There are fewer tests bigger for a first-year head coach than taking on a reigning division champion in a conference season opener. Yet Urban Meyer and Ohio State took that challenge on and won on Saturday.
Ohio State's 17-16 win at Michigan State served notice to the rest of the Big Ten that the Buckeyes are ready to compete with anyone and everyone right now, and it's going to be a major challenge for anyone to knock OSU from the ranks of the undefeated.
So, how'd it happen? How did Ohio State pull off this big win?
We'll talk about this more later today, but Michigan State's biggest loss of the day wasn't what shows up in the loss column—it was center Travis Jackson going out with a broken leg and torn MCL. He's done for the year, and we hope he returns healthy in 2013, because that is a brutal injury.
Even so—and even before Jackson went out—Ohio absolutely manhandled Michigan State's offensive line, and that was crucial to victory.
Michigan State has Le'Veon Bell in the backfield, and Bell is a prototypical "workhorse" Big Ten back. He's the type that works in tandem with a strong offensive line to wear down a defense over the course of a game, and he keeps the chains moving by falling forward against smaller defenders. Ask Boise State how fun and easy it is to keep Bell in check for 60 minutes.
But if that line's not so strong, though, a great defensive front can shut Bell down—and that's exactly what Ohio State did to him on Saturday.
Le'Veon Bell rushed only 17 times for 45 yards against the Buckeye defense.
One might wonder how Bell would see the ball only 25 times (he also had eight receptions for 58 yards) in a big game like this, and the answer is simple: Ohio State didn't let him. Neither Bell nor anyone else on the Spartans rushed for a single first down over the course of the game.
All in all, Michigan State managed just 34 yards on 22 carries as a team—a 1.5-yard average. That means the Spartans had to become one-dimensional to survive, and suffice it to say, going pass-heavy is not Michigan State's preferred dimension this year.
On the other side of the ball, Ohio State managed just 17 points against that tough Spartan defense. But that's not terribly disappointing considering the fact that Michigan State was giving up under 12 points a game coming into the contest, and nobody had scored more than 20 on the year.
It's becoming obvious now, though, that Ohio State has its own workhorse: Braxton Miller. Not only has Miller's role in the passing game expanded under Urban Meyer (last year, Miller didn't even throw enough passes to be eligible for the NCAA's efficiency rankings), but his legs are the most valuable pair in Ohio State's backfield.
All told, Miller ran for 136 yards on 23 rushes (two yards shy of exactly six yards per carry). And this wasn't a situation where Miller broke off a 75-yarder and spent the rest of the game held in check; he accounted for nine first downs on the ground alone—or nine more than Michigan State's ground game managed. Yes, Miller lost a fumble and threw a pick, but by and large, the guy is just dependable.
Miller's most important play of the game, however, was also his longest. No surprise there, but it truly warrants consideration. With Michigan State ahead for the first time all afternoon in the third quarter, Miller found Devin Smith for a 63-yard touchdown that would put the Buckeyes back on top for good.
Let's take another look:
Yes, that's a one-on-one situation that you would expect quarterbacks to see and try to take advantage of. So it's great to see Miller take care of business on that front.
But what really impresses here isn't just the recognition, it's the execution. That's All-Big Ten cornerback Johnny Adams on the coverage, and he is perhaps the best cornerback Miller will face all year. A bad throw here is a strong candidate for a turnover, which would be crippling right after giving up the lead.
So what does Miller do? He places the ball on a dime over Smith's shoulder, where neither Adams nor any other cornerback in college football can make a play on it, and Adams is simply helpless as Smith takes off for the score.
That's not a throw Denard Robinson can be trusted to make. Taylor Martinez would be shot by snipers if he even wound up to try a 30-yard fade. Even the "pure passers" of the conference (Andrew Maxwell, James Vandenberg, Matt McGloin) would struggle with placement on that pass.
But Braxton Miller did it perfectly.
Now, that's more Braxton Miller's doing than Urban Meyer's, obviously, but let's reiterate: Miller wasn't even trusted to throw the ball enough for the NCAA to recognize him as a full-time starting QB last year. Now he's making throws like that. Sure, some of it is just natural development as a passer, but it's also about Meyer knowing the talent he's got and calling the right numbers accordingly.
That's not a small thing for Meyer, either—that concept was central to one of his formative moments as an offensive coach. Recall this story from when Meyer was still an assistant coach at Notre Dame, via FootballTimes.org:
In 2000, when Notre Dame wide receiver David Givens, his star playmaker was crying after the second game of the year, Urban Meyer inquired as to why? It turns out that Givens said that he was crying because he wanted to help his team win, but couldn't because he didn't get the ball at all during the game. Notre Dame was ranked fifth overall and lost to number one ranked Nebraska in overtime. Urban realized that something had to change. You can not go an entire game and never put the ball once in your play makers hands. Urban's mind started churning.
This was a revelation to Urban Meyer and sent him on a quest that changed college, and possibly professional, football forever.
Urban was then working at Notre Dame with Lou Holtz, but had higher aspirations. He wanted to be a head coach one day and spent most of his time taking notes and planning to be a head coach. This habit started back at Ohio State when he was a graduate assistant with Earle Bruce and continues till today.
That's when the idea of the Spread Option offense was born.
So yes, don't be surprised by Braxton Miller throwing 23 times and rushing 23 more. That's Urban Meyer knowing his path to success and following through on it. It's why he's one of the best coaches in college football.