Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman is the team’s play-caller during games, and he’s been scouring film to come up with a few dandies to run against Michigan State and its top-ranked defense on Saturday.
It would seem to be an exhilarating time for a 38-year-old assistant who is considered a rising star in the business, but Herman had an incredulous look when asked this week whether he was having fun.
“It’s miserable,” he said. “Fun? Have you watched that tape? They are really, really good.”
Herman, who seems to enjoy bantering with the media, quickly cracked a smile.
“I say that jokingly. Yes, this is why you coach,” he said. “These are the games where your competitive nature can come out a little bit and say, ‘I’m going to take my offense — my checkers — and my pieces are going to be more prepared and play harder and longer and with better technique and effort than yours.’ ”
The Buckeyes have been operating at a high level on offense — they’re averaging 48.2 points per game and are on pace to shatter the team record of 42.5 set in 1969 — but their passing game has sagged a bit. They had five completions in a 42-41 win at Michigan last week.
Of course, in the last three outings, they’ve rushed for 441, 311 and 393 yards, averaging nine yards per carry, and Herman has no problem with the Buckeyes leaning on that facet of the game.
Asked about the lack of balance on offense, he said: “Balance is not having the same amount of rushing yards and the same amount of passing yards or the same amount of rushing plays vs. the same amount of passing plays. Balance is being able to win the game either way depending on what the defense is trying to take away. And I think we’re a balanced offense right now.”
The Buckeyes, though, likely will need more from quarterback Braxton Miller through the air in the Big Ten title game since the Spartans are ranked No. 1 nationally against the rush.
He’s connected on 30-of-61 passes (49.2 percent) in his last three games for an average of 147.7 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions. In the five games before that, he was 91-of-125 (72.8 percent) for 221.6 yards per game with 13 TDs and two picks.
“I think it’s a product of how well we’re rushing. It’s not a concern,” Herman said of the dip. “I thought we threw the ball adequately against Indiana in some very adverse conditions the week prior (to Michigan).
“When you see the productivity of the run game and where that’s taking you, then you continue to call it more until something tells you not to. And throughout the (Michigan) game, nothing was really telling us not to.”
OSU coach Urban Meyer also isn’t concerned about the passing attack and believes Miller compares favorably with two of his former QBs: Florida’s Tim Tebow, a Heisman Trophy winner, and Utah’s Alex Smith, who became a No. 1 draft pick in the NFL.
“The first thing you go look for is competitive spirit, and that’s what I see out of Braxton Miller. He’s an extreme competitor. He’s always been a very good competitor, and I think he’s crossed that threshold and is an extreme, extreme competitor right now,” Meyer said.
“The second thing you look at is toughness. And he’s a tough guy. I’ve coached a couple championship quarterbacks … and certainly Braxton is in that conversation.”
The Buckeyes beat the Spartans, 17-16, last season with an offense that was nowhere near as explosive as the current model. Herman liked his checkers then, but they look much more imposing now.
“We’re a lot different,” he said. “The numbers on the jersey and the names on the back might be the same at a lot of positions, but we’re better than we were last year. And they are, too, on defense. Let’s not kid ourselves on that.
“But I think the ways, if you were a defensive coordinator, that you would have attacked us last year might be a hair different this year because of how we’ve gotten better — especially individually. Across the board, we have improved.”
Local connection: After winning his second straight Big Ten offensive player of the year award Tuesday, former Wayne star Braxton Miller was asked on the Big Ten Network to pick the toughest defender he faced all season. He named Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland.
When the ex-Alter standout did a separate interview after being tabbed the conference defensive player of the year, he said the toughest offensive player he encountered was the Buckeye QB.
Miller: “Just the way he plays the game — he’s just real smart. The way he moves, he’s not like a regular linebacker. He runs like a horse. … I can tell he’s got control of the defense, and he flies to the ball.”
Borland: “I think a lot of defenders around the league will say the same thing: Braxton Miller is the most dynamic player not only in our conference, but maybe in the country. You’ve got to change your entire game plan when you go against a guy like him.”
Told he had been Miller’s choice, Borland chuckled and said, “Maybe it’s just two Dayton guys looking out for each other.”
BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP
Ohio State (12-0) vs. Michigan State (11-1), 8 p.m. Saturday, FOX, 1410