Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer wasn't lying when he said that UCF would be a venerable increase of the degree of difficulty relative to the Buckeyes' season opener. In a game that never saw the Central Florida Knights lead, Ohio State continued to press through a variety of growing pains en route to a 31-16 win over UCF. With perhaps the first sub-105,000 attendance game since Terrelle Pryor's debut as Ohio State's starting quarterback, the Buckeyes struggled with consistency as their fans struggled to disprove UCF coach George O'Leary's criticism earlier this week that Ohio State wasn't as loud of an environment as Wisconsin and Iowa.
Buckeyes 2011 starter turned role player Orhian Johnson shined the brightest during a decidedly mixed afternoon of effectiveness by the Ohio State defense. Johnson recorded a huge pass break up, a key tackle, a tip that led to an interception, and later a pick of his own en route to the win. On the offensive side of the ball, Braxton Miller continued to showcase why virtually everyone thought Urban Meyer and Tom Herman's offense would almost be an unfair advantage for the second year signal caller. Miller completed 19-of-25 passes for 168 yards, a TD (and unfortunately his first pick of the season). While he took his fair share of licks from another sub-Urban Meyer's standards performance by the Buckeye offensive line, Miller also managed to rush for 140 yards and 3 TDs including a 37 yard rushing TD. Yet, this team (and their young quarterback) in many ways remains a work in progress.
The Ohio State defense started Saturday afternoon on the field first and were forced to do so without the presence of the Miami (Ohio) game's most effective defensive lineman, Nathan Williams. True freshman Tommy Schutt was a surprise starter at DT (the week's depth chart indicated J.T. Moore might be getting the nod) while the versatile, possible first round draft pick in the 2013 NFL Draft Johnathan Hankins was moved outside to strong side defensive end. After allowing a pass completion on the first play of the game, the afternoon's star, Johnson, recorded his first tackle on the day. Another frosh, Noah Spence, showed his pedigree early on as well, nearly decapitating Central Florida's QB Blake Bortles on a play that was ultimately nullified by a false start penalty. Travis Howard began a personal theme for the afternoon making a bad wrap, then having to be seen for medical attention. While it was not 100% clear during the course of the action, it would seem Howard struggled with a shoulder injury for most of the afternoon's.
The first Ohio State offensive drive of the afternoon picked up fairly close to where the Buckeyes left off a week prior against the RedHawks. A play action fake hand off to Carlos Hyde instead turned into the first of many connections between Miller and Ohio State wide receiver Corey Brown on the afternoon. It was supplemented by a powerful Zach Boren run, something that may become more common place given Ohio State's M.A.S.H. unit of a halfback corp. Though new University of Central Florida DL coach's previous career was as a motivational speaker, he had little in the way of encouraging words following a drive that ended with the aforementioned emphatic Braxton Miller 37 yard touchdown run. After the play, Miller now stood at over 900 rushing yards for his still relatively green career.
Faced during the next offensive series with a 4th-and-1 at their own 47, Urban Meyer channeled his father, Bud. Where as the late elder Meyer once made his son walk home following a high school baseball game in which he struck out too many times, Meyer essentially dared his offense by forcing them to go for it on every 4th-and-short situation within reason. The Buckeyes' first go at it followed the theme of last week's end of second quarter failure where by which the Buckeyes failed to execute and UCF's Jonathan Davis flew in for an easy turnover on down forcing stuff. After a Travis Howard mental vacation culminated in a pass interference call, the Knights settled for a field goal to make the game 7-3 Ohio State.
The second quarter saw redemption for the earlier Buckeye failure on fourth. This time giving the ball to battering ram Carlos Hyde yielded a big game and a seemingly easy first down. Despite a string of completions (Brown and fellow OSU receiver Jake Stoneburner amongst them) leaving Braxton Miller at a juncture at which he'd completed nine consecutive passes going back to last weekend, Ohio State was forced to settle for a field goal attempt. Drew Basil's 24 yarder made it 10-7 Buckeyes.
Though nearly 50% of the contiguous United State's population is located within 500 miles of Columbus, OH, it didn't seem many of them were interested in making the pilgrimage to Columbus for Saturday's affair. A situationally excited crowd lived up to the week's trash talk turned meme. A series of huge runs by former Miami Hurricane Storm Johnson and a lackluster holding call by John Simon led to a wide open play action touchdown from Bortles to wide receiver Justin Tukes. A Shawn Moffit point after tied the game at 10 all.
Following a kickoff out of bounds, Ohio State started at their own 40 determined to regain the lead. After yet another impressive Braxton Miller run, a late out of bounds hit briefly forced Miller to the sidelines though the sophomore returned to handoff to fullback Zach Boren who promptly fumbled giving the ball back to the Knights. Travis Howard answered the call, being in precisely the right place at the right time to return possession to the Buckeyes. After a Corey Brown end around, Braxton and company ultimately found themselves on the bad end of a 3rd-and-16 only to be bailed out by Miller's feet once again on a 24-yard quarterback scramble. A Clayton Geathers hit left Braxton slow to get up once again, but Miller stayed in and took the ball across the goal line for the second time on the afternoon giving the Buckeyes a 17-10 lead following another Basil point after. The drive finished with Braxton Miller having his second consecutive 100-yard rushing game. Going into half time, Miller had 14 carries for 108 yards. Though given the amount of punishment he took during it, it wouldn't be entirely awful to see the load distributed more judiciously.
