Buckeyes have to find a passing attack
By RUSTY MILLER
AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS — Ohio State interim coach Luke Fickell joked when asked if he spent the bye week working on his anemic passing attack.
“I did throw at home with the kids all weekend,” he said with a wide grin. “Maybe my passing game is a little better.”
As for his Buckeyes’ ability to successfully go to the air, well, that remains to be seen.
To beat a good team, coaches always say, it takes a balanced offense. That is the very problem confronting passing-challenged Ohio State as it hosts No. 12 Wisconsin on Saturday night.
In their most recent game, a windy 17-7 victory over No. 15 Illinois on Oct. 15, the Buckeyes (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) completed a grand total of … one pass.
Almost no one in the Ohio State camp, or for that matter with the Badgers (6-1, 2-1), believes that the Buckeyes can or should try to fill the air with footballs. But almost everyone agrees that they must find a way to keep Wisconsin from stacking players on the line of scrimmage to throttle the run if they hope to have a chance of pulling off the upset.
“You know, we worked on things (in the passing game) all week. We think we’re seeing a lot of growth, we really do,” Fickell said, sounding as if he were trying to convince himself. “Until it shows up on Saturday night, it’s still just talk.”
Freshman Braxton Miller, who has fought through a sprained ankle, will again get the call for the Buckeyes at quarterback. Considered an above-average passer in high school, he has had great difficulty with his footwork, his timing and then throwing spirals. In his three games as a starter, he is 16 for 35 for 251 yards and four touchdowns with one interception.
Consider that Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson was 14 for 20 for 255 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions in one game against then-No. 8 Nebraska, a 48-17 Badgers win on Oct. 1.
Miller has made inroads in terms of his composure, his reads and his other decisions in his brief time as the No. 1 signal-caller. His teammates say his passing game is also improving.
“Oh, yeah, definitely. I feel like the ball’s there when I’m coming out of my breaks,” tight end Jake Stoneburner said. “It’s where it’s supposed to be. He’s putting it in the right place, away from defenders. Especially last week I noticed it when we were going against the (first-team defense) or going against the scout team, he seemed to be on point with a lot of his passes.”
Center Mike Brewster said it’s all a question of confidence.
“I just see a different guy than I saw before,” he said. “He’s got so much more confidence. I’m sure he understands and feels way more comfortable with the offense, controlling the huddle — all those little things. I really just think he’s been going out there and playing like he knows how to play and being calm and playing natural.”
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema is unsure of what to expect from Miller and Ohio State’s offense.
“To have a bye week right before us really kind of keeps us in question of what they’re going to do,” he said. “You kind of wish you had a couple more game films on Braxton just to see where they’re going. They look more and more like the traditional Ohio State as they get further into the season, really settled in.”
Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman expects the Badgers to load up the box and dare the Buckeyes to throw.
“They would probably do that anyway — just with a relatively inexperienced quarterback and receivers and all those kind of things, a lot of people would take that approach,” he said.
While blaming the high winds and bad field position for the poor passing game at Illinois, Bollman said a lot of progress has been made in the past two weeks. But he knows this will be a far more difficult test.
“That’s a really good football team we’re playing,” he said. “You have to go in there with the idea you’re going to throw it around some. You’ve got to have some balance, no question about it. And when he goes back to throw, he’s also going to have be effective running the ball if he doesn’t throw it.”
One thing that has helped make the quarterback’s job easier is the improvement elsewhere. Mike Adams is again firmly entrenched at left tackle after sitting out the first five games due to an NCAA suspension for accepting improper benefits. Even more reassuring to Miller must be the presence of last year’s leading rusher, Dan “Boom” Herron, who missed the first six games because of two NCAA suspensions.
In the victory at Illinois, the Buckeyes ran on 51 of their 55 plays from scrimmage, gaining 211 yards.
But Wisconsin — with a defense allowing only 14 points a game and an offense that’s good for 47 points and 512 yards a game — is an entirely different situation. It is highly unlikely that the Buckeyes can just ram running backs at the Badgers all night and stay in the game.
“If it takes one completion for us to win the game I’ll be happy with that,” Stoneburner said. Then he added, “Yeah, we’re definitely going to need to do a little bit more with the passing attack if we want to win this game.”
Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap .