The encore didn’t top the opening act, but Braxton Miller drew a standing ovation nonetheless.
One week ago, Miller set the Ohio State quarterback rushing record with 161 yards. This week he tied a 34-year school record for rushing touchdowns in a game by a quarterback, with three.
But it wasn’t just the touchdowns that left fans with an open jaw, it was the way in which Miller willed his team to a 31-16 victory over Central Florida.
After an up-and-down first half for the Buckeyes, Miller took command after the half, driving Ohio State 76 yards in 12 plays. It gave Ohio State a 24-10 lead and a much-needed momentum boost.
The drive ended when Miller perfectly lobbed a ball over a defender that landed softly in Jake Stoneburner’s hands in the end zone.
Miller finished the day with 141 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns, and 155 passing yards and one passing score. All told, Miller was responsible for 296 of Ohio State’s 411 offensive yards.
It came at a cost, however. When running back Carlos Hyde went down in the second quarter with a right MCL sprain, the run game fell on Miller’s shoulders.
"Carlos went down, so I had to help out with the running to get that going," Miller said.
Head coach Urban Meyer wasn’t happy with him carrying the ball 17 times last week. Twenty-seven against UCF left him even less pleased.
“That's too much,” Meyer said. “Twenty-seven hits. He's blown out right now. We have to be smart. Someone's got to run the ball. And right now he's our best answer.”
That’s because Jordan Hall is already out after his freak foot injury over the summer, though his projected return date is this upcoming Saturday against Cal. Hyde’s injury leaves Ohio State with Zach Boren, Bri’onte Dunn and Rod Smith in the backfield.
Despite Miller’s 57 yards on five carries in the first quarter, UCF refused to load up at the line of scrimmage or clog the middle of the field. He ran nine more times in the second quarter for 43 yards.
“Oh yeah,” said Miller, when asked if he was surprised that UCF left the middle of the field open. “We tried to get some separation by spreading out the wide receivers. But it was wide open,” he added with emphasis.
He gladly took advantage. Miller scored on runs of 37, six and eight yards.
Miller said he wasn’t sore last week after 17 carries, but this week was a new experience for him.
“I’ve never had 27 carries in my life,” he said. “Twenty-seven is a big gap from 17. I’m sure I’ll feel something tomorrow.”
By the size of the ice pack on his elbow, it appeared that Miller was already feeling it. After completing one of his first seven passes last week, he connected on his first seven against the Knights. On the day, Miller was 18 of 24 for 155 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
He started out the game much calmer, completing short passes to raise his confidence level. None of his 18 completions was longer than 14 yards.
“I was just taking what the defense gave me,” Miller said.
His 37-yard first-quarter touchdown run put the Buckeyes up seven, and it looked like more of the same after his 161-yard performance last week. Facing a 4th-and-1 near midfield on the next possession, Meyer chose to go for it. And like last week’s goal-line mishap, the Buckeyes again failed to get the yard. UCF’s Jonathan Davis hit Miller behind the line of scrimmage and sent him into a helicopter-like somersault.
“I'm trying to push the buttons to make us a good team,” Meyer said. “Midfield you should be able to, on 4th-and-1, get a first down. We did it twice, and I think our offense knows we're going to do it again. At some point you have to do that. When you're a very good team, which right now we're not, but we're working our tails off to become that very good team.”
UCF took advantage of the turnover on downs and kicked a field goal. Ohio State extended its lead to 10-3, but the Knights came right back with a touchdown of their own to tie the game at 10. A quick touchdown drive before halftime sent the Buckeyes into the locker room with a seven-point advantage.
When the second half commenced, Ohio State had arguably its best drive of the season, scoring in 12 plays. On the next possession, UCF quarterback Blake Bortles threw an ill-advised pass that was batted around by a handful of Buckeyes until, finally, linebacker Etienne Sabino bounded downfield with the interception.
Ohio State’s lead eventually stretched to 21 points, before the Knights scored a touchdown and Adolphus Washington blocked the extra point, providing the final margin.
Bortles finished 25 of 41 with 249 yards and two touchdowns. But all of that production was offset by three interceptions, including one in the red zone by Orhian Johnson. Travis Howard was the recipient of the other pick, his third of the season.
University of Miami transfer Storm Johnson had 75 yards rushing on 12 carries.
There was chatter all summer about UCF giving Ohio State a game, and Meyer reiterated that message throughout the week. It was an opponent that was not to be taken lightly.
“As always, I like to give credit to a very good team we faced in Central Florida,” Meyer said. “We knew going in they would try to run downhill on us. I think this is the second week in a row we held a team under 100 yards rushing.”
It wasn’t all ice cream and cookies, however. At 2-0, Ohio State sits where it should. But to Meyer, it’s still an imperfect team that is far away from being special.
"I don't want to say we're not a good team, but we're not," Meyer said. "We're just mushing around out there. And we've got to be much better than we are.
“We’re not where I thought we'd be. I thought we'd be a little more explosive on offense and thought we'd get some pressure on the quarterback.”
Facing two inferior teams, as most major conference schools do to begin the season, Ohio State’s lack of pressure on the quarterback has been a major flaw and mystery. Entering the season, the main theme of the 2012 Buckeyes centered on a dominant defensive line; they haven’t been bad, but dominant is far from anyone’s mind.
But that’s not where the concerns end in Meyer’s eyes.
“Offensive line, I think is doing a decent job moving the ball,” he said. “Receivers are starting to build up a little bit but there's other areas where I thought we'd be a little more explosive on offense.”
Down to the third-string tailback, the offense could be suffering even more in future weeks, depending on Hall’s status. But injuries aside, it was the three turnovers and 10 penalties for 79 yards that stuck in Meyer’s craw.
“Pick your poison,” he said. "Turnovers and penalties. You can't win. That's not a good team.”
Complete Game Coverage
But, as Meyer says, the mission each and every Saturday is to win the game. Ohio State has done that twice, no matter how ugly the final product looked.
“I don't want to be a downer around here.” Meyer said. “We won a frickin’ game. We won by two touchdowns against a quality opponent. It’s time to move on and get ready to go play (Cal).”
Bloody Tuesday might be extra red – or scarlet – this week. No doubt Meyer wants his team to not just win, but win with excellence in execution. The ultimate motivator, Meyer will likely push the right buttons this week.
And when the Golden Bears head east, the objective for the Buckeyes will remain the same: win the frickin’ game.