Braxton Miller accounted for 281 yards and four touchdowns in Saturday's win over Wisconsin. (Jay LaPrete/AP)
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Earlier this week, the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino suggested that No. 4 Ohio State would be an underdog to four different SEC teams -- Alabama, Georgia, LSU and South Carolina -- if they met on a neutral field. Yet after the Buckeyes' 31-24 win over No. 23 Wisconsin on Saturday night, Vegas might need to rethink those lines.
A crowd of 105,826, the third-largest in Ohio Stadium history, was on hand to witness special uniforms, a flyover, an appearance from LeBron James and a halftime show in which the band marched into the shape of a train. But all those served as side shows for the main event, a game in which Ohio State needed to make a statement.
It did. Although it had lapses at times, especially in the second half when it seemed the Buckeyes tried to run out the clock too early instead of staying in attack mode, Ohio State was clearly better than a physical and well-coached Wisconsin team. Buckeyes cornerback Bradley Roby and running back Carlos Hyde are playing at a high level following suspensions, and quarterback Braxton Miller looked as sharp as ever in his return from a leg injury.
Miller might have fallen off the Heisman radar in recent weeks, but he woke up voters in a big way on Saturday. He finished 17-of-25 with 198 passing yards, 83 rushing yards and four total touchdowns, including two scoring passes to Philly Brown that put the game out of reach.
“I love playing in big games man,” Miller said. “It brings excitement to myself and the team. That’s what we talk about all the time. We love night games.”
Aside from a couple of questionable throws, he fired the ball to his receivers, and he didn’t bail out of the pocket to scramble as often as he has in the past. Running Miller less out of necessity and more by design has been a point of emphasis by Ohio State this year, and it paid off against the Badgers. Miller indicated he was 100 percent healthy coming into this game, but he still wore a knee brace as a precaution. The team was clearly cautious with him, even though the Buckeyes have a more-than-capable replacement in backup Kenny Guiton.
Ohio State's defense was also a question mark entering this week, as the Buckeyes gave up 20 points to Buffalo in Week 1 and 34 points to Cal in Week 3. But the young unit played better than expected against the Badgers.
Wisconsin came into the game ranked third nationally in rushing offense with an average of 349.8 rushing yards per game. Ohio State limited the Badgers to 104 yards on the ground, with star tailback Melvin Gordon carrying 15 times for just 74 yards. Wisconsin got a career-best performance from wide receiver Jared Abbrederis (10 catches, 207 yards, one touchdown), but quarterback Joel Stave couldn't do enough to hang with coach Urban Meyer's high-powered attack.
Ohio State doesn’t need the elite defense it had under Jim Tressel to win games; it merely has to take advantage of opportunities and keep pace with an already potent offense. The D is making strides in that direction, though it suffered a big loss when Meyer announced after the game that senior safety Christian Bryant broke his ankle and will require surgery.
“That darn kid has done so much for our program,” Meyer said. “He’s come so far, incredible leadership skills. He’s going to be even more valuable outside of football. Doggone it. That’s the hard part of the game.”
This game and next Saturday's game against Northwestern were labeled as the two most difficult early-season challenges for Ohio State. The Big Ten lacks a wealth of top-tier contenders, and the Buckeyes may not have many chances to prove themselves against big-time opponents. With the nation’s longest winning streak now at 17 games and a victory over a solid Wisconsin team, however, Ohio State showed it may just be ready to make a push for the BCS title game, after all.
“I don’t know if we made a statement,” said Ohio State safety C.J. Barnett. “We have our doubters. Hopefully we proved them wrong, if not, it really doesn’t matter. We’re going to keep working and try to win this next game.”
The Buckeyes’ upcoming schedule seems manageable. If they can weather a road test next week against the 4-0 Wildcats, the road to an unbeaten campaign should only gets easier, especially with rival Michigan struggling to find its footing.