By the time Ohio State’s Braxton Miller lost his second fumble on Saturday night against Northwestern, Kenny Guiton’s star had already gone into orbit on Twitter. My cellphone lit up with two texts from friends wanting to know when the backup quarterback would be in the game, and another one who went the indirect route, texting simply, “I think Braxton is overrated.”
Even before OSU hung on to defeat the Wildcats 40-30, it was clear which direction the public conversation about Ohio State football would go this week. The only negative of having a good backup quarterback is that, as soon as the starter makes a few bad plays, the backup suddenly gets enough support for his own rally on the Statehouse lawn.
In this case, it was two Miller fumbles and an interception that started tongues wagging and twits typing. Even OSU coach Urban Meyer admitted that he came “real close” to benching Miller after the second fumble, which happened at Northwestern’s 2 in the third quarter.
The fact that Meyer even thought about it shows how much confidence he has in Guiton. Miller is a rare talent, one who is so good that many regarded him as the Heisman Trophy front-runner before the season started. Usually, the drop-off from there to the backup would be like taking a step off a high cliff into the Grand Canyon, so a coach wouldn’t think about going to the sub in a close game.
But since Guiton came in against Purdue last season when Miller went down and engineered one of the most dramatic comebacks in school history, it has been clear we are in uncharted territory here. Guiton can’t run the way Miller can, but the fiery fifth-year senior has “it,” that intangible something that makes him a natural leader. He’s the consummate team guy, a backup who knows his place, even if no one else does.
Miller threw four touchdown passes against Wisconsin, which probably should have put an end to this, but his lack of sharpness against Northwestern could have cost OSU its undefeated season. Although he completed 15 of 26 passes for 203 yards against the Wildcats, the one everybody remembers came on third-and-goal from Northwestern’s 3 when he spotted a wide-open Chris Fields in the end zone and fired the ball toward Alpha Centauri.
He ran 17 times for
68 yards, but no run was longer than 15 yards, which could be an indication that the sprained knee that caused him to miss two games and a big chunk of a third is bothering him.
If you remove Miller’s electrifying runs from the equation, Guiton might have an edge. Meyer has admitted that Guiton runs the option better than Miller, and a case can be made for him as the better passer. But even if Miller struggles the way he did against Northwestern, is it smart for the coaches to send Miller to the bench and risk undermining his confidence?
In a weak league, the Buckeyes already have won two of their three biggest regular-season games in Wisconsin and Northwestern. With this Saturday off and seven weeks until the Buckeyes visit Michigan, getting Miller back to Heisman form should be priority No. 1 for the coaches. A healthy, confident Miller still gives the Buckeyes the best chance to win.
Having a vigorous public debate over the quarterback situation isn’t necessarily the best thing for a college football team. But at a place where some people become apoplectic over a failure to throw to the tight end, it will barely cause a ripple.
If the quarterbacks weren’t the topic, it definitely would be something else.
Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.