Ohio State coach Urban Meyer had a thorny decision to make about his starting quarterback after Braxton Miller missed almost three full games with a knee injury and Kenny Guiton performed so exquisitely in a backup role.
But Meyer went the distance with Miller, and the one-time Heisman Trophy candidate rewarded his coach with a four-touchdown performance in a 31-24 win over the Wisconsin on Saturday night.
Miller connected with Philly Brown for a 40-yard TD with one second left in the first half and a 1-yard score late in the third quarter for a 31-14 lead.
The junior from Wayne High School also zipped first-half TD passes of 25 yards to Evan Spencer and 26 yards to Devin Smith, delighting a sellout crowd of 105,826, including NBA four-time MVP LeBron James. It was the third-largest turnout in OSU history.
Miller completed 17-of-25 passes for 198 yards with no interceptions. He also rushed for 83 yards on 22 carries.
When he stepped to the podium for a post-game interview, Miller said after the opening query, “Before I answer that question, I want to say I’m proud of Kenny and the way he stepped in and led the team while I was out. I look to him as a big brother — no controversy with that (between the two).
“I’ve been working really hard these last couple of weeks while I’ve been hurt. … My legs felt good energy-wise, and I wasn’t out of shape.”
The Buckeyes (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) needed all that production from Miller because they were getting a tussle from the Badgers (3-2, 1-1), who pulled to within a touchdown on a 42-yard field goal by Kyle French with 2:05 to go — and then got the ball back with 1:29 left at their 10-yard line.
But they failed to get a first down as OSU beat Wisconsin for the sixth time in their last seven meetings. The Buckeyes improved to 10-3 in night games at Ohio Stadium.
The downer from the win, aside from fizzling offensively in the second half (scoring just seven points), is that safety Christian Bryant, a three-year starter, was lost for the season after suffering a fractured ankle. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital for surgery after the game.
“It’s tough news. The hardest part of this whole job, man,” 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!”
On Miller, Meyer said: “I think he played very well. He threw for 200 yards and four touchdowns. We had two sacks. They played very good defense. You don’t realize how many seniors are on that defense. They’re a well-coached, hard-playing outfit. … They should be undefeated if it wasn’t for some ridiculous call (in a loss at Arizona State where the officials erred and didn’t allow the Badgers to take a chip-shot field goal to win the game).
“That was two Big Ten teams going at it in an incredible environment. Braxton had a heckuva day.”
Miller connected on his two pass attempts in a four-play, 55-yard scoring drive to start the game. He rolled to his left and threw across his body to an open Spencer in the end zone. Executing their hurry-up offense, the Buckeyes scored in one minute, seven seconds.
The fourth-ranked Buckeyes handled the Badgers’ feared running game, but unheralded sophomore quarterback Joe Stave burned them with several deep passes to senior receiver Jared Abbrederis. Stave finished 20-of-34 passing for 295 yards and two TDs with one interception, while Abbrederis had 10 catches for 207 yards.
OSU took a 17-7 lead in the second quarter on a 45-yard field goal by Drew Basil, who is 3-for-3 this season.
The 24th-ranked Badgers made it 17-14 on Stave’s 11-yard pass to Sam Arneson with 1:30 to go in the first half. But the Buckeyes took a typically aggressive approach under Meyer. Miller maneuvered them into Wisconsin territory with a couple of 14-yard scrambles before hooking up with Brown.
The Badgers were averaging nearly 350 rushing yards per game but had only 104.
Carlos Hyde, in only his second game back from a suspension, had the bulk of the carries for the Buckeyes and finished with a game-high 85 yards on 17 attempts. The Buckeyes’ rushing leader, Jordan Hall, had only one carry for five yards.
“I’d like to get Kenny in the game, but the moment didn’t happen. Same with Jordan Hall. Those are two guys that I’ve got to make sure we handle the right way. They deserve to play.
“What I saw on Thursday, there was no doubt (Braxton) was going to be our starter. We’ve got to keep moving forward.”
Ohio State at Northwestern, 8 p.m. Saturday, ABC, 1410