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsBraxton Miller’s four touchdown passes against Wisconsin were a display of the wide variety of throws in his arsenal.But even if a quarterback has the necessary skills to deliver any pass in Herman’s playbook, it won’t mean much without the confidence to actually pull the trigger when the time comes. And with one perfectly-placed, back-shoulder touchdown throw on a secondary read against a stout defense, Miller provided a perfect example of the difference it makes when those two traits are combined into one dangerous package. “I think it’s a throw he wouldn’t have made,” Herman said. “He could have made it, absolutely could have. He wouldn’t have made it, because he didn’t trust himself.
“He didn’t trust what he saw, he didn’t trust when he saw it, he might have seen it a split-second too late, he might not have trusted the fact that what he was seeing was reality. But the kid physically is not much different than he was last year.”
Miller was no slouch as a sophomore, and he’s got plenty of hardware from the Big Ten, a fifth-place finish in the Heisman Trophy race and a perfect record from a year ago to show for it.
But there was also clearly room for him to grow and develop as a passer after completing just more than 58 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns against six interceptions. Herman and Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer delivered that message to Miller early and often in the offseason after defenses had started to adjust to his threat on the ground late last season by loading the box and daring him to throw.
A knee sprain suffered on the opening drive of the second game this season had largely kept him from showing off his improvements in that area, but three first-half touchdowns against the Badgers put it on full display in front of a national audience in primetime, each touchdown showcasing the strides in his game.
There was a bullet thrown across his body on a play-action rollout for a 25-yard strike to Evan Spencer, which was followed up working through his progression to Devin Smith on the second touchdown of the game. And just before halftime, he looked off the coverage to the right, stepped up in the pocket and fired a bomb to the left for a 40-yard connection with Philly Brown — the throw that Miller himself pointed to as one he wouldn’t have made a year ago.
“I probably would have checked it down to Carlos Hyde or something like that,” Miller said. “Just going through my reads and being comfortable with the offense and knowing where everybody is at, that’s a big advantage.
“Last year, we didn’t really know how to run routes, I really wasn’t comfortable with the playbook as much as I am right now. It just takes time, offseason working with the guys to get time and placement with the ball and outcomes like that in the game can happen all the time.”
That’s obviously the plan, and if Miller can continue to put up efficient, productive outings like he did against the Badgers with his arm, an already explosive rushing attack could become even more of a handful.
Even for all those positives, though, the work still isn’t done. Miller made at least one throw that could have been an interception, wasn’t flawless with his decisions and also left some yards on the field by scrambling horizontally instead of looking to get down the field.
But the overall progress was hard to ignore.
“Graded out well, but not great,” Herman said. “Certainly better than probably what I had expected, which was a positive.
“Mentally and consistency with his mechanics and footwork, all that is 10 times better than it was.”
Now he’s got some throws on film to prove it.
Ohio State defeated Wisconsin on Saturday night, but in the process the No. 3 ranked Buckeyes (USA Today poll) lost senior captain and starting safety Christian Bryant for the season. Bryant broke his left ankle with 30 seconds left in the game after tackling Badgers running back James White on a third-down play. When discussing what Bryant means to his squad, a frustrated Urban Meyer was visibly upset as he pounded the podium. “We lost our captain,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported Meyer saying. “He has a broken ankle, and it’s just tough news. It’s the hardest part of this whole job, man.” Ohio State already has overcome an injury to its offensive leader, quarterback Braxton Miller, who missed almost three full games with a knee injury. The Buckeyes (5-0, 1-0 in the Big Ten) travel to face No. 15 Northwestern (4-0, 0-0) in a primetime conference showdown on Saturday.
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