Cody Cousino / Multimedia editor
EAST LANSING, Mich. – After the clock struck zero, a coach and his quarterback hugged near the end zone.
The quarterback was worn. Deep green grass stains smudged the back of his jersey and a couple black streaks striped his helmet. The coach wore a satisfied smile and a Scarlet windbreaker.
That was the scene between Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller following OSU’s 17-16 win against Michigan State. The win improved Buckeyes’ record to 5-0 on the year and earned them a No. 12 ranking in the Associated Press poll.
It wasn’t Miller’s best game – he turned the ball over three times – but the performance was good enough to earn his coach his first win in the Big Ten conference.
“I love Braxton,” Meyer said. “Braxton’s my guy. I got a great relationship with him, he’s family now. You spend this much time together and you see what these kids do, they’re family now.”
For Miller, the win represented how far he’s come as a football player and his development under OSU’s new coach.
Last season, the quarterback’s outing against the Spartans was disastrous. In his second career start, he completed five of 10 passes for 56 yards, with 33 yards coming on one play. He also threw an interception and was sacked four times, finishing the game with minus 27 yards on the ground. In the fourth quarter, he was put out of his misery and replaced with former quarterback Joe Bauserman, who led the Buckeyes to their only score of the game with only seconds remaining. OSU lost the game, 10-7.
“You watch the film last year and it was a deer in the headlights,” co-offensive coordinator Tom Herman said of his quarterback. “And for good reason. It was his second start, he’s whatever he was, 18 years old. He was 195 pounds and really didn’t know what he was doing.”
Corey “Philly” Brown, a junior receiver, recalled Miller being “confused.”
Saturday was by no means a perfect game, but it was a definite improvement.
In the second quarter Miller tried to force a ball in between coverage and was intercepted by sophomore safety Kurtis Drummond. He also lost a fumble in the second and fourth quarters.
“We’re not going to win many games on the road in the Big Ten turning the ball over three times,” Herman said.
But for Herman and Meyer the good outweighed the bad.
“Braxton came back with a vengeance this year,” Brown said.
Miller finished the game 179 yards and a touchdown through the air and 136 yards on the ground. In total, he accounted for more than 82 percent of OSU’s offense.
“There’s no doubt he’s the fuel in our engine,” Herman said.
The biggest play of the afternoon came late in the third quarter when the Buckeyes were trailing for the first time all game, 13-10. On first down, Miller threw the ball to sophomore receiver Devin Smith who caught the ball in stride and ran into the end zone for a 63-yard touchdown. The throw and catch marked the second time this year the pair hooked up for what turned out to be a game-winning score.
“It was crucial for us to get that score,” Smith said. “Miller played a heck of a game, he played his balls off and I’m proud of him.”
Miller paid the price for the victory, though. Meyer described the contest as “two sledgehammers going at each other” and there were times when it seemed like OSU’s quarterback was the target of some of the blows.
Miller appeared injured twice Saturday. He sat out for three plays after getting hit late out of bounce in the first quarter and in the fourth quarter – in a moment in which Meyer said his heart was “close to stopping” – Miller appeared to hyperextend his knee.
Miller fumbled the ball and stayed on the ground on the play, but after passing an ACL test he re-entered the game.
“Gutsy effort by our quarterback,” Meyer said. “He had some issues, but he’s tough. He’s banged up and just kept coming back.”
Smith was standing right over Meyer after the injury.
“(I was) hoping everything was all right, but knowing Braxton and his toughness and he wants to keep contributing to this football team, I knew he wasn’t gonna quit,” Smith said.
It’s not the first time Miller has been shaken up on the year. In OSU’s games against Miami (Ohio) and Central Florida, Miller needed medical attention. Some have questioned whether OSU is putting their quarterback – which has been the main cog in the Buckeye offense – at risk by running him too many times.
In OSU’s five games this year, Miller has averaged 18 carries per game.
But Herman said Miller has not been put in many high-risk situations.
“When a QB is on the perimeter, especially one as elusive as him, knock on wood, that’s really not a big injury area,” said Herman. “He’s gonna get banged, he’s gonna get hit and he’s gonna feel it in the morning, but I think when you get him out in space he’s got a chance to avoid some of those big hits.”
After the game, Miller dismissed the concerns about his injury.
“(My knee) is aching but I’m going to get it situated,” Miller said.
Next week, Miller and the Buckeyes are scheduled to return home to face the No. 21 Nebraska Cornhuskers (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) at 8 p.m.