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College Teams Fri Nov 18 2011

Big Ten Football: Ohio State Grooms New QB

Thumbnail image for big ten divisions vertical.JPGWe all knew Ohio State wouldn't stay down for long. Even after their nail-biting near-loss to Toledo in Week 2, the Buckeyes had a trusted -- if not proven -- head coach in Luke Fickell, a nexus of senior players who would return from suspension in time for the games that were legitimately challenging, and a senior quarterback who had spent three years learning the offensive scheme behind Terrelle Pryor.

But while the head coach and nucleus of talent have proven their utility in climbing back up to a favorable position in the Leaders Division after their impressive win over Wisconsin on Oct. 29, the experience under center has not gone quite as planned.

After just three games, it was the 24-6 blowout loss to Miami in which Joe Bauserman completed a meager 14 percent of his passes that prompted Fickell to pull the trigger. And with his suspended upperclassmen nearing their return and the Big Ten schedule imminent, he handed the majority of the snaps over to talented freshman quarterback Braxton Miller.

Miller's pedigree is not unlike Pryor's -- 6'3" and 210 pounds, he is extremely athletic and makes more plays with his feet than he does with his arm. And after the lopsided quarterback play in the Oct. 8 contest against Nebraska, that was more than enough.

Although Miller gave up the game-clinching fumble in a 34-27 loss to the Cornhuskers, Bauserman had spent the rest of the game completing just 1 of 10 passes for 13 yards and an interception. Miller, on the other hand, went 5-of-8 for 95 yards an a touchdown en route to earning the full share of snaps the following week against Illinois.

The defense he faced next was more than just then-undefeated and No. 16 Illinois. Amid wind gusts greater than 20 mph and with the return of stellar running back Dan Herron, Miller attempted just four passes and completed only one of them. They won the game anyway, 17-7.

Since then, the Buckeyes have employed their freshman quarterback with admirable restraint. Instead of letting the youngster run wild, they've limited his passes (he's attempted more than 12 just once, when he attempted 18 against Purdue last week) and shrunk the offense (he's averaging just over 10 yards per completion) by slowly expanding his role as a runner. He compiled 99 yards on the ground against Wisconsin three weeks ago, and 105 yards against Indiana two weeks ago.

Fickell and his coaching staff have the luxury to ease a green passer into their system because they benefit from a powerful offensive line and rushing attack.

Jim Tressel and his coaching staff used the exact same arrangement with Pryor in his freshman year. After a blowout loss on the road to No. 1 USC that saw the Buckeyes drop from No. 5 to No. 13 in the AP Poll, Ohio State made the abrupt transition from the veteran pocket passer Todd Boeckman to the freshman athlete Pryor. They then used veteran tailback Beanie Wells to help offset some of the incurred weaknesses in the passing offense. Through the entire season, Pryor attempted 20 or more passes only once, completing 16 of 25 for 226 yards in a 13-6 loss against then-No. 3 Penn State.

And while Miller struggled on the road last week, completing just 8 of 18 passes in a loss to Purdue, his stats showed more promise for the future. Despite his inaccuracy, he did not turn the ball over once in racking up 132 yards and two touchdowns through the air and another score on the ground. The more glaring problem in the loss was the cast he had relied on--Herron compiled just 62 yards on 18 carries, and the normally stout defense let Purdue's rotating cast of a mechanical offense move the ball at will during crucial stretches in the game.

So while the loss was damaging to the Buckeyes' Big Ten title hopes in 2011, they showed promise for Ohio State in the near future. Teams like Michigan State, Wisconsin, Michigan, and in some respects Nebraska are beating up on each other with seasoned quarterbacks, but Ohio State is managing to kick around with the rest of them while also priming their young quarterback for a bigger role in races for the conference championship in the near future. It's this systematic approach that makes the Buckeyes perennial Big Ten and BCS contenders through the last decade; and why we shouldn't expect that to change anytime too soon.

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