Tue Oct 11 10:29am EDT
Not that they'd failed to brace themselves, but for a fan base that had been approaching the 2011 campaign with an escalating sense of doom since last December, Saturday night's 34-27, come-from-ahead loss at Nebraska was a significant point of no return. It's no longer "a rough start." Halfway through, this season is officially lost.
The six-year Big Ten title streak is over: The Buckeyes already have multiple conference losses for the first time since starting 0-3 in 2004, effectively (if not mathematically) eliminating them from the race in the Wisconsin-owned Leaders Division. The six-year BCS streak is over: With three losses overall, there is no chance of salvaging an at-large bid. Barring a miracle — and/or an unexpectedly devastating verdict from the NCAA that scares off more attractive candidates — Luke Fickell's tenuous grasp on the title of "head coach" is almost certainly over at season's end. There's still the seven-game winning streak over Michigan to uphold. Beyond that, even a second or third-tier bowl game is looking shaky.
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In at least one respect, though, crossing the divide is a relief: After Saturday, the tortured quarterback derby between freshman Braxton Miller and senior Joe Bauserman is over, too, as decisively and optimistically as anyone could have possibly hoped. In two-and-a-half quarters under Miller, the Buckeyes scored 27 points on 305 yards of total offense, averaging 7.4 yards per play; Miller personally completed 5 of 8 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown, good for a pass efficiency rating of 203.5, along with 91 yards rushing before leaving with an ankle injury in the third quarter. Under Bauserman, the Buckeyes scored zero points on 51 yards over their last four possessions, good for a little over two yards per play; Bauserman personally completed 1 of 10 passes for 13 yards and an interception, good for an efficiency rating of 0.9 before OSU punted away its final possession with a little over four minutes to play.
The contrast was so glaring, and the collapse so complete, Ohio State fans didn't even bother to ask what would have happened down the stretch if Miller's absence had been avoided. They're pretty sure they would have won if Bauserman's presence had been mitigated by simply not asking him to actually attempt to do anything with a late lead. Apparently even that was too much to ask.
The only relevant question this week concerns the state of Miller's ankle, and his presence at the top of the depth chart Monday seems to confirm it's fine. If so, the only question is who backs him up: Miller has not only proven himself as the better quarterback, but for a team with so few tangible goals within its grasp until 2012, Miller is also the future in the same way that Troy Smith was when he was thrust into the starting job to salvage a sinking season back in 2004. After the switch from Justin Zwick, Smith rallied the Buckeyes to four wins in their last five, including a 37-21 upset over Rose Bowl-bound Michigan, and then on to back-to-back BCS bowls in 2005 and 2006.
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If the long-term comparison is getting a little ahead of the game (notice I didn't mention Smith's Heisman Trophy or Ohio State's perfect regular season his senior year), it does provide the short-term blueprint for the rest of the season: Rally around Miller as the full-time starter, continue to look competitive as an underdog against Illinois and Wisconsin, pick up steam against Indiana, Purdue and Penn State in November, hit the gas in Ann Arbor and finish with a flourish in the bowl game as a jumping-off point for the transition to a new head coach next year. And most importantly, pray to God and Woody Hayes and whoever else will listen that Miller stays healthy for a change, because if he goes down again, the only spark this team has left is going down with him.
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