Daniel Chi / Asst. photo editor
Ohio State sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller’s two career games against Illinois tell of very different stages in his development as OSU’s signal-caller.
Miller’s first Fighting Illini encounter occurred in the infancy of his time at the helm of the Buckeyes’ offense last season. The second start came more than a year later and, under the Ohio Stadium lights, his development was shown for America to see.
Miller delivered a 52-22 win for OSU (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) against Illinois (2-7, 0-5 Big Ten) with his arm and his legs – it was, perhaps, his most complete quarterbacking effort for the Scarlet and Gray to date. He was poised in the pocket, completing 12-of-20 attempts for 226 yards and two touchdowns. As always, he was ready to run, and did, compiling 73 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.
Back in the Horseshoe, Miller delivered crisp, on-target passes throughout the game. OSU junior wide receiver Corey Brown said he’s become accustomed to Miller’s throwing prowess.
“That’s Braxton,” Brown said. “At practice, those are regular throws.”
That’s Miller now, anyway.
He delivered a victory against the Fighting Illini last season, too, but under much different circumstances. That first meeting with Illinois, an Oct. 15, 2011 game in Champaign, Ill., is perhaps the furthest cry from the player he’s become.
Last season against Illinois, Miller was anything but confident, and then-head coach Luke Fickell and offensive coordinator Jim Bollman didn’t trust him as a passer. Miller attempted just four passes in last year’s game – his lone completion was an end zone-bound flick to then-junior tight end Jake Stoneburner for 17 yards and a touchdown.
With Miller in his third career start for the Buckeyes, Fickell and Bollman took the pressure off his arm and placed it on his legs, as well as the legs of the running backs – OSU carried the ball on 51 of its 55 offensive plays as the team escaped the Prairie State with a 17-7 win against Illinois.
Brown recalled last year’s meeting with Illinois, saying that, despite the win, he left Champaign feeling queasy because of the offense’s performance.
“We had one completion for a touchdown – that’s kind of self-explanatory,” Brown said. “We all walked away from that game feeling sick.”
Saturday showed how far Miller has come from that day in Champaign during the 2011 season.
In the second quarter, Miller threaded the needle to Stoneburner, now a senior, on two occasions, found Brown in space and, on what might have been his best pass of the season, hit redshirt sophomore running back Rod Smith in stride on his way to the end zone for a 51-yard touchdown reception.
All the while, the threat of Miller taking off and running loomed large for the Illinois defense. For the Buckeyes, that same threat was a luxury item – it was there if they needed it. In 2011, Miller’s rushing was a necessity.
The difference between Saturday’s and last year’s game against the Illini, Miller said, was experience.
“Getting my feet under me and staying under control,” Miller said. “It works out.”
First-year OSU coach Urban Meyer said he sees room, and a need, for continued improvement from Miller as a passer.
Specifically, Miller needs to improve in the dropback pass, Meyer said.
“The area we’re not efficient enough is the dropback pass, and we have to while he’s not a dropback passer,” Meyer said. “The play action game is pretty solid. That’s what you see. Those plays, those aren’t dropback passes … we’re just not there yet.”
In the midst of Meyer’s call for improved passing, there’s also an acknowledgement of Miller’s growth, especially considering the seemingly-stagnant 1-of-4 passing performance in Champaign last year. Just ask Brown, OSU’s leader in receptions and receiving yards.
Brown lauded Miller for his tremendous improvement since that game.
“(Miller’s a) very accurate passer now,” Brown said. “If teams are preparing for just his feet, he can beat you with his arm now.”
OSU will have a bye week this weekend before resuming play at Wisconsin Nov. 17. Kickoff time for the game against the Badgers has not been announced. The Buckeyes will return to Ohio Stadium for the Nov. 24 season finale against Michigan.