The Ohio State Buckeyes survived their first big test of the 2013 season, beating the Wisconsin Badgers, 31-24, on Saturday evening in a Big 10 showdown at Ohio Stadium.
Braxton Miller returned as the starting quarterback for the AP No. 4 Buckeyes, and he reminded the college football world why he was a Heisman Trophy contender before suffering a knee injury on Sept. 7.
In addition to racking up 83 yards rushing on 22 carries, the junior completed 17-of-25 passes for 198 yards and four touchdowns, silencing critics who have knocked him for his throwing ability.
This toss to Evan Spencer dismissed any notion that Miller was rusty:
Wisconsin's dynamic backfield, featuring Melvin Gordon—who entered the game with a nation-leading 624 rushing yards—and James White, was held in check rather well by the Buckeyes defense.
The focal point of Ohio State's defensive effort was star outside linebacker Ryan Shazier—the only returning starter to the front seven from last year's undefeated team.
Gordon and White combined for 105 yards on 23 carries—a respectable figure, but not nearly what would be required to pull off the upset. Unfortunately, Gordon was hampered by a left leg injury and exited the game after registering 15 carries for 74 yards:
Melvin Gordon stayed down after that tackle. Training staff attending to him. Walking off slowly with help. Maybe left leg.— Ralph D. Russo (@ralphDrussoAP) September 29, 2013
Badgers quarterback Joel Stave played well in his own right, hooking up often with receiver Jared Abbrederis, who had 10 receptions for 207 yards with standout Buckeye corner Bradley Roby covering him.
NFLDraftScout.com's Dane Bugler had Abbrederis projected high as an NFL wideout entering the evening, and the senior lived up to the hype:
But again, the Buckeyes were too much for Wisconsin in front of a packed house in Columbus. Stave's only interception set up Miller's fourth touchdown pass, and second to Philly Brown, who led Ohio State with eight catches for 85 yards.
That was one of several miscues that cost the Badgers.
A critical sequence to open the second quarter proved to be a difference-maker, as Wisconsin missed a 32-yard field goal.
The mistake was compounded by a dropped interception, followed by Miller hitting Brown for a 40-yard scoring strike with just one second before the half, which put OSU up, 24-14, at the time.
A fourth-quarter charge resulted in White finding the end zone for the visitors from 17 yards out to cut the lead to 31-21 with 13:47 left. Then, Kyle French nailed a 42-yard field goal through the uprights late, but the Badgers couldn't muster enough magic for a last-minute miracle.
Here is a look at how several marquee performers graded in this landmark win for the Buckeyes.
Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: A
Showing no ill effects of the injury he suffered a number of weeks ago, Miller returned with a vengeance. The Badgers dared him to beat them through the air, and the dynamic signal-caller did indeed.
Miller made all of the necessary throws, and his clutch touchdown pass to Brown to end the first half will go down as one of the defining moments of Ohio State's 2013 season.
Joel Stave, QB, Wisconsin: B
It would have been easy for Stave to fold without the usually reliable running game, but he did not wilt in the face of a tenacious Buckeyes defense.
This 36-yard touchdown throw to Abbrederis to knot the score at seven was about as good of a ball as he could have thrown:
Stave won't shoulder the lion's share of the blame for this loss, but he would love to have the pass that Roby picked back, given the close nature of the game. He completed 20-of-34 passes for 295 yards, two touchdowns and a pick.
Ohio State's Front Seven: A
To shut down the tandem of Gordon and White, who spearheaded a rushing attack that averaged 349.8 yards per contest entering Saturday, it took a team effort of physical play up front.
Shazier was the catalyst, but defensive lineman Michael Bennett was stout and got pressure on Stave. The Buckeyes swarmed the football consistently and didn't allow the Badgers to set the tone in the trenches.
Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin: A+
As the only reliable wide receiver at Stave's disposal, Abbrederis fared well, considering he was shadowed by a player of Roby's caliber all night.
After gaining 159 yards in the first half alone, the standout pass-catcher was quiet for a stretch in the second half, but he turned it up late when his team needed him most.
Abbrederis put on a route-running clinic and finished with over 200 yards as the go-to target. That should only enhance his NFL draft stock, which is at least some consolation for suffering a second loss in three games.
The Buckeyes move to 17-0 under head coach Urban Meyer, and they will look to keep the momentum going with a difficult road trip to No. 17 Northwestern looming next week.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin has a bye week to bounce back from this devastating defeat, and then they will face Northwestern at home on Oct. 12.