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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Fewer than 48 hours after his team's 35-23 win over Penn State, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer met with the media for his weekly press conference. With a game against Illinois looming ahead and an undefeated record still intact, Meyer touched on a number of topics on Monday, including the development of quarterback Braxton Miller and how far his defense has come since surrendering 49 points to Indiana just two weeks ago.
Miller for Heisman?
After returning from a neck injury that forced him out of the fourth quarter of the Buckeyes' win over Purdue last week, Miller burst back onto the national scene with 277 yards of total offense and three total touchdowns against the Nittany Lions. With just three games left in his star quarterback's sophomore season, Meyer finally endorsed Miller as a Heisman Trophy candidate on Monday- something he's shied away from doing all season.
"Do I believe he's a Heisman candidate? I do," Meyer said. "I didn't say that before. But I do believe Braxton is a Heisman candidate."
That doesn't mean that there's not room for Miller to improve, especially as a thrower, where he completed just 7-of-19 pass attempts on Saturday. But given his status as the best player on an undefeated team at this point in the season, Meyer understands why Miller's being mentioned as one of the few frontrunners for college football's most prestigious award.
"He has to play much better," Meyer said. "Just from sheer production of a team that's 9-0, it puts him in that category, and that's without knowing all the other candidates."
A special season
Earlier in the season, Meyer said that he saw signs from his team that it could be a special one, and with three-fourths of the season now in the books, he's seeing that come to fruition. Despite not being eligible to play in a postseason bowl this season, the first-year OSU coach likes what he's seen from his team and the foundation that it's laying for the future of his program.
"This is a special team. They're fighting for each other. It's a refuse to lose type atmosphere, which some of us have seen teams that play really well," Meyer said. "We're a bunch of guys that work really hard, blue collar approach, that show up every Tuesday and want to get better. You don't want anything else as a coach."
Meyer is especially appreciative of the success his team's found considering the challenges it's faced, which has included the conversion of the Buckeyes' starting fullback to linebacker and some residual effects from the 6-7 season that OSU endured just a season ago.
"To go on the road, to face adversity, face injuries, face an offense to have an offense on your team that's not doing very well, and your defense just scores hangs in there," Meyer said. "I see some of the intangible locker room conversations and I see a team that this is a special team."
One of the reasons for the Buckeyes success in the past two weeks has been the resurgence of their defense following their close call with Indiana in Bloomington earlier this month. The OSU defense has bounced back to allow just an average of 14.5 points in the past few weeks, which has helped take the pressure off of what was becoming a heavily criticized unit.
"Fundamentally, I feel much better about where we're at defensively. And I think our coaches have done a really good job taking 10 minutes, sometimes 15 minutes a day just working on fundamentals," Meyer said. "This time of year that's almost unheard of, but you can see the improvements on the field."
Meyer credited some of his defense's improvement to an increased emphasis on blitzing and playing man coverage, something that he admitted that he had been a fan of doing more of after the team's struggles two weeks ago.
"It's not an edict. It's something I've been pushing. I've been pushing a little bit, and we'll continue to push," Meyer said. "Everybody thinks, 'Let's go play man.' We have good corners- great. There are three other guys somewhere. You can't just hope it works out."
Fighting the Illini
After an emotionally-charged win over a quality Penn State team that's still in the running for a Big Ten Leaders Division title, the Buckeyes will have to find a way to refocus as they welcome in a 2-6 Illinois team that is currently winless in the Big Ten. Meyer said that shouldn't be difficult, given the recent success that the Fighting Illini have found in both Ohio Stadium and in sending players to the pros.
"These players know Illinois," Meyer said. "Illinois has had more draft picks than Ohio State the last few years, certainly more first- rounders. They've won seve of 11 in Ohio Stadium, so I'll bring that up."
While Meyer asserted that the Illini and first-year coach Tim Beckman will have his team's full attention, the Ohio State coach said that his primary focus will be on improving his team and doing what it is that they need to do to get ready for Saturday's matchup.
"The thing is us getting better. There is a lot of film on us to see us getting better, and a lot of film on a team that at times looks very good," Meyer said. "There is no issue getting these guys ready. Lot of respect for Illinois."
After having not played since the first half of the Buckeyes' win over Nebraska on October 6, Meyer said that linebacker Etienne Sabino could potentially play against the Illini, depending on how much progress he makes in recovering from a broken fibula this week.
"There is no player trying harder," Meyer said of Sabino. "I would say it's questionable for this week, and we'll let you know as he gets going."
In positive news for the Buckeyes, Meyer also said that he was told by a trainer that this is the healthiest the team has been all season, which makes getting to next week's bye week injury-free all the more important for Ohio State.
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