August 26, 2014

Buckeyes Grab Big Ten Opener Behind Braxton, Front Seven

Coming into this matchup, the Buckeyes’ first road game of the season, Urban Meyer and his team were underdogs against the stout defense of the Spartans. Coupled with MSU running back Le’Veon Bell, I was buying into this being a game which the Buckeyes would end up on the wrong side. But, Braxton Miller carried the offense while taking several bumps and bruises along the way and the defense slowed Bell as the Buckeyes took the conference opener 17-16 against Sparty.

Many, including yours truly, believed we were in for a defensive struggle, so it was a tad surprising when both teams scored on their opening drives. The Buckeyes took the ball and marched down the field on the legs of Braxton Miller. The Buckeye QB, however, did not finish the drive as he was clipped low for a personal foul while heading out of bounds and slammed into an equipment container. Kenny Guiton then finished the drive off with a pitch and a couple of handoffs to Jordan Hall, who went over the top and into the end zone to give the Bucks a 7-0 lead. The Spartans got into field goal range on the arm of Andrew Maxwell, who found Columbus Ohio’s Le’Veon Bell on three passes as Dan Conroy banged through a 34-yarder.

That was all the scoring for the first half. For Ohio State, it was some questionable reads by Braxton Miller that shifted momentum and prevented any further scoring. In the first half, Miller made the incorrect read on the read option several times, pulling the ball from Hall when he should have allowed him to take it up the middle. It’s easy to understand why Braxton feels that way, since his burden is so heavy with this offense. But, for this team to take it to the next level, Miller has to start trusting others, especially his running backs. That goes double for the team’s best back in Hall, who clearly has the most playmaking ability. The Buckeye signal-caller also made a painfully poor decision on his lone interception, trying to squeeze the ball into Corey “Philly” Brown and instead having it picked off on a stellar play by safety Kurtis Drummond.

Later in the second, it was cornerback Bradley Roby who put the “Freak Show” in the headlines again with a blocked punt. It’s the second play Roby has made in the punting game this season as he recovered an errant snap in the UCF game for a touchdown. Roby also made 9 tackles to lead the team and was credited with 2 broken up passes. On a defense that sometimes underwhelms, Roby is a flatout secondary star and future first-round NFL draft pick, though he was flagged 3 times in this game. Following that punt block, though, Miller coughed the ball up and gave the ball right back to MSU. The momentum shifted yet again when Conroy’s 42 yard attempt near the end of the half missed.

The teams traded early second half field goals, but it was a Maxwell-led drive, coupled with poor Buckeye tackling creeping into the fray again. On a rollout dink to receiver Keith Mumphery, the Buckeyes went for the strip of the ball on several occasions rather than wrapping up and tackling. Sabino, Bryant, Howard, and Johnson all could have made a play on this one and didn’t.  Thankfully, it did not cost them the game, but it was an eye-opening, head-scratching moment from this game.

Braxton’s most glowing accomplishment from this game absolutely had to be his answer immediately following this score. Following a tough first down pickup on third and short on the legs of Miller, he used his arm and launched a 63-yard bomb to the team’s deep threat, wide receiver Devin Smith. It was one of the best and most efficient passes that I’ve ever seen Miller make as he hit Smith completely in stride and Smith was able to power through the attempted tackle as the defensive back was falling down. Even though Braxton’s vision is not HD-quality yet, that throw was an absolute beauty. If Braxton can step into his throws and launch lasers 40 yards like that while hitting his receivers in stride, well, we have a fun two and a half years in store for us as Buckeye fans.

This was the last Buckeye score of the game, but that may have been fitting because of the defense’s starring role in this game. The much maligned defense contained their painful miscues to a minimum and were able to force the punts when they were needed. The front seven was solid, as they led the charge with holding Bell to just 36 yards in the final 26 minutes of the game. Bell finished with 17 carries for 45 yards with a longest rush of 8 yards. He actually did more damage in the passing game, catching 8 for 58 with a long of 13. It’s hard to pick out a star, but I’m going to go with Johnathan Hankins. He had just 3 tackles (all assists), but Hank repeatedly blew the center off the ball and allowed the linebackers to get into the level of the O-line with little resistance. Shazier and Sabino, with 8 tackles apiece, have the defensive line to thank for that.

The Buckeyes got the ball with four minutes remaining and never relinquished it. That was thanks to Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde picking up key first downs late. On that drive, Kirk Herbstreit rightly pointed out right tackle Reid Fragel’s contributions in those first downs. Fragel also fell on a Brown fumble that prevented another momentum change. The offensive line really did their part in this one, being an integral part of 204 yards rushing. Braxton led that charge with 23 carries for 136 yards with Hyde adding 49 and Hall contributing 26 and a touchdown. In the passing game, Braxton connected on 16-of-23 for 179 yards and 1 touchdown. Receiver Philly Brown caught 12 passes for 82 yards.

Ohio State felt the pain in this game as Hall injured his knee in the second quarter and did not return. Also, Miller went down for a while on multiple occasions, the most horrifying being the fourth quarter fumble where he appeared to hyperextend his left knee as he coughed the ball up just before hitting the ground. Braxton’s 23 carries concern me, because I don’t see how he makes it through an entire Big Ten slate with 20+ carries each game. Hopefully, Hall can get back soon and the duo of Hall and Hyde can ease some of his rushing burden.

OSU is now 5-0 and take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers next Saturday night in The ‘Shoe, who are fresh off a 17-point come-from-behind win against Wisconsin at home.

(Photo: Al Goldis/AP)