COLUMBUS — Urban Meyer promised a classic, and in the end, he was right.
Ohio State did not clinch its 31-24 victory over Wisconsin on Saturday until the final minutes, first fielding an onside kick and then forcing a fourth-down pass to float innocently to the turf with 20 seconds left. The tense late moments belied the statement quarterback Braxton Miller and the fourth-ranked Buckeyes made the rest of the night.
Before a crowd of 105,826 — the third-largest in Ohio Stadium history — Miller adeptly brushed aside three weeks of rust, and the Buckeyes (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) dashed to a 17-point fourth-quarter lead before desperately holding on.
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Vacuuming away any oxygen that could fan a quarterback controversy, Miller matched a career-high with four touchdown passes while displaying his usual elusiveness.
Miller completed 17 of 25 passes for 198 yards and ran for 83 yards, along the way surpassing Cornelius Greene as the school’s all-time leading quarterback rusher (2,150 career rushing yards).
"My legs felt good and energy-wise, I wasn’t out of shape," Miller said. "So I felt good."
In the end, the Buckeyes left with vastly mixed emotions, especially on defense. Though OSU held Melvin Gordon, James White, and the nation’s third-ranked rushing offense to 104 yards on the ground, it surrendered 295 yards to the inconsistent arm of Wisconsin’s Joel Stave, and more pressing, lost an emotional leader and captain.
Meyer held back tears afterward in announcing senior safety Christian Bryant was en route to the hospital for surgery on a broken ankle that could end his season.
"We’re sitting much better," Meyer said, "if our captain doesn’t get hurt and we close the game better."
Yet, ultimately, they celebrated a critical win — their third straight over Wisconsin (3-2, 1-1). OSU secured the clear inside track to a division title while receiving a definitive answer to its biggest question.
Meyer all week had declared Miller back to his usual dynamic self after the former Heisman frontrunner missed the last two games with a strained left medial collateral ligament. But, in case he was not, he left the door open for backup and two-time defending Big Ten offensive player of the week Kenny Guiton to see time.
Miller made it clear early that would not be necessary. He rolled right to find Jeff Heuerman for a nine-yard completion on the Buckeyes' second play from scrimmage, then connected two plays later with Spencer for a 25-yard touchdown.
Two possessions later, he threw a 26-yard TD pass to Devin Smith.
"Braxton had a heck of a day," Meyer said. "When I saw on Thursday in practice what I saw [from Miller], there was no doubt who was going to be our starter."
It seemed sure to be the Buckeyes' night. Beyond the early salvo, they also enjoyed their share of good fortune. Two turnovers — including a mishandled punt by Corey Brown — were wiped out by Wisconsin penalties.
The defense, meanwhile, made UW one-dimensional. Just not in the way anyone could have scripted. After OSU held the Badgers to minus-two yards on their first two possessions, the run-first visitors dusted off an unfamiliar weapon — the forward pass.
Stave threw a 36-yard touchdown pass that sailed through the flailing arm of OSU cornerback Bradley Roby and into the grip of Jared Abbrederis, and tossed an 11-yard TD to Sam Arneson. In the first half alone, Stave completed 11 of 16 passes for 210 yards.
Yet the Buckeyes offense — and, eventually, their defense — had enough answers. After Arneson's TD catch pulled UW within three points at 17-14 late in the first half, Miller led Ohio State on an eight-play, 71-yard scoring drive to close the half. His 40-yard TD pass to Brown nudged OSU ahead 24-14 with one second remaining.
"The play before the half really had Braxton confident," Brown said. "You could tell in the locker room."
The Buckeyes' defense, meanwhile, at last brought consistent pressure in the third quarter and forced Stave into the type of throw that has become his Achilles’ heel. One play after Curtis Grant dragged him to the turf, Stave again felt pressure and was intercepted by Roby at the Badgers' 47-yard line.
The turnover soon gave way to an OSU touchdown, this drive capped by a one-yard pass to Brown that put the Buckeyes ahead 31-14.
Badgers running back James White rushed for a 17-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter that cut OSU's lead to 10.
Kyle French kicked a 42-yard field goal to bring it to 31-24.
After recovering an onside kick and going three-and-out, the Buckeyes punted to the Badgers one last time with 1:29 remaining. UW’s final drive, which began at its 10-yard line, never gained traction and the visitors would not get another first down.