Half time didn't provide much in the area of good news as following a violent collision toward the tail end of the half, Ohio State starting running back Carlos Hyde was seen icing his knee and forced out of the game with injury. Enter Bri'onte Dunn and an increased load for Zach Boren. A drive that included both a successful redemption run and reception by Boren, a Devin Smith catch ultimately gave way to a Braxton Miller to Jake Stoneburner 12 yard throw and catch helping open up the lead to 24-10.
Storm Johnson continued to look effective on UCF's ensuing offensive drive while Ohio State's defensive line continued to look well below the "amongst the best in the nation" praise we lauded on them for much of the preseason. An ill advised Blake Bortles throw into quintuple coverage, a Bradley Roby tip, and an athletic catch by Buckeyes linebacker and captain Etienne Sabino returned possession to the Buckeyes. Taking advantage of the short field, a Braxton Miller dart to Smith followed by a Miller's third touchdown run of the afternoon padded the Ohio State to 31-10. At that juncture, Miller joined rarefied air that includes Beanie Wells, the last Buckeye to have three rushing touchdowns in a game (Wisconsin in 2007). Miller found himself not even midway through the third with 20 rushes for 144 yards and 3 TDs where as the rest of the Buckeyes' offensve combined for 81 yards on 18 carries.
While Jamal Marcus and freshman David Perkins continued to show what they bring to the table on special teams, a huge lick on Storm Johnson was offset by a Bortles to Quincy McDuffies wide open connection. Either Bradley Roby or C.J. Barnett appeared to be out of position on the play. More Buckeyes blown coverage ultimately left UCF in a 4th down red zone scenario given the score they had little choice but to go for. Blake Bortles improvised and found fullback (and UCF legacy) Billy Giovenetti on a two yard touchdown pass. Following an Adolphus Washington blocked point after, the score stood 31-16.
The fourth quarter would go on to show Braxton Miller's mortality when a failure to recognize cover two coverage resulted in a Braxton Miller errant throw to UCF corner A.J. Bouye. Coach Meyer was seen immediately after having words with Miller about the suspect throw. Orhian Johnson would add to his prolific afternoon later returning the favor with Ohio State's third interception of Bortles on the afternoon. Miller would continue to take his fair share of licks, including a sack by UCF DT Jose Jose.
For all the Buckeyes' late offensive ineptitude, UCF reciprocated, in part aided by a suddenly motivated Buckeyes D. Johnathan Hankins appeared to be at his most disruptive late and a hungry-like-the-wolf Doran (Doran) Grant pass breakup appeared to all but seal things for Ohio State. The ensuing Braxton Miller to Rod Smith handoff was botched and UCF was given one last chance to at least beat the early spreads (which opened in many places at 13.5 or 14.5). A could've been Bortles intentional grounding after a swarm of Buckeyes descended upon him ended things, letting the Buckeyes avoid the worst case scenario and leave the Shoe victors, 31-16
For all the immediate overreaction to the play of the secondary and for as much as they left desired during the 2011 season, much of the inconsistency defensively should also fall on the defensive line. Whether he was being double teamed the majority of the game or not, John Simon only really managed to get past the opposition on one or two plays. While Johnathan Hankins had more of an impact than he did a week prior (which was admittedly a lot of the result of Miami's offense), he still really only had one or two prolific plays to his name. When true freshmen like Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington are making more memorable highlights (amidst all their typical freshmen moments) than your prospective NFL first round draft picks, something's not all right. For the second straight week as well, it didn't seem like the Buckeyes got much from their linebacker corp. Ryan Shazier likely got his statistically, but outside of the Sabino pick, it didn't feel as though they had the kind of impact the coaches likely hoped they would after an anonymous showing a week ago.
Offensively, the Buckeyes are still very much a work in progress as well. The offensive line has to figure out how to keep Braxton Miller upright and avoid the need for the Buckeyes QB to have to run 25+ times to generate offense. Bri'onte Dunn showed flashes and even with the potential return of Jordan Hall, he will quickly become one of the most important cogs in the Bucks' offense with Carlos Hyde having suffered an MCL sprain and now expected to miss one-to-two weeks. The wide receivers regressed some from last week's breakout performance, and despite the touchdown snag, Jake Stoneburner yet again appeared to be more important as a blocker than as a target. Jeff Heuerman had his first relative big catch of the year but Nick Vannett was more of an angel investor to the Buckeyes' offensive success Saturday.
Particularly without Hyde to shoulder some of the load, regardless of Cal's instability, next weekend's opponents should bring in the most athletically talented group Ohio State will have seen to point in 2012. It'll be up to Luke Fickell and Urban Meyer to address a shaky performance defensively and build on two weeks' worth of game experience to continue getting Ohio State headed where many think they ultimately should be.