COLUMBUS, Ohio — California linebacker Robert Mullins watched film of Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller and quickly picked up on a theme for the center of attention for the Golden Bears’ defense on Saturday.
“Anytime you have a dynamic quarterback like that you have to be disciplined,” Mullins said. “You can’t lose control because at any given moment he might take off to run. From looking at film it looks like one of his first priorities is to run.”
And that’s a problem not only for the Bears, who are trying to contain Miller, but also the 12th-ranked Buckeyes — who also are trying to contain him.
Miller has 44 carries through two games — only 10 players in the Football Bowl Subdivision have more. And most if not all of those 10 players are running backs, so they don’t also have to run an offense and throw passes.
“I was a little bit sore, but I wasn’t as sore as everybody probably thought I was,” Miller said of his 27 carries in a 31-16 win over Central Florida, which is a record for an Ohio State quarterback. “I’m pretty good now.”
He said he thought the optimum number of carries for him to be a threat and maintain his health was 10 or 12 carries.
With tailbacks Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall either sidelined or limited this week by injuries, that leaves two other largely unproven backs (Rod Smith and Brio’nte Dunn) to help shoulder some of the running game.
After Wednesday’s practice, coach Urban Meyer said he would announce a decision on Saturday.
“We’re going to name the starter on game day,” he said. “I’m still going to evaluate how they prepare. I’m very pleased with what they’ve done (this week).”
Hall has been cleared to play but he likely will need some time to return to the form that won him the starting job last spring. He hasn’t had contact all summer and fall since cutting a tendon in his foot in June when he stepped on a piece of glass while walking outside his apartment with his dog.
“In his heart and his mind, he thinks he can go,” Ohio State running backs coach Stan Drayton said. “But if he can’t perform at close to 100 percent and if he might actually hurt the team and not help the team, those are things we’ll have to assess.”
The backfield Buckeyes are making progress but won’t know if they’ve solved their problem behind Miller until they play California on Saturday.
“Talent is not an issue at running back at Ohio State,” Meyer said. “We just have to coach them better and get them ready to go.”
Two things are very clear based on the Buckeyes’ most recent win. First, they needed Miller to run 27 times just to win the game. Second, Ohio State’s coaching staff is not thrilled with some of the mistakes made by Dunn, a freshman, and Smith, a sophomore.
“They were thrown in the fire and it’s a matter of they had a few missed assignments and at times I think there was a lack of focus,” Drayton said. “You’re talking about two guys who have not had a whole bunch of playing experience at this level. So, they showed their inexperience a little bit.”
California coach Jeff Tedford doesn’t have to look at hours and hours of film to see that much of the Buckeyes’ offense is based on Miller running the ball. It’s also obvious that Miller prefers to run rather than pass or hand off.
Both of those facts mean the defense can focus on a quarterback who likes to run more than he likes to pass.
“You have to account for both but he’s a big threat when it comes to running the football, no doubt about it,” said Tedford, who quickly mentioned the 44 carries by Miller. “He’s 6-2, 220 pounds so he’s physical, and he’s fast. He’s like another running back playing quarterback.”
Meyer would like Miller to carry roughly half of what he did on Saturday.
“Over/under?” Meyer said, referring to his quarterback’s total carries. “I think 15 is a good number. If we play really well and the guys are on their game, 10 to 12 is really where you want to be but I don’t know if we’re there yet.”
Drayton had the estimable assignment of coaching wide receivers at Ohio State. It was not a deep and talented group.
Now he’s in charge of running backs and again he faces depth and experience problems.
He concedes that he could end up worrying a lot about who’s running the ball. Wide receiver Corey Brown and fullback Zach Boren will likely also see more of the ball.
“If it starts to look like it did on game day (against UCF), then I will begin to feel very, very nervous,” Drayton said. “But the beauty of this offense is we can kind of systematically put people in place to make plays for us.”
The Buckeyes just need to find out who those people are.