Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
On a day when Ohio State was as inconsistent with the ball as it has been all season, one aspect of the Buckeyes’ offense was fairly steady: the running game.
Led by senior tailback Jordan Hall, who recorded his first-career 100-yard rushing game, OSU ran for 204 yards against Alabama Birmingham Saturday. All of the Buckeyes’ four touchdowns came on the ground, with sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller scoring twice and senior fullback Zach Boren and redshirt sophomore running back Rod Smith each barreling into the end zone once.
The OSU offense needed its rushing attack desperately Saturday, with the Buckeyes wide receivers dropping multiple passes and Miller struggling to hit his outside playmakers when they were open. OSU averaged 5.5 yards per carry in its 29-15 victory against UAB, with Miller either handing the ball off or taking off on his own nearly every time the Buckeyes entered the red zone.
It’s been that way in the majority of OSU’s four games, but Saturday, the Buckeyes were as balanced as they’ve been on the ground thus far this season.
Hall ran the ball 17 times for a career-best 105 yards, Smith totaled 24 yards on six carries and Miller, who had 56 rushing attempts on the season coming into Saturday’s contest, had a season-low 11 attempts Saturday.
OSU first-year coach Urban Meyer said spreading out the carries was in the game plan, but added that he isn’t going to limit Miller’s running ability just because the sophomore is the quarterback.
“We were very conscious of it,” Meyer said. “I’m exhausted talking about it, how many hits (Miller) takes and all that. He’s going to play quarterback in a spread offense, and we’re going to do what we’re going to go do to win a game. We’re not good enough to start worrying about (Miller’s carries).”
Hall spearheaded the Buckeyes’ rushing attack, but OSU went to Smith when they needed a score in the second quarter, trailing UAB, 9-0, and the redshirt sophomore delivered.
OSU gave Smith the ball on three-straight plays, and Smith answered the call with rushes of three yards, 12 yards and one yard, the last of which capped a 10-play, 75-yard drive with a touchdown.
That was by design, not happenstance, according to Meyer.
“He’s earned it. That was not a hit or miss and boy I hope this works out. He’s done it in practice. And he’s earned that right. So there’s no reluctancy at all to put him there,” Meyer said.
For the 6-foot-3, 228-pound backup who came out of high school drawing comparisons to former OSU running back and Heisman trophy winner Eddie George, Saturday’s performance was a long time coming.
It was only six carries, but to Smith, it wasn’t about the number of times he got the ball, it was when and where he got the ball that mattered.
Nearly all of Smith’s carries came close to the goal line in meaningful situations, and for a player that has had ball security issues in the past, it was a major step in the right direction.
“It just felt good. Finally the coaches are trusting me,” Smith said. “They’ve seen my work in practice, watching me work hard. Just on a daily basis me working hard in practice, I feel like I gained a lot of trust.”
There’s been no room for error for Smith or any of OSU’s running backs this season, with four players battling for playing time. No one’s job is safe, according to Smith, and it shows in practice.
“It’s intense. Every day, we’re out there competing, like, we’re trying to see who can be the best back of the day,” Smith said. “You can’t feel comfortable like you have your spot. You always have to go out there and compete in practice.”
As good as Smith and his fellow backs were Saturday, the ceiling for OSU’s running game production is even higher than the output it had against the Blazers.
“We ran the ball well, but we’ve got to execute better still. I felt like we should have put more points up (Saturday),” Hall said.
Redshirt junior running back Carlos Hyde is expected to play Saturday against No. 20-ranked Michigan State, giving the Buckeyes four running backs capable of carrying the ball with success. Hall will likely get the start, with Hyde and Smith relieving him when necessary, and freshman Bri’onte Dunn waiting in the wings.
“That day will be nice,” OSU co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said.
No. 14-ranked OSU is scheduled to play MSU Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in East Lansing, Mich.