Healthy Miller keeps title hopes alive

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Style points might slip away.

The Heisman Trophy conversation might move on to hotter topics.

But as long as the wins keep coming and Braxton Miller keeps himself on the field, Ohio State doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon in the race for what really matters.

The Buckeyes have looked vulnerable at times since opening Big Ten play, the defense has had a couple of sluggish starts that have forced critical halftime adjustments, and there was even a spell where turnovers and shaky play from Miller gave reason to think about making a change at quarterback.

But at least that last issue appears to have been resolved with the junior simply getting healthy and confident on the knee he injured in the second week of the season. And while that sprain may have knocked him out of consideration for the Heisman, healing from it has kept his team right on track to contend for a bigger prize after another vintage performance in a 34-24 win over Iowa on Saturday at the Horseshoe.

“I didn’t feel this well since the first game of the season,” Miller said. “The knee injury set me back a little bit, but I felt pretty good out there, had a good week of preparation.

“Running, strides -- it feels pretty good.”

His movement as a scrambler and footwork as a passer looked pretty appealing for the Buckeyes, too. And it was also much more familiar and comforting for a team that relies on his uncanny athleticism as both a passer and a rusher after a couple of weeks in which Miller clearly didn’t have all of his tools available.

Gone was the guy who was inconsistent with his accuracy and coughing up a couple of fumbles against Northwestern, briefly making coach Urban Meyer think about going to his bench to find a spark. In his place was an improved version of the versatile weapon who carried the Buckeyes to an unbeaten record a year ago, completing 22 of his 27 passes for 222 yards and a pair of touchdowns with his fine-tuned mechanics and adding 102 yards with legs that no longer provided any limitation to his rushing ability.

Ohio State had used plenty of caution in bringing Miller back from the injury that knocked him out for two games and almost all of another, and Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman have stressed that he was fully ready to go when he returned for the conference opener against Wisconsin. But there was something missing when they watched the film of those two outings, and compared to the high standard he set a year ago and matched again in carving up the Hawkeyes, it’s certainly easy to see the difference in hindsight.

And in case anybody had forgotten what that means to Ohio State’s offense, his sideline-to-sideline, field-reversing, backfield scramble for a crucial third-down conversion to set up the game-winning score offered a helpful reminder.

“He had a fantastic [passing] game against Wisconsin, but I don’t know that he was called upon to run the football maybe as much as tonight,” Herman said. “Against Northwestern, I probably saw it a little bit on video, a little bit of tentativeness.

“But he looked like his old self tonight in that phase of the game.”

The Buckeyes might still have some work to do in the phases that don’t include Miller, and another sloppy first half on defense will again command Meyer’s attention as he looks to extend his 19-game winning streak with the program next week against Penn State.

Already missing starting safety Christian Bryant due to a broken ankle, a struggling secondary was stretched even further when star cornerback Bradley Roby was ejected for targeting in the first quarter. A defensive line that had been solid all season against the run was gashed for 101 yards before halftime, and collectively the Buckeyes looked baffled by Iowa’s play-action passing game as they fell behind going into the locker room for the second consecutive game.

But just as it did against Northwestern, the defense made a few adjustments to slow down the ground game, came up with a key turnover with a late interception from Tyvis Powell, and the pass rush ultimately showed up to collapse the pocket and disrupt the passing attack.

And with that work under control on the defensive side of the ball, an unencumbered Miller took the controls once again to get a high-powered offense humming on the way to yet another victory.

“I can always tell when he’s feeling good,” Meyer said. “When he’s running, carrying out fakes, those types of things, I can see it now.

“He looks better. He looks like he feels great.”

As long as he stays that way, Ohio State’s title chances are likely going to stay healthy as well.