COLUMBUS — Ohio State is permitted by rule to take just 70 players to road games, though meeting even that quota seemed like a hopeless task as the Buckeyes prepared to visit Penn State.
The problem: OSU began the week with only 59 healthy scholarship players.
“And of those 59, not everybody's playing, obviously,” coach Urban Meyer said of a roster thinned by injuries, offseason attrition and scholarship sanctions. “So the call at arms is still there.”
In the end, though, he knows what matters most is the seat on the plane that will not be empty.
Braxton Miller is back.
Despite the season and his career flashing before him as he left Ohio Stadium in an ambulance last week, the Heisman Trophy-candidate quarterback remains the director of the ninth-ranked Buckeyes’ chase of perfection.
Miller returns with hopes of vanquishing history — and Penn State — in today’s hyped showdown in Happy Valley.
In a closely matched contest between bowl-banned rivals who have pushed aside expectations to emerge as the top two teams in the Big Ten’s Leaders Division, his status is the biggest wildcard.
Will Miller be the same dynamic threat as usual? Can he navigate one of the nation’s top defenses?
The Buckeyes think so. Miller practiced Tuesday through Thursday, and Meyer said the sophomore will not be limited today as he closes in on another school rushing record.
“Competitors are competitors, and they go as hard as they can,” Meyer said. “Braxton Miller is a competitive guy. Competitors fight through adversity.”
Miller repeated what his coaches said earlier in the week; he was rattled but not seriously injured. He had suffered all natures of bruises and sprains over his career, but this was different. At the end of a long run in the third quarter of the Buckeyes’ 29-22 overtime win over Purdue — a victory led by backup Kenny Guiton — his helmet slammed violently to the turf.
“I was a little bit dizzy from the hit," Miller said. "I didn't know what it was, so they sent me to the hospital to see. That was my first time something happened like that, landing on my head, shoulder, neck-type thing.”
Doctors at the Wexner Medical Center ruled Miller free of concussion symptoms or further injury.
Now, with a smile, he said, “I’m good.”
Miller, who is second in the Big Ten in total offense with 292.9 yards per game, needs only 41 rushing yards to become the first OSU quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards — and become the first player at any position to reach the threshold in Meyer’s 11 seasons as a head coach.
He must navigate a defense intent on rattling him again. The Nittany Lions held Iowa to 209 total yards in a road rout last week and rank 13th nationally in scoring defense, holding opponents to just 15.71 points per game. A year ago, they held Miller and Co. scoreless in the second half of a 20-14 victory over OSU in Columbus, though players know the Buckeyes quarterback has evolved.
“We did a great job of containing him last year but obviously as you can see, he has become a great quarterback both running and passing,” senior linebacker Gerald Hodges said. “So we are definitely are going to have to make a big emphasis on making sure someone is there as a quarterback spy for the whole game.”
Miller, though, said he looks forward to the test. While his neck remains sore, he gave no consideration to sitting against Penn State.
Consider the scene: 108,000 screaming white-clad fans, the division lead on the line. In a season stripped of the usual postseason rewards, Miller and OSU are ultimately playing for glory on nights like this.
“There are two totally different reasons behind [the sanctions], but it is what it is, and we’re both here so that's what makes this game so important,” PSU running back Michael Zordich said. “Both of these teams are playing just for Saturdays. Each Saturday is the only one they have.
“There is no postseason and that is why Ohio State has been able to get where they are at with an undefeated season so far and that is why we have been able to turn it on lately. That will be a big factor going into the game.”
Contact David Briggs at:firstname.lastname@example.org,419-724-6084, or onTwitter @DBriggsBlade.