On Ohio State’s final drive before halftime Saturday night, Braxton Miller heaved a pass toward the goal line with 10 seconds left that looked like a sure interception.
A Wisconsin defender was in ideal position on the underthrown floater, but it slipped through his fingers. And almost before the ball hit the turf, Miller was pleading with offensive coordinator Tom Herman for another shot at the end zone.
“It slipped out of my hands. I can’t make excuses. It’s on me,” Miller said. “I told Coach: ‘Let’s throw it again.’ I made up for it on the next throw.”
Miller threw a perfect spiral to Corey “Philly” Brown in the corner of the end zone for a 40-yard TD with one second left, giving the Buckeyes a 24-14 lead on their way to a 31-24 victory.
In his first action since suffering a knee injury three weeks ago, Miller had a credible showing. He finished 17-of-25 passing for 198 yards and four TDs with no interceptions. He also rushed for 83 yards on 22 carries.
But the Buckeyes were looking at their prime-time game against the three-time defending Big Ten champs as a platform to prove they belong among the elite teams in the nation, and their performance failed to meet that objective.
They scored only one touchdown on six second-half possessions. And they had three chances to put the game out of reach after advancing to the Wisconsin 28-, 35- and 38-yard lines but were denied each time.
They were forced to punt twice — once after Miller took an ill-advised sack that knocked them out of field-goal range. And the other drive ended when running back Carlos Hyde was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-1.
“I think as an offense, it’s kind of on us to improve and get better as we go through this because we know the defense is going to be there,” left tackle Jack Mewhort said. “We’re confident in them. We trust them. You could see (Saturday), they held up. We’ve got to score more points so every game isn’t a down-to-the-wire game.”
The Buckeyes actually had fewer total yards (399-390), and they had two chances to run out the clock but failed to pick up a first down, giving the gritty Badgers one last possession to tie the game.
“We had Carlos in there. We tried to go to our bread-and-butter running attack. I just don’t think we executed the way we were (earlier in the year) or the way we should have,” Mewhort said. “It’s something we have to improve on. But we’re not going to hang our heads and sulk because we did win the game.”
The pollsters seemed to have kept that in mind. The Buckeyes were still ranked fourth in the Associated Press Top 25 and third in the USA Today coaches poll Sunday.
Bryant out: The Buckeyes suffered a major blow when senior safety Christian Bryant, a captain and three-year starter, suffered a fractured ankle with 30 seconds to go and was lost for the season.
“It’s tough news. The hardest part of this whole job, man,” coach Urban Meyer said, slapping the podium in anger.
“That darn kid has done so much for our program and has come so far. Incredible leadership skills. He’s going to be even more valuable outside of football. I love that guy. Daggone it!”
Monster game: Wisconsin senior linebacker Chris Borland, an Alter product, had 16 tackles (10 solo, six assisted). No one else on his team had more than seven.
Outside linebacker Ryan Shazier led the Buckeyes with nine, including 2.5 tackles for loss. Middle linebacker Curtis Grant answered the call with seven tackles and a sack.
LeBron in the house: NBA star LeBron James joined the Buckeyes at the skull session, which is the pre-game pep rally in St. John Arena, and spoke to the fans. He also addressed the team before the game.
“I’ve always been a LeBron fan,” Meyer said. “I met him back when he was at Akron St. Vincent-Saint Mary. To have him come and be gracious with our team and speak to our team — plus he’s a Buckeye. He loves Ohio State. And he’s made that clear several times to me throughout the year.”
Ohio State (5-0, 1-1 Big Ten) at Northwestern (4-0, 0-0), 8 p.m. Saturday, ABC, 1410