In the season opener, you expect an inferior opponent and a lack of focus to come into play at some point for the heavy favorite. The only problem was, against the Buffalo Bulls (4-8 last year), the Buckeyes cut the engines a bit after cruising out to a 23-0 first quarter lead. The offense looked phenomenal, frankly unstoppable, to start. But, some careless turnovers, some key leaders missing on defense, and that aforementioned lack of focus contributed to the Bulls closing the gap before Ohio State eventually pulled away for the 40-20 win at the Shoe to open the 2013 campaign, one full of lofty expectations.
The most warm takeaway from this game has to be the development of Braxton Miller’s passing game. For extended stretches today, Miller looked like a night-and-day comparison from his 2012 self. He hit receivers in stride, he didn’t scramble at the first sight of trouble, and he surveyed the entire field instead of just working half the field for a given play. Miller connected on the first two drives of the season, capping them off with touchdown tosses to Devin Smith (47 yards) and Chris Fields (7 yards).
Miller looked far more comfortable in the medium and deep passing game, using his legs to set on throws much more effectively and keeping a fluid throwing motion, rather than loading up off balance. It’s going to be a constant battle of when Miller should keep surveying the field and when he should tuck it and run, but the fact that he can become more dual threat puts everyone on notice as they scout and prepare for the Heisman hopeful who leads this diverse offensive attack. Miller was 15-for-22 for 178 yards and found six different receivers on the day with five grabbing two or more passes. I think this team finally has some freshman who can make immediate impact at the skill position as well as those skill players who were asked to contribute last season now having the experience needed to make the expected impact. Miller also ran for 77 yards (108 if you take out the sacks) on 17 carries, but much of that positive yardage was in the second half on a 40-yard run that came deep in OSU territory.
With both incumbent starter Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith suspended for the opener, senior Jordan Hall, a returnee thanks to a medical redshirt from last year, got the start today, and he produced in a big way. Perhaps Urban’s comments about Hyde having to win back the starting spot following his three-game suspension weren’t just lip service, because Hall looked like the total package today. Hall broke off touchdown runs of 49 and 37 yards for scores in the first half, and with a workload of 21 carries for 162 yards showed that he is 100% back from that PCL injury. Thankfully, even with their missing backs, OSU sports one of the deepest backfields in the country as redshirt freshman Warren Ball and true freshman Dontre Wilson and Ezekiel Elliott all got carries this afternoon out of the backfield too. This complement of backs coupled with the four senior offensive lineman should keep the Bucks plowing forward on the ground. Wilson’s burst is undeniable as he took the first reception out of the backfield for 18 yards and nearly broke it for a score, though he did fumble once on the day. With four touches for 29 yards and a 51-yard kickoff return, I cannot wait to see more of #1 as the weeks unfold.
On the first two Buckeye scores, the Buckeyes not only lined up in an odd spread formation before the PAT, they actually snapped it and successfully went for two points twice. Both times, backup quarterback and cult hero Kenny Guiton was the artist. On the first attempt, he took the snap with Drew Basil throwing a block (or, more accurately, getting blasted by a Buffalo defender) and ran it in. On the second attempt, he threw it out to the left side and Jordan Hall slipped in for the two-pointer. Gution also led a key late third quarter touchdown drive after Miller temporarily left the game with cramping (and he was far from the only one). Having a backup like Guiton is so key to a team looking to do what Ohio State is. Guiton can fill in for a drive, a quarter, and even a game without the offense grinding to a screeching halt, and his veteran leadership is so valued that he’s a captain this season (not something you normally see for a backup quarterback).
The most frustrating thing on the afternoon for the offense, outside of the two turnovers, was the play of right tackle Taylor Decker. A sophomore who has the task of replacing converted tight end-turned All-conference performer Reid Fragel, Decker got absolutely man-handled on the outside by Bulls linebacker Kahlil Bell and gave up multiple sacks and caused a Miller fumble that he had to recover. With four returning senior starters, Decker is no doubt going to be the guy most picked on by opposing teams, but I was baffled by just how many times he got outright shoved back into Miller, destroying the pocket. If that becomes a recurring theme, Miller will have to go back to moving that pocket more often than Urban wants.
Yes, the Buckeyes allowed 20 points to Buffalo. Six of those, however, were the result of a pick-six by Buffalo’s Bell, who shedded a block by left tackle Jack Mewhort and found himself standing right in the path of where Dontre Wilson was to receive the screen pass. He took it to the house, outrunning both Miller and Wilson, no small feat. Buffalo’s first scoring drive started at the OSU 44 and was aided by a silly personal foul penalty on corner Armani Reeves, starting for the missing Bradley Roby, for shoving a Buffalo player out of bounds. The touchdown crossing route was a blown coverage between linebacker Curtis Grant and safety replacement starter Corey “Pittsburgh” Brown, filling in for the injured senior C.J. Barnett. Overall, Buffalo gained just 258 yards (just 73 on the ground) and the Buckeyes committed a lot of penalties (9 for 94 yards) with most of those coming on the defensive side of the ball. The Bulls did pick its share of first downs up in small chunks however with 18 for the game. Starting out, Buffalo worked the soft coverage of the young and relatively inexperienced OSU corners for 6-8 yard bits at a time on the sidelines. Reeves looked bad on a couple of plays, but he did stay in lockstep with his man on some deep passes that he was able to defend (3 tackles, 3 pass breakups). Doran Grant (5 tackles, 2 pass breakups) should be more comfortable as the #2 corner after Roby returns. Top performers on defense included linebackers Ryan Shazier, who battled cramping as well and was “carted off” at one point, and Curtis Grant with 7 tackles apiece. Sophomore Noah Spence also had two tackles for a loss including a sack and another sack that was wiped out due to a silly personal foul penalty when Curtis Grant stayed in the play after losing his helmet.
Up just 30-20 in the third quarter, disaster nearly ensued as Miller was sacked deep in his own end but lost the football with Buffalo recovering near the goal line. The timing of the flag on the play would have seemed to usually indicate offensive holding, but it was a personal foul on Buffalo for illegal hands to the face that negated the play. Miller may have been down on the play (the awful announcer that is Beth Mowins didn’t seem to think so), but it would’ve been a huge momentum swing if Buffalo was able to put points on the board there and get it to within one score. Instead, that drive kept going and was the one Kenny Guiton finished off with a touchdown pass to Chris Fields (his 2nd on the day).
Next week, the Buckeyes are at home again taking on San Diego State, a bit more formidable foe. With Roby, Barnett, and Smith expected to return, hopefully things look a tad sharper then.
(Photo: Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch)