Five weeks through the Big Ten schedule – and five wins later – Penn State emerged as the team that it usually is, one of the more dangerous squads in the conference. And Ohio State, still unbeaten, had to travel to State College Saturday for a monumental challenge on the road against a team most were quick to write off.
That made for a lot of noise in Beaver Stadium, but Ohio State (9-0) used a big second half to knock off Penn State and remain unbeaten under head coach Urban Meyer with only three games remaining in the regular season. Following are thoughts from the Buckeyes' win in the latest version of Sunday Observation:
• Braxton Miller is completely healthy, and very special – When Miller went to the hospital after a hard second-half hit against Purdue, Meyer admitted he saw his season flash before his eyes. Little did he know, Miller would shake off the injury, deal with some neck soreness and return to start – and dominate – the Penn State game. Miller had three total touchdowns and looked like himself as he piled up 134 yards of rushing offense. He also has the usual highlight reel-worthy juke move on a 1-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter, a score that all but ended the game for the Buckeyes. Take away his usual slow start passing, which is something that really needs to get tuned up, and I think it's clear that he's completely healthy after yet another dazzling performance on the road.
• Miller seems to be growing with his reads – From the naked eye, it seemed as if Miller struggled a lot at times making the correct decision on Ohio State's zone read plays through the first half of the season. He'd take it when he was supposed to give, and vice-versa. When watching the Penn State game, it seemed to me as if the quarterback was on point most of the night with making the correct read, and that matriculated into really big plays for Ohio State. Given Ohio State's entire offense is predicated on whether Miller can make the right decisions on the fly, I think it is a great sign for the Buckeyes that the quarterback is clearly improving in that area.
BONUS: I also thought it was a big sign that Miller learned to pick his battles, as he ran out of bounds to avoid contact on certain plays that he may have tried to take on a defender in the past. Limiting his contact is crucial for the success of this team this season and even beyond next year when the Buckeyes hope to be in the national championship hunt.
• Wildcat with Carlos Hyde? – When you have a dynamic runner like Miller as the quarterback, I don't see any sense in taking the ball out of his hands – ever. If they want Hyde to run it, fine. Let Miller give it to him. The one time OSU attempted to snap it directly to Hyde, the snap went over his head and the Buckeyes took a considerable loss. Though the snap had nothing to do with Hyde, I was questioning the package before Corey Linsley ever let it fly.
• Speaking of Hyde – I had my questions about him in the past, but boy has he really improved. I thought last night he ran tougher than I have ever seen him run, even if it wasn't his biggest statistical game of the season. That said, I think Hyde is the lone reason the Buckeyes have stayed as a power-running team despite Meyer's new offense, and I think that the staff could continue to recruit powerful backs like Hyde in the future. Also, Rod Smith has really come on as a weapon and if he can really put things together, that makes for one heck of a 1-2 punch in the OSU backfield next year. Add in Jordan Hall into that mix (assuming he redshirts), and they can actually use him in the way he's supposed to be used – as a dynamic playmaker who gets the ball in space.
• Don't understand this punt formation – Maybe the staff feels as if the team gets down to cover the punt quicker with people spread out, but I can't remember a time in the last decade where OSU was more susceptible to having its punts blocked. Add in the fact that Ben Buchanan adds in an extra step before letting the punt go, and there is a chance that a game-altering play in the opposition's favor could happen. You saw it happen against Penn State when the Lions blocked a punt and scored in the first half to take the 7-0 lead. OSU is fortunate it has overcome both punt blocks to win games this year, but eventually that will bite them.
• Buckeyes not following plan to win – Though Ohio State has been dramatically better about getting touchdowns in the red zone this season, the team hasn't followed Meyer's plan to win very closely. Somehow, the team is still undefeated. Against the Nittany Lions, OSU had a punt blocked in its own end zone and gave up a TD on that play and tied in the turnover battle (though they were losing it when they got the game in hand) and somehow still won. Maybe that's because the competition hasn't always been great this year, but allowing the other team to make big special teams plays and win the turnover battle can often add up to a loss.
• Ryan Shazier is a stud – Wearing No. 48 to honor a friend that recently passed away, Shazier had perhaps the biggest game of his season at Penn State. The linebacker – who has been the only reliable player at the position all year – sacked McGloin and picked off the PSU quarterback for a touchdown the following play on the Lions' first possession of the second half to help the Buckeyes extend their lead to 14-7 and take control of the game. Shazier sometimes is out of position and has allowed big plays, but he has everything the OSU coaching staff wants. He plays with aggression, he flies around the field without hesitation and he has a nose for the football. He's a star in the making at this point.
• Learning to win – Things haven't always looked pretty for OSU this year – and that's often been the case with its opponents – but something has to be said for winning. This is team that lost seven games last year and all of a sudden is 9-0. Learning to simply do what it takes to win is a big step, and going undefeated is an incredibly difficult task I am not sure most people appreciate, regardless of strength of schedule. The Buckeyes have won each of their first nine games, and while they're definitely flawed, wins are proof alone that this team has bought in.