For four months, ESPN The Magazine will follow the march to the Vizio BCS National Championship, moment by moment, culminating in our Story of the Season double issue Dec. 27. Every Tuesday, Mag senior writer Ryan McGee will pick the previous week’s biggest moments and tell you why they’ll have the most impact on potential BCS title matchups. If you disagree, send a tweet to @ESPNMag and tell us why your moment matters more, using the hashtag #StoryoftheSeason. Who knows? Your moment (and tweet) might just end up in our issue.
"Oh, yeah ... this is how it’s supposed to be."
THAT'S WHAT POPPED into Braxton Miller’s mind as he came to his feet slowly off the red-painted turf of the end zone, immediately enveloped in the arms of three teammates. Behind him a wave of raised arms started in the seats that lined the field and it washed over the entirety of Ohio Stadium. The first quarter wasn’t yet over and the Ohio State Buckeyes were already rolling over Penn State 14-0 in front a national television audience. The same Nittany Lions who, in their previous game, took down OSU’s archrival Michigan in four overtimes.
And they too were joining in the junior quarterback’s revelation: The Buckeyes are legit.
With 1 minute, 10 seconds remaining in the opening stanza, surely none of the 105,889 in attendance realized that Ohio State was beginning what would turn out to be a 63-14 romp, the worst beatdown suffered by a PSU squad in 114 years (darn that 1899 Duquesne Athletic Club!).
But what the Buckeyes faithful did know was that their team was making a statement, a collective message sent out by all four teams in atop the BCS standings. After an October filled with upsets, upstarts and puzzling parity, Ohio State locked arms with Alabama, Oregon and Florida State. The quartet combined to march over their opponents by a combined score of 199-55 and a 35-point average margin of victory, all in games that had been labeled as potential tripwires.
So let’s call Week 9 Superpower Saturday.
Remember when Alabama's D still had work to do? Well, it's done. Remember when Florida State still had trap-game syndrome? Gone. Meanwhile, running back De'Anthony Thomas is back for Oregon after missing a month and scored a touchdown in the Ducks' win over UCLA.
As for Columbus, the Buckeyes are finally at full strength too. Because Miller is at full strength. He came into 2013 on everyone's short list for the Heisman Trophy. But when he suffered an ankle sprain against San Diego State on Sept. 7, he quickly disappeared. His backup, Kenny Guiton, won Big Ten offensive player of the week twice in his absence.
Even when Miller returned and beat Wisconsin on Sept. 28, there was some doubt about his game, and thus his entire team. At Northwestern, in front of a national TV audience, he tossed one interception and zero TDs in the win. Against Iowa he racked up 324 yards of offense, but it was against, well, Iowa.
Through it all, Miller and his team were taking a public beating. The Buckeyes fell behind Florida State in the polls and it was their seeming unworthiness that sparked a national sports talk radio debate: If we had the playoff this year, who would be your fourth? Really, the Buckeyes?
However, against Penn State, Miller finally looked like Miller and Ohio State finally looked like a team worthy of BCS title consideration. Even coach Urban Meyer, who still hasn't lost a game since he took over, said "I like where this team is right now."
He also said: "I just love where Braxton's at right now. I love the fact he's acting like a quarterback. I'm not disrespecting Braxton. You guys know I love that guy. But I felt like he was an athlete playing quarterback a year ago. I feel like he's a quarterback that's a really good athlete now."
There was one play in particular that led to those feelings. The 39-yard TD run. It was old-school Miller, but it was also new-school Miller, in control the entire time. As the quarterback explained matter-of-factly, but with a smile: "Coach said he wanted a running touchdown. And I gave it to him."
In the closing two minutes of the first quarter, Miller took the shotgun snap at the Penn State 44-yard line, not even bothering with what was supposed to be a hard-sell fake handoff to tailback Rod Smith. Instead, he immediately tucked and took off, so quickly that he ran into the back of 6-foot-6, 319-pound left guard Andrew Norwell.
He placed his hand on the lineman’s very broad waist and pushed off, a shove that helped launch him to the right and across the back of right tackle Taylor Decker, who was standing up Penn State D-end Anthony Zettel. Within a collapsing box only about 5 yards long and perhaps 3 yards wide, he made no fewer than three tiny cuts -- right, left, right -- and once again placed his left hand against a lineman’s back. This time it was the right guard, 6-6, 315-pound Marcus Hall, who had teamed with center Corey Linsley to drive D-lineman Austin Johnson backward 4 yards, throwing him into onrushing linebacker Nyeem Wartman and blowing open the front door.
Hall took his cue and turned up field, running over the fallen Wartman and alongside Miller … well, sort of. By the time Miller hit the 40, he was at full speed, angling right and looking downfield toward the goal line. After a stutter-step at the 10, he started cutting again -- left, right, left -- and dove into the end zone through the arms of three tacklers.
Per the clock, the play of near-perfection took 11 seconds. But to the team and its followers, it was the kind of play -- and game -- they’d waited two-thirds of a season to see. "We probably played our best game of the season," said offensive line coach Ed Warinner. "It was fun to be a part of.”
There was no probably to it. Miller accounted for 320 yards of offense and five touchdowns, three passing and two rushing. In addition to his fancy footwork, he also impressed with his willingness to plant those feet and launch quality passes, particularly a 25-yard TD throw at the close of the first half. It was crisp, on target and straight into the middle of the field.
Just as encouraging was a defensive unit that seemed to turn every decent Penn State drive into a turnover; freshman QB Christian Hackenberg was intercepted early and sacked often, including two takedowns by linebacker Noah Spence, who was headed to Happy Valley before the Jerry Sandusky scandal turned him toward Columbus.
Now the Buckeyes must travel to Purdue and Illinois, host Indiana and then venture up to Michigan to close out the regular season. They believe they sent a message in October. As for the critics, they'll still save judgment for the Big House.
BCS top 4 heard all wk they'd be challenged but Bama, FSU, Oregon, Ohio St all gonna win big. Message sent. #StoryoftheSeason
— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) October 27, 2013