COLUMBUS — A year ago, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer stayed awake wondering if there was any receiver at all who could distress the defense.
This season, he has a different problem.
In one of the nation’s suddenly biggest-play offenses, how do the fourth-ranked Buckeyes keep everyone happy?
"Is it difficult?" Meyer said. "No, it’s actually awesome."
Ohio State will travel to No. 16 Northwestern on Saturday night with an aerial game that has shifted the lost hours of sleep from its own sideline to the other one.
With 19 touchdown passes, the Buckeyes have already surpassed their total of 17 from last season and are on course to wipe out the school record of 33 set in 1995. Quarterback Braxton Miller’s four TD tosses in a 31-24 win over Wisconsin included first-half lasers of 25 yards to Evan Spencer, 26 yards to Devin Smith, and 40 yards to Corey Brown — the last one marking the Buckeyes’ eighth play this year covering 40 yards or more.
Saturday, in what is being billed as Northwestern’s biggest home game since 1995, the Buckeyes will look to spoil the party much the same way. The Wildcats’ passing defense is 119th nationally, yielding 307.5 yards per game through the air.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Tuesday that the Buckeyes’ deep balls have "been not only effective, they’ve been deadly."
"We couldn't do that last year," Meyer said. "There were games I refused to call it because they were going to be covered and we couldn't throw it. Now, this Saturday, we are going to try the same thing. That's a big part of who we are."
Last year, the Buckeyes led the Big Ten in offense but struggled late in the season to make opponents pay for cramming the box. In Miller’s first seven games, he completed 60.4 percent of his passes, threw 11 TD passes, and averaged 7.1 yards per rush. In his last five, he completed just 54.7 percent of his throws, tossed four TDs, and averaged 3.7 yards per run.
Ohio State still wants to be a run-first team this season, and has stayed turf-bound more than 60 percent of the time. But offensive coordinator Tom Herman knew the Buckeyes needed the home run threat to open up the field.
"Necessity is the mother of invention," Herman said. "You guys saw how people started playing us the latter half of last year. In order for us to be who we want to be running the football, we had to make that a viable threat. So we worked our tails off to make sure we were effective, if not proficient, at throwing the ball downfield."
This season, Miller and backup Kenny Guiton have thrown 15 touchdown passes of at least 20 yards while six players — Smith, Spencer, Brown, Dontre Wilson, Jeff Heuerman, and Chris Fields — have catches of at least 25 yards. The 19 TD passes are second nationally to Oregon State’s 21.
Though the Buckeyes played a roster of lightweights leading up to Wisconsin, players said the improvements are no mirage.
"As much pressure as coach Meyer put on us to get better as a unit, I think this was kind of expected," said Brown, whose five TD catches are tied with Smith for the team lead.
A half-dozen targets are now trusted, while Herman touted Miller as "10 times better" in his mechanics and understanding of the offense. He pointed to Miller’s 26-yard back-shoulder dart to Spencer in the corner of the end zone early Saturday night. The play was designed to go to Brown in the slot on a skinny post, but Miller saw a safety coming down to help over the middle and turned to Spencer in one-on-one coverage.
"It’s a throw he wouldn't have made last year," Herman said. "He could have made it. Absolutely, he could have. But he wouldn't have made it. He didn't trust himself. ... Braxton said, as he made the play fake, he saw the safety spin down and just out of the corner of his eye saw Devin make a move on the corner and knew he was going to have him."
The result was familiar.
"I don't know if I remember this many explosive pass plays this early in the season," Meyer said. "Ever."