The first piece of the Big Ten puzzle is in place, as Ohio State edged Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Saturday afternoon, 17-16.
Braxton Miller was, unsurprisingly, the king of the day. He went 16-of-23 through the air for 179 yards, with a score and a pick. He rushed 23 more times for 136 yards.
But that doesn't tell the story of his day. Not even a little bit.
On three different occasions, Miller appeared to be possibly injured—and twice seriously so. Early in the first quarter, Miller was hit late out of bounds and careened headfirst into an equipment cart. He checked out with the trainers and came back into the game on the next Ohio State possession.
That's one scare.
Later in the first half, Miller found himself at the bottom of a pile after a Michigan State player came flying in late on a tackle. Suffering the brunt of the impact was DE Will Gholston, who lay motionless on top of Miller, who was also not getting up. Miller ended up being fine. He just, you know, had 278 pounds of dead weight on him.
Gholston also came back into the game after claiming he had the "wind knocked out of him" and passing a sideline exam. Seeing the nature of his hit and his immediate condition afterwards makes that notion seem preposterous.
But we digress. That's two scares.
The third scare, starting at 0:45 in the video above, was the most troubling.
While scampering for a first down in the fourth quarter of a one-possession game, Miller planted his left foot and appeared to hyperextend his knee. He fumbled as he went to grab his knee mid-fall, and he stayed on the ground after Michigan State recovered and was attended to by trainers.
And, yet, he walked to the sideline under his own power, passed a knee exam and was back in the game by the time Ohio State got the ball back.
That's three scares. In one day.
And yet the guy's fine. Urban Meyer not only put Miller back out there, he called his number on four more rushes after the injury. And Miller came through, tallying 24 yards and one crucial first down on those rushes.
But even citing Miller's numbers just doesn't tell the full story. He was a whirling dervish against an extremely physical, talented Michigan State defense, spinning out of tackles, avoiding pressure and juking away from All-Big Ten defenders like it was child's play.
One would be tempted to say it was Miller's best performance of his sophomore season, but when he's making phenomenal plays week after week, how could you possibly quantify and assign ordinals to the greatness of his performances?
One thing is clear, though: Braxton Miller is the best player in the Big Ten. He's also the most important player on one of the best teams—if not the single best team—in the Big Ten. There's simply no way Ohio State is 5-0 at this point without Miller's performance, and it's probably doubtful that the Buckeyes even make it to 3-2.
Now, Urban Meyer likes backup QB Kenny Guiton—and Guiton's absolutely no slouch in the athleticism department—but Miller's the guy that runs that show. The Buckeyes have leaned on him all season long, and Miller has responded with an impressive sophomore season. He's now 76-121 for 933 yards, eight TDs and three INTs.
Miller has also rushed 90 times for 577 yards; the next highest Buckeye in either department is Jordan Hall with 40 rushes for 219 yards, and Hall just went out with a knee injury in Saturday's game. His long-term prognosis is still unknown.
So with a continually banged-up running back situation and a coach that likes to run the ball, it's only natural that Miller shoulder the load, and that he has done so admirably is a welcome relief for Buckeye fans. It also underscores, however, how devastating it would have been if Miller had hit that equipment cart harder, or if that awkward foot plan had turned into more than Miller's ACL could stand.
At the same time, however, this isn't about a guy breaking down from overuse. Miller's getting a lot of rushes, but he's barely taking any actual heavy contact. Yeah, he's not built like Tim Tebow, but he's also not getting used like Tebow either, so even with this game's multiple scares, Miller's current average of 18 rushes per game doesn't seem unsustainable.
That's not to say Miller won't be hurting tomorrow, of course, and if Meyer wants to rush Miller about 10 times or so next week, that'd be understandable.
But it's Nebraska coming to town next week. And the potential loss of Jordan Hall for that game means Ohio State's going to be lacking for elusive runners in the backfield.
That is, unless it's time to call Miller's number another 20 times. Hey, if it's what the Buckeyes need, it's what the Buckeyes need.