Cus Words Week 8: Steppin' Out

The Ohio State offense took another step toward greatness last week, but what about the defense? We examine just how good Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes really were and look forward to the challenge presented by Penn State in this week's column.

What we learned last week: Maybe that wasn't truly a lesson but more of a reminder – this Ohio State offense can be scary good.

Obviously expectations were very high for Braxton Miller and the rest of the offense entering the season, but the picture has been muddled in the seven weeks since the opener.

At first there was excitement about the incremental growth the Ohio State quarterback and his supporting cast showed against Buffalo. It was a good-not-great performance with plenty of things to feel good about but also enough miscues to keep anyone from getting too full of himself.

It was a natural opening act, one that was satisfactory if not overwhelming.

We're not used to seeing overwhelming offensive performances around here, anyway, so maybe we don't know what we're missing, right?

Anyway, Miller's injury early in the second game of the season didn't derail Ohio State's perfect season, but it did throw quite a wrench into a lot of our narratives, didn't it?

Obviously there was the fantastic play of Kenny Guiton to give us something to talk about, but then those led into questions about Miller's ability to lead the team.

While recognizing Guiton's strengths and his value to the team, I was never one who questioned which guy should be starting and taking all of the snaps if both players are healthy.

We've seen a lot of Braxton Miller, meaning he has had more time to both wow us with his skills and disappoint us with his mistakes. Sometimes we take the former for granted and unfairly magnify the latter. And I guess that is the price of fame, to a certain extent, but sometimes I think that's a shame.

Then again, while some might have unfair expectations of perfection, others are looking to weed out the mistakes simply because they see the potential for greatness in certain players.

At any rate, offensive coordinator Tom Herman said Saturday after the game that he felt the need to tell the famously introverted and humble Miller not to let the pressure get to him.

"Be you," was Herman's message to Miller, whom he apparently perceived to be worrying about living up to the expectations thrust upon him by the outside world (perhaps, at least to a certain extent, fairly so given his obvious physical tools).

At some point, everyone settles into being what they are. There is a learning curve, an arc of improvement, that stops for everyone. There are often zig-zags in these lines of development, too, but let's put that aside for now.

If anyone had concluded that Miller was nearing the point his development leveled off, I think he gave good reason to reconsider on Saturday.

Iowa presented just the right kind of challenge for the Ohio State offense at this point in the season. A fundamentally sound team with a stout line and reliable, veteran linebackers plus a secondary with enough holes to present opportunities to make big plays.

The Hawkeyes, at 4-2, came into Ohio Stadium with enough things going for them to present an actual challenge, but in reality they were drawn dead the minute the Buckeyes decided to play to their potential. Such is life in college football, now and forever. Rarely are two teams evenly matched, but the better team loses more than once in a while.

Braxton Miller took Iowa's best shot and walked out with 324 total yards. He completed 81 percent of his 27 passes for 222 yards, displaying again his growing comfort with reading defenses and finding secondary receivers. That was maybe the No. 1 concern entering the season, but by Oct. 19 it almost felt like an afterthought for two reasons.

One, he did it over and over again at Northwestern as he rallied the Buckeyes to a win two weeks ago, and two, he hadn't ripped off many of his patented electrifying runs against the Wildcats or Wisconsin a week before.

That's kind of a funny situation if you sit back and think about it, huh? After all the worry about Miller becoming a more complete passer, analyzation of him came back around to his running ability.

After all, what does "Be you" mean more than "run circles around dudes" for Braxton Miller?

Well, he took Herman's advice and truly looked like his old self when he tucked and ran while maintaining his new skills as a passer.

If that becomes the new norm, this offense seems poised to really take off because the weapons around Miller continue to get better and better as the season progresses.

What we can expect to learn this week: Because they scored "only" 34 points, it's easy to overlook just how efficient the offense played against Iowa, so the first message this week is a bit redundant: can they do it again?

The Buckeyes had only nine possessions against the Hawkeyes and scored on six of them. The others consisted of one turnover on downs and running out the clock at the end of each half.

Of course having to settle for Drew Basil field goals on two of five trips into the red zone is uncharacteristic, but overall I think it was really a quiet 495 yards of offense Ohio State racked up against a very solid Big Ten defense.

Keep executing like that and the style points will come, though I remain convinced those are far less important than just getting teams ahead of the Buckeyes in the polls to lose . In fact, that is almost certainly the most important development Ohio State needs between now and the first week of December – other than remaining undefeated, of course.

As for lesson No. 2, well, I think you can guess that.

Can the defense figure out how to play better?

Kirk Ferentz and his offensive staff, like Northwestern before them and now Bill O'Brien this coming week, had an extra week to prepare for Ohio State, and the early returns for the Hawkeyes were quite positive.

They scored the first three times they got the ball and kept it for at least 10 plays on each drive.

The Hawkeyes used a vintage combination of zone runs and play-action passes to march up and down the field. While the push the Iowa offensive line got up front was somewhat surprising, the open teammates quarterback Jake Rudock was able to find were not.

That has developed into a consistent theme for opposing offenses, one that could be attributed to spread formations early in the season but has now been exposed by power offenses of Wisconsin and Iowa.

Now the Nittany Lions come to town with a freshman quarterback who has the makings of a star and a group of experienced, proven weapons that is much deeper than either Wisconsin or Iowa could claim.

Does that mean a shootout is in the offing Saturday, or will the Ohio State coaching staff figure out a way to plug some of the holes between now and then?

Another perfect season might hang in the balance.

Of course the Ohio State offense is capable of winning a shootout – Penn State's secondary struggled in losses to UCF and Indiana already this season – but I tend to think Buckeye coaches and fans prefer that not be necessary.

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