Whether lined up as a quarterback or wide receiver, Ohio State junior quarterback Braxton Miller had no shortage of success running the ball against the Indiana defense in OSU’s 42-14 victory Saturday.
“It would be hard for me to say that wasn’t the best he’s ever run that I’ve seen him play,” coach Urban Meyer said of Miller following the victory.
On a day senior Carlos Hyde became the first running back to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season on a Meyer-coached team, it was Miller who stole the spotlight.
Miller led the Buckeyes with 144 rushing yards on just 13 attempts, the third game in his OSU career in which he averaged more than 11 yards per carry.
The quarterback ran for two touchdowns, and neither lacked theatrics.
He accentuated his first scoring run, a 37-yard scamper, with a somersault flip into the end zone over the right front pylon.
“I was just having a little bit of fun,” Miller said after the game.
OSU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman did not find the end of Miller’s touchdown run as enjoyable.
“He said he was just having fun out there, and I said, ‘Well, as long, you can have as much fun as you want, just don’t cost your team 15 yards,’” Herman said, who was worried about Miller picking up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the celebration.
Miller’s second touchdown run came on a play Herman named “Jazzy,” which began with Miller lined up on the left side of the field as a wide receiver and redshirt-senior Kenny Guiton in his place at quarterback.
Guiton started the play moving left toward Miller, but Miller came right on a reverse and took a pitch from Guiton. From there, Miller looked to pass but continued running forward and toward the right side of the field, capping the play by leaping and extending over a hit from a defender for a five-yard touchdown.
“It’s a run/pass option and (the Indiana defense) covered the routes actually really good,” Herman said. “(Miller) has a run/pass option to throw it to (junior tight end Jeff) Heuerman or run it in himself … he did a hell of a job finding the end zone.”
Meyer said he was “hoping (Miller) would throw it.”
“He’s a great athlete,” Meyer said of Miller. “I’d rather him not do that, but do what he’s got to do. He played really well today.”
It was important for the Buckeyes to have success from multiple rushing threats Saturday, as OSU went with a run-heavy game plan on a snowy, windy day at Ohio Stadium.
“I went out there in pregame warmups and (the weather) was certainly affecting a lot of the throws,” Herman said. “When Mother Nature tells you ‘Don’t throw the football,’ you better listen to her, because she’s pretty demanding when it comes to that.”
Still, on a day the Buckeyes ran the ball 39 times and only had 17 passing attempts, Miller completed 11 passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns.
Miller earned praise from Herman for three downfield throws that went for 25 yards or more: a 39-yard touchdown completion to junior wide receiver Devin Smith on a post route across the middle of the end zone, and two deep completions on seam routes by Heuerman for 34 and 25-yard gains.
“Three unbelievable throws that stick out,” Herman said.
Overall, Miller accounted for more than 64 percent of OSU’s total offense Saturday.
Miller’s game was not without its mistakes, though. He had two fumbles, one of which was recovered by Indiana freshman defensive tackle Darius Latham for a takeaway. He also had a pass tipped in the backfield by Hoosiers’ redshirt-sophomore cornerback Michael Hunter and intercepted by redshirt-senior safety Greg Heban.
“We got to protect the football better at our position,” Herman said. “I did a poor job of coaching him on that corner blitz that got tipped and intercepted, but the two fumbles from our position are certainly unacceptable.”
Overall, however, Herman said Miller has been playing the best football of his OSU career “by far” this season.
“(Miller) took a little step back against Illinois, didn’t have his greatest game, but I got asked if that was a cause for concern after that game and I said, ‘As long as it’s not a pattern,’” Herman said. “He prepared really, really well this week and played his you-know-what off, and yeah, I’m proud of him.”
Miller only played one series in OSU’s second game against San Diego State and missed the next two games after suffering a sprained MCL in his left knee. In nine games, Miller has completed 67.7 percent of his passing attempts for 1,626 yards, 19 touchdowns and four interceptions, while he has also rushed for 738 yards and five touchdowns.
“He’s a freak,” junior defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “He’s really developed as a passer this year, which was great to see because everyone knows his run threat. But you see him making passes that a lot of people can’t make, and I feel like he’s really starting to develop into that role of an NFL quarterback.”
Statistically, Miller’s last two games against Illinois and Indiana have been his lowest passing outputs of the season in terms of yards, with the exception of the San Diego State game, in which he only attempted two passes before leaving with injury. But in those two games, he has rushed for the same combined number of rushing yards, 328, as he had in his first five games back from injury.
“Good to see Braxton back out there looking like Braxton,” Hyde said. “I love to watch Braxton running the ball. He’s a very exciting player. Any minute, he can break off that long one or make somebody look silly, and it was exciting to be able to watch him.”
Miller will look to continue making big plays, and the Buckeyes (11-0, 7-0) will be looking to extend their school-record win streak to 24, when they travel to Ann Arbor, Mich., to play Michigan (7-4, 3-4) Saturday. Kickoff is set for 12 p.m.