Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller is not a particularly expressive person.
Miller doesn’t celebrate wildly when he scores or throws a touchdown pass. He doesn’t sulk when things don’t go his way. It took a long time for offensive coordinator Tom Herman to get a read on Miller’s personality because of that placid demeanor.
But Herman sensed recently that something was bothering Miller, a junior who entered this season as a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy. That dream was derailed after Miller suffered a sprained knee early in the second game against San Diego State and missed the next two games.
When backup Kenny Guiton played so well in Miller’s absence, there were whispers about how strong Miller’s grasp on the starting job really was — or should be. Then coach Urban Meyer acknowledged that he came close to replacing Miller with Guiton against Northwestern on Oct. 5 after the starter lost two fumbles and overthrew an open receiver in the end zone.
Although Miller said yesterday that he wasn’t aware of his potential benching, what was true was that his joy in playing had diminished.
“I feel sometimes all the pressure is on me, and it weighs on me,” Miller said.
With the Buckeyes having a bye week after the Northwestern game, Herman had some heart-to-heart conversations with Miller about lessening the burden he felt.
“The kid has been the starting quarterback at the Ohio State University for a long time and had a ridiculous amount of preseason hype,” Herman said.
So against Iowa on Saturday, Miller was determined to rediscover his zest for playing. It showed in his performance. Miller played what might have been his most complete game in his three seasons at Ohio State.
He completed a career-high 22 passes out of 27 for 222 yards and two touchdowns. Meyer said he was particularly pleased with how decisive Miller was in going through his progressions.
Miller also ran 18 times for 102 yards, looking like his preinjury, elusive self.
“He had a smile on his face every time he made a play,” receiver Devin Smith said. “You could tell he was enjoying playing the game of football.”
That was the product of conversations not only with Herman, but with teammates and his father, Kevin.
“Anybody playing this game needs to have fun,” Meyer said. “Coaches have a tendency to make it unfun because it’s work, work, work. I think we do a good job of (avoiding) that around here, and Tom does a great job.”
Miller has never been a me-first player but acknowledged that he wanted to make a run at the Heisman Trophy. Last year, Miller said he didn’t feel much pressure. The Buckeyes were ineligible for the Big Ten championship and a bowl game. Miller was learning the spread offense. Growing pains were expected.
This year, expectations were much greater.
“I felt like I had to be perfect,” he said. “We went 12-0 last year and the Heisman talk and all that. I just had to let that go out the door.”
Receiver Corey Brown said he also talked to Miller before the Iowa game.
His message was similar to Herman’s.
“I told him to just relax,” Brown said. “You can’t worry about making mistakes out there. We’ve been playing this game your whole life, so there’s no reason to be nervous. It doesn’t really matter what the critics say.”
There was almost nothing to criticize last week.
Now comes Penn State. A year ago, Miller was wild with his passes early as he tried to prove he was fine after being injured in the Purdue game the week before. But he settled down and made perhaps the most dazzling play of his career when he instinctively stepped back to avoid a tackle and then dived in for a 1-yard touchdown run that essentially sealed the Buckeyes’ victory.
“That was like a blur,” Miller said. “I have no idea how that happened.”
It happened because Miller was just playing, doing what comes naturally, having fun. It’s a feeling he lost but now has found again.