COLUMBUS — Braxton Miller previously remained in tight pursuit of the Heisman Trophy because of his darting brilliance in the open field.
On Saturday, he did so with his arm.
On the same week coach Urban Meyer endorsed Miller’s candidacy for the famed stiff-arm trophy, the sophomore quarterback displayed the full range of his gifts in the sixth-ranked Buckeyes’ 52-22 wipeout of Illinois.
A year after the Buckeyes’ when-pigs-fly, one-completion victory in Champaign, Ill., Miller and Co. returned to the modern era in their most lopsided Big Ten victory in two seasons.
Miller whistled five passes of 24 yards or longer — including a 51-yard touchdown toss on a wheel route to Rod Smith — and finished 12-of-20 passing for 226 yards. He also ran for 73 yards and added another did-you-see-that scoring dash.
Afterward, Illinois coach Tim Beckman asked rhetorically, “What was our problem?”
“Braxton Miller is a fantastic football player,” he replied. “He can break you.”
Combine Miller and a team with designs on perfection, and this improbable season for the Buckeyes (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) just continues to tunnel deeper into school lore.
Now, only Earle Bruce has sprinted to a better start in his first year at OSU than Meyer. (Meyer’s mentor opened 11-0 regular season in 1979.) The Buckeyes can secure their first unbeaten season since 2002 with wins Nov. 17 at Wisconsin, then Nov. 24 at home against Michigan — and they need only one win to clinch the Leaders Division title.
“We’re very close, only two games away,” cornerback Bradley Roby said. “We just have to finish strong.”
In truth, Saturday’s win far transcended the effort of Miller as a name-your-score offense and a fast-improving defense operated in dominant concert to outgain the woeful Illini 567-170.
Dismissing concerns they would overlook Illinois (2-6, 0-5) in between two critical road games, the Buckeyes effectively iced the game with five straight scoring drives en route to a 31-6 halftime lead.
An offense averaging more than 250 rushing yards per game plodded on, with Carlos Hyde running for a game-high 137 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries. And the defense established the theme for the afternoon the first play of the afternoon.
Defensive end John Simon bulled through the line and yanked Nathan Scheelhaase to the turf. Contorted and his knee inches from the ground, the junior quarterback dumped a pass to his running back, but it went for a 7-yard loss.
The next 59 minutes went much the same. The Buckeyes held Illinois to six points deep into the third quarter.
“We just wanted to go out there and show everyone we could play Silver Bullet football again,” cornerback Travis Howard said.
“This defense is getting better because of all the criticism we have been receiving,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “We are trying and succeeding, slowly but surely, at becoming better.”
The same, meanwhile, could be said about Miller’s passing.
Even as he became the first quarterback in OSU history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, his right arm and footwork had at times abandoned him. The past two weeks, he completed a combined 16 of 39 passes for 256 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
“I hate to say it like this, but I'm very disappointed,” Meyer said earlier in the week. “He could be better than he is. But fundamentally, he gets so tied up in knots.”
Miller looked the part Saturday, lacing a line of on-target throws in the first half — 24 yards to Jake Stoneburner, 31 yards to Nick Vannett, 32 yards to Corey Brown, and the deep ball to Smith.
Miller rolled right before turning back to notice Smith, who had dashed out of the backfield, was comfortably behind Illini safety Supo Sanni on the left sideline. The 51-yard touchdown pass put the Buckeyes ahead 31-6.
“'We practiced that throughout the whole week,'' Miller said.
Other plays featured more improvisation, from Brown’s 37-yard third-quarter touchdown catch in which he shook at least five defenders — Miller said with a smile the receiver copied his moves — to the quarterback’s latest head-turning dash.
With the Buckeyes on the Illinois 2 in third quarter, Miller took the shotgun snap and stepped up into the pocket to survey the field, then exploded backward and surged to the outside for an easy touchdown.
Still, Meyer played the tough-to-please boss afterward, noting Miller still needs to improve as a traditional passer.
“While he’s not a drop back passer, you have to be,” Meyer said. “It’s not acceptable, and the guys around him have to continue to get better. The offense, I’m really disappointed in that. The play-action game is pretty solid. That’s what you see. Those plays, those aren’t dropbacks. You have to be able to take the pressure off some of the other areas of the team and just drop back and be able to throw the quick game. And we’re just not there yet.
“But those are strong statements. [Miller] is a sophomore in college, and we’re still trying to figure it out, and he’s trying to figure it out. I love his effort and he played well.”
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.