- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Critical areas and key players as No. 4 Ohio State pays a visit to struggling Purdue on Saturday at noon at Ross-Ade Stadium as the Buckeyes try to stay in the thick of the BCS race.
Boiling blood: There might not be a good explanation for why the Buckeyes have struggled recently against the Boilermakers, but they certainly know it's true. Purdue has won twice in a row at home and took an Ohio State team that went undefeated