Ohio State figured this was the year it could finally take some of the burden off junior Braxton Miller, but their multi-faceted quarterback ended up with just as many aches and pains from the opener as he usually has after games.
Not only was he sent to the turf several times with muscle cramps on a steamy day, but he also absorbed some jarring hits while taking four sacks and trying to dodge defenders for gains when the offense bogged down.
“I feel like the game went to overtime with all the heat and actually putting on pads and going full-go for four quarters,” a weary Miller said afterward. “It was tough.”
The Buckeyes had a tougher than expected time with Buffalo before an Ohio Stadium crowd of 103,980 Saturday. They started at supersonic speed while building a 23-0 first-quarter lead but ended up going at a Model-T pace while pulling out a 40-20 victory.
Miller was 15-of-22 passing for 178 yards and two TDs. He also rushed for 77 yards on 17 carries.
Running back Jordan Hall, taking the place of the suspended Carlos Hyde, had a game-high 159 rushing yards on 21 totes and two scores, including one on a career-best 49-yard scamper.
The Buckeyes had 216 of their 460 yards in the first quarter while executing a series of scripted plays to near perfection. But miscues after that seemed to shake their confidence, and they played timidly on their way to a 30-13 halftime lead.
Miller had a screen pass picked off and returned for a touchdown by linebacker Khalil Mack. A fumble on a sweep by all-purpose back Dontre Wilson led to another score. And the Buckeyes were thwarted on a fourth-and-1 gamble near midfield.
Coach Urban Meyer slammed his headset to the ground after the latter. And he wasn’t much happier with what he saw the rest of the day.
“Momentum is an amazing thing in college football,” he said. “The more mature a team is, it’s seven points. If you’re immature, especially in certain areas, momentum is a 14-point shift. … The game turned upside down.
“The good news is they’re fighters. Our roster has taken hits (because of suspensions). We’re down some players. And we had some cramp issues. But we fought.”
Miller took the blame on the pick-six, though it’s a timing throw, and Mack was supposed to be taken out of the play with a cut block.
“We were rolling at first,” he said. “But after that ‘blind’ screen I threw, the momentum went down and shifted a little bit.”
As for his decision-making overall, Miller said: “I was pretty happy with it — except for that screen. I wish I could have had that back, but you move on to the next play.”
Offensive coordinator Tom Herman thought the coaches did Miller no favors, paring down the playbook when Buffalo didn’t prove to be the soft touch most expected.
“I think we did a heckuva job out of the gate, which is something that plagued us last year,” he said. “But we didn’t do a good job of handling that adversity. Myself as a play-caller, I got into conservation mode and got a little bit conservative, and it really wasn’t the way to attack those guys with what they were doing up front.
“Those three drives were pretty close to disastrous, and we said, ‘Let’s settle everyone down and hand the ball off a little bit. And that probably wasn’t the right direction to take because that simply wasn’t what the defense was giving us.”
Leading 30-20 midway through the third quarter, Miller was sacked and lost a fumble at the OSU 2-yard line. But the play was wiped out when Mack, hailed as a future NFL player, was called for illegal hands to the face on a rush against right tackle Taylor Decker. The 15-yard penalty gave OSU a much-needed reprieve.
After Miller left with cramps, back-up Kenny Guiton came in and finished off a 91-yard drive with a 21-yard TD pass to Chris Fields for a 37-20 lead.
Miller was sharp at the start. He completed his first seven passes and led explosive bursts to touchdowns on the first three possessions. Running a no-huddle offense, the drives covered 63, 61 and 84 yards and lasted a total of six minutes, 10 seconds.
“I thought early (Miller) was as good as I could have hoped for in terms of his presence, his accuracy,” said Herman, who also is the QB coach. “Then, you felt the momentum swing with those three drives in the second quarter. We let that linger much too long, and he was a part of that.
“I thought he did well — certainly better than last year but still probably not quite as good as we hoped.”
Who: Ohio State vs. San Diego State
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Ohio Stadium
TVRadio: ABCWHIO-AM (1410)