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Buckeye Heroes: Steve Miller gets little recognition, but helped fuel Ohio State football’s last title run

Miller was a career backup until his senior season. But when opportunity finally did present itself, he took full advantage and helped the Scarlet and Gray win a national championship.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about Ohio State heroes. Whether they are the biggest names in Buckeye athletic history, or underappreciated icons; perhaps even players who made major impacts off the field. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”Buckeye Heroes” articles here.

Steve Miller was a four-star defensive line recruit and top-100 player coming out of Canton McKinley HS in 2011, earning offers from Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Florida, just to name a few. But he chose to stay home and play for Ohio State, a precedent set by more than a dozen Bulldogs (McKinley’s mascot) before him.

As a big-time contributor for McKinley – one of Ohio’s elite high school football programs – who then committed to play for OSU, Miller was likely hoping to follow in the footsteps of Ray Ellis, Jamar Martin, Kenny Peterson, and Mike Doss, all of whom enjoyed prosperous (to very prosperous) careers as Buckeyes.

Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Miller’s collegiate career got off to a rocky start, through absolutely no fault of his own. Shortly before he arrived on campus, Jim Tressel was forced to resign in the wake of TattooGate. The Ohio State football program was suddenly thrust into chaos, Luke Fickell (completely unprepared at the time) took over coaching responsibilities, and the Buckeyes went 6-6 in Miller’s freshman season.

It’s possible that the former Canton McKinley star wanted to hop aboard a jet airliner and be carried far away from Columbus after 2011, but good times were just around the corner. Because like a space cowboy, Urban Meyer rode into town and helped ensure that OSU was not down or struggling for too long. Like a taste of wild mountain honey, the coach helped energize and revitalize the Scarlet and Gray, eventually leading to Miller’s finest moment in the winter time.

Miller played sparingly as a sophomore and junior, in 2012 and 2013 respectively, but surely wanted to fly like an eagle before his Ohio State career came to an end. And in 2014, he was finally given that opportunity. After Noah Spence was suspended, the seldom-used vet competed for and eventually won the Buckeyes’ starting defensive end role opposite Joey Bosa. Meaning that Miller, who had totaled just 16 tackles in his first three seasons combined, was now about to play a large and important role for a loaded team with championship aspirations... Sounds like a good cure for any Mercury blues.

At 6-foot-5, 250+ pounds, Miller was a big, physical presence up front, and he quickly became a solid contributor for Meyer’s 2014-15 squad. Never a stat sheet stuffer, Miller instead did a bunch of dirty work and unselfishly carried out his assignments while fellow defensive linemen Bosa, Adolphus Washington, and Michael Bennett received most of the attention and/or hype.

But that is not to say Miller was some slouch, only on the field to swallow up blocks and be driven into the ground by opposing offensive tackles. No, he totaled 31 tackles in ’14-15, including 2 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. Miller also forced a fumble and came up big during what was arguably the Buckeyes’ most important game of the season. That is heroic stuff.

As if anyone reading this really needs a reminder, Ohio State faced No. 1 Alabama in the 2015 Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes were heavy underdogs and found themselves down 21-6 midway through the second quarter. But by the middle of the third, they had seized momentum. However, that momentum only resulted in a six-point lead (for OSU) with three minutes and change remaining in the penultimate quarter. Looking to draw even or take their own lead, Bama was facing a pivotal 3rd and 7 when Miller made the biggest, most important, most heroic play of his life.

As Crimson Tide quarterback Blake Sims dropped back to pass, and looked to his left side, Miller – who was about as comfortable in pass coverage as you or me – also dropped back, having clearly sniffed out something. He (Miller) sat directly underneath a curl route being run by Bama wideout Amari Cooper, and also within shouting distance of a Tide back Jalston Fowler, who had snuck out of the backfield.

Sims, focused on Cooper and nobody else, did not see Miller underneath and threw it directly into the Ohio State defender’s chest. And the rest, as they say, is history. Big No. 88 rumbled 41 yards for an electrifying pick-six, putting the Buckeyes up 13 points with 15 minutes left in the de facto national championship game.

While Ezekiel Elliott’s 85-yard run ‘through the heart of the south’ has, over time, become of the most memorable, remarkable, well-known, and/or talked about plays in college football history, an argument could be made that it was Miller’s pick-six that sealed both a Sugar Bowl victory and a spot in the national title game for OSU. Because his touchdown gave the Buckeyes their first double-digit lead, in a game they eventually won by just seven. It gave Meyer and company extra breathing room, necessary for when Cardale Jones began to struggle. It may have even opened the door for Elliott to run the ball late in the game.

Above all else, and regardless of which play you remember most fondly, Miller’s TD gave him and his teammates a shot at winning the ultimate prize. And he apparently predicted it, or something like it, prior to the game. Apparently, he was no joker.

Ohio State of course beat Oregon 11 days later, winning the 2014-15 BCS National Championship. Miller did next to nothing in that game, but it didn’t really matter. The TEAM completed their goal together. And in the end, the Bulldog from Canton cemented his legacy as a Buckeye hero. Miller’s name may not be the first, second, or even hundredth one you think of when heroes are brought up, but for his timely and impactful contribution to a title-winning team, it certainly belongs in the conversation.