BLACKSBURG, Va. – The Ohio State quarterback battle is over, but it was a former quarterback who stole the show for the Buckeyes in Monday night’s season opener.
Redshirt senior Braxton Miller — making his first career start at H-back following three years as OSU’s starting quarterback — rushed for 62 yards and caught 78, scoring twice as the Buckeyes (1-0) took advantage after a first-half scare to top Virginia Tech (0-1), 42-24.
“I love Braxton Miller,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said after the game. “He made a lot of decisions that young people have to, and he did it for the best interest of his team, and that’s just when I think about that, it makes you feel good.”
The biggest question surrounding the team throughout the offseason was answered when redshirt junior quarterback Cardale Jones took the field to begin the game. After the game, Jones said he was not aware of who the starter was until Meyer told him to take the field out of the sideline huddle.
Jones, who was entrenched in a battle with redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett throughout the spring and summer, had mixed results in his first career regular-season start, completing nine of 18 passes for 186 yards. The Cleveland product threw for two touchdowns and an interception, as well.
“I thought (Jones did) OK,” Meyer said. “I expect more. The turnover, you just don’t do that, throwing across, start scrambling around, but once again it’s a good team we played against, so we’ll take it and get better.”
Eluding a nearly constant Virginia Tech pass rush on the opening drive, Jones led an eight-play, 64-yard march. Jones ducked around a tackler and flung it to sophomore H-back Curtis Samuel in one-on-one coverage, who pulled it in despite a defensive pass interference call to give the Buckeyes the early advantage.
Virginia Tech received the ball first, but went three-and-out after an opening first-down pass along the sideline was confirmed after a replay review to be incomplete.
OSU’s second drive did not require a repeat performance from Jones, as junior running back Ezekiel Elliott took his first carry 80 yards to put the Buckeyes up by two scores less than nine minutes into the game.
The St. Louis native juked to his right through a hole up the middle and shook off a low tackle, and then it was off to the races.
Elliott more than doubled his rushing total from last season’s 35-21 loss against the Hokies, as he only had 32 yards on eight carries in Columbus in 2014.
After a missed field goal on each end — the latter being a missed 43-yarder by redshirt senior Duke transfer Jack Willoughby, who made his OSU debut — the first quarter came to a close with OSU leading 14-0 and 205-56 in yards from scrimmage.
However, the second quarter took a much better turn for the home crowd of 65,632 at Lane Stadium, as the Hokies shook off a first-play holding penalty to accumulate consecutive gains of seven, 15 and then a 51-yard score.
Virginia Tech redshirt senior quarterback Michael Brewer rolled out to his right and then threw the other way to junior fullback Sam Rogers, who caught the ball and eluded a pair of OSU tackles to find the endzone and cut the Buckeyes’ lead in half.
Unable to answer the momentum shift, Jones threw his first interception on the next drive on a tipped third-down pass. Virginia Tech redshirt junior safety Desmond Frye dove forward to catch the pick, giving the Hokies a chance to tie the game starting at their own 44-yard line.
Virginia Tech was not successful in knotting the game at 14, but it did move the ball forward 27 yards to enable sophomore Joey Slye to redeem his earlier miss with a 46-yard kick and narrow the deficit to 14-10.
OSU seemed poised to go into the half maintaining the lead, but a muffed punt by Elliott — a surprise returner for the Buckeyes — allowed the Hokies to keep the ball at OSU’s 38-yard line. They did not waste the opportunity, as a play later Brewer found sophomore wide receiver Isaiah Ford for 36 yards down to the 2-yard line.
After two unsuccessful runs, Brewer faked the handoff and rolled to his right, then threw to his left to redshirt senior tight end Ryan Malleck for the go-ahead score with 15 seconds left in the half.
After piling up 144 yards and two scores in their two opening drives, the Buckeyes accumulated just 114 yards and no scores in its next four, as the Hokies put up 17 unanswered points. Jones did not complete a pass in the second quarter, finishing the half 6-of-13 for 95 yards.
“I think the big thing is what was keeping them in the game. I don’t want to take anything away from them, but I felt like we were shooting ourselves in the foot,” senior offensive lineman Taylor Decker said. “A lot of their points came off turnovers, the muffed punt, we threw a pick here and there; it was just a matter of execution.”
The redshirt junior did not waste any time picking up his first completion since the first quarter in the second half, finding Miller for a 54-yard touchdown pass on the third play of the half following a 20-yard run by Jones.
“We went to the locker room, and we were down, but we pressed pause and we stepped up,” redshirt junior receiver Michael Thomas said.
On the following drive, a hit on Brewer from OSU senior defensive lineman Adolphus Washington knocked the redshirt senior out of the game with a left shoulder injury. The Hokies replaced him with redshirt junior Branden Motley.
The two offenses stalled after OSU’s half-opening score, as the next five drives ended without scores.
However, Miller, on the play following a Virginia Tech fumble, single-handedly ended the scoring drought with his second score of the half.
This time lined up at quarterback for the wildcat formation, Miller scrambled to his left and outran the rush to get into the open field. After being met by two Hokies players, Miller spun between the duo and carried it the rest of the way for a 53-yard run and an 11-point lead.
“That was a blessing to see him be able to do that and come back,” Thomas said. “It was hard for him, sitting out a whole year … And then to switch positions, I just loved to see him happy, loved to see him smiling again.”
After an interception by redshirt junior safety Tyvis Powell on the following drive, Jones put the game away with a 10-yard touchdown run, aided by a pair of pass interference penalties on the drive.
OSU held the advantage in total yards over the Hokies 567 to 320, including a lopsided 360 to 128 margin in rushing yards. After trailing 17-14 at the half, the Buckeyes routed the Hokies 28-7 in the second half.
Barrett did not see the field until OSU safely led by 18 midway through the final quarter. The Wichita Falls, Texas, product filled in for Jones on the final three drives, running for 40 yards before finding Thomas open in the end zone for a 26-yard score in his first series.
“It’s great being on a team that’s good,” Elliott said. “Just all of these guys around you are great players … Just do your job, and you can trust that the people around you will make plays.”
The Buckeyes are next set to make their home opener on Saturday against Hawaii. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at Ohio Stadium.