The No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes (9-0) overcame a hostile crowd and a motivated team Saturday night, defeating the Penn State Nittany Lions (5-3) 35-23 in State College.
Despite what turned out to be a comfortable 12-point victory, Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes were in a world of hurt in the first half.
The Buckeyes' offense had been completely shut down through most of the first two quarters, gaining just 70 yards in six drives. Penn State's defense was playing inspired football, fueled by the electric atmosphere inside Beaver Stadium.
A blocked punt that was recovered in the end zone gave Penn State a 7-0 lead late in the first half. The Buckeyes desperately needed Miller to make something happen, but to that point, the sophomore quarterback appeared to be playing tentative football.
Take this play in the first quarter for example:
Miller could have easily broken this play to the left side or the right side and picked up the first down with his legs. Instead of tucking the ball and running for the first down, he threw a pass five yards over the head of Devin Smith, and the Buckeyes were forced to punt.
But Miller changed the momentum of the game on the last drive of the half, executing the zone-read play better than he has all season.
The zone-read is one of the base plays in Meyer's offense. It requires the quarterback to "read" the crashing defender on a run play out of the shotgun formation. When executed correctly, the quarterback makes a decision whether to keep the ball or hand it off based on who the defender commits to.
For a visual, watch Miller execute it perfectly here:
During Ohio State's late touchdown march to close the half, Miller and the offense ran the zone-read just two times. The play was run so effectively that it accounted for 41 of the 75 yards gained on the drive.
From that point on, this play was unstoppable.
Here you see sophomore defensive end Deion Barnes (circled in red) crashing the zone-read. Barnes, faced with the decision to pursue Miller or Carlos Hyde, chooses to pursue the running back. Let's see how that works out...
Not so good.
Miller pulled the ball and darted to the right side behind a wall of blockers for a 14-yard gain. The run set Ohio State up in great position inside Penn State's 10-yard line.
Barnes was seen in State College this afternoon, still trying to catch up with a guy who didn't have the ball.
Just two plays later, Meyer called the same play. This time, it was senior defensive end Sean Stanley crashing the zone-read. Again, the defender in the spotlight is circled in red.
Like Barnes two plays earlier, Stanley makes the decision to take Hyde on. Did he make the right call?
No, he did not. Miller pulled the ball and found the lane highlighted by the gigantic green arrow for his second rushing touchdown of the night.
Stanley, circled in red again, can be seen throwing his hands up in frustration. I like to think he was asking the heavens why such an evil play exists. It's not like he ever did anything to deserve that kind of treatment.
This simple play broke Penn State's defense.
The Buckeyes rushed for 134 yards in the second half alone, and 82 percent of that yardage came from the zone-read play (110 yards). The Buckeyes ran it 17 times and averaged nearly six-and-a-half yards from that play alone.
Because of that success, Penn State's secondary had crept up in run support. That allowed Jake Stoneburner to get behind the defense on this post route for a 72-yard touchdown.
At the beginning of the year, Miller wasn't as effective running this play, frequently making the wrong read and taking a loss as a result. He has improved throughout the year, but against Penn State, Miller ran it to perfection.
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