Like many Ohio State fans, I will always have a soft spot for Braxton Miller. He's been such a likable Buckeye during his stay in Columbus that's its been impossible not to root for him. And the struggle for the former quarterback has been very real during his tenure; from his first year on a bad, bad, bad Ohio State team, his next year on a perfect but flawed team with no real chance to prove its worth against the country's best, due to a one-year bowl hiatus. His third year was an offensive juggernaut year for an offensive juggernaut team that managed to lose its final two games to Michigan State in the B1G Championship, and then to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
And then came Miller's fourth year. Or at least that's where this story should go.
But Miller didn't get that fourth year in 2014. With only a days' notice before a home opener against Virginia Tech, the Buckeye signal caller called it a year, citing any of the massive injuries that had set him down before. We all know what happened after that - the Virginia Tech loss, the emergence of J.T. Barrett, the whipping of Michigan State, Barrett going down against Michigan, Cardale Jones bursting onto the scene (and your twitter feed), and then three of the most important wins in Ohio State football history.
But at the center of it were other players. Jones and Barrett clapping a cadence behind center. Ezekiel Elliott bursting through a deep offensive line. Joey Bosa announcing his presence as the best defensive player in the country (due respect to Scooby Wright and Shilique Calhoun). All of that happened without Miller.
Even when the Buckeyes were celebrating their national championship this winter, Miller often looked like an afterthought, even whilst hamming it up with his fellow quarterbacks. In a team as deep as this year's Ohio State team appeared to be, Miller sort of looked like the odd man out at any position. Go back to when Miller announced his intention to play H-back instead of quarterback. It was done alone, to SI's Pete Thamel, and was not widely accepted by the coaching staff, at least on the record, until much later. Braxton Miller, the most skilled athlete in the country, was on an island. Alone.
Until last night.
There were so many questions about this Ohio State team heading into the Labor Day showdown against Virginia Tech, from who would start at quarterback, to questions about Buckeye depth in the wake of four pre-season suspensions to key players like Bosa and Jalin Marshall. For me, the bigger question is what would we see out of Braxton Miller in his debut at a position other than quarterback. If I'm completely honest, I almost forgot he was on the field at the beginning of the game: his jersey switch from five to one was almost lost on me. But it didn't take long for Miller to remind me and everyone else in the stands, and at home watching, of how special a player he can be.
Miller's near perfect route on a near perfect throw-and-catch from Jones showed how quickly he's tuned his game to the intricacies of the wide receiver position
The three-play highlight reel that Miller produced last night was truly a sight to behold: his first ever catch as a collegian is the stuff that makes more seasoned wide receivers wonder if they could make that play. His near perfect route on a near perfect throw-and-catch from Jones showed how quickly Miller has tuned his game to the intricacies of the wide receiver position (and it can't be overstated how great a toss it was by Jones, hitting Miller in stride, with enough room for to turn up field and score the touchdown that righted a listing Buckeye ship). And then there was the pure video game magic that deserves to be embedded for centuries.
That's the Braxton Miller that we all salivated at when dreaming of the prospect of his ability and athleticism with a head of steam as a skill player, instead of from a flat-footed start as quarterback. Virginia Tech has many great defensive players, and more than a few of them are still looking for their shoes after that play.
In the end, business as usual was the theme. After Ohio State went up by two scores easily, they gave up 17 unanswered to Virginia Tech, each Buckeye mistake (a hold on a would be Jones TD run, a missed field goal, and tip-drill interception, and muffed punt by Elliott) leading to good things for the Hokies going into the lockers at halftime. But Miller's touchdown reception, maybe his third best play of the night, was the spark that ignited the Buckeyes and set the tone for the rest of the evening in Blacksburg. One game down for the Buckeyes, arguably their hardest of the year, many more to go.
We've talked about Braxton Miller's legacy in this space before, and how the move to H-back could prove to be the smartest, most selfless, and most ambitious decisions of his already smart, selfless, and ambitious career. Last night in Lane Stadium, we got to put our eyes on just what that legacy could look like at season's end. This is what the Buckeye offense looks like with Braxton Miller lining up next to a quarterback instead of as one. And with four more players (not to mention easier sledding for Elliott) coming back to the lineup against Hawai'i on Saturday, we may have only seen the beginning of something very special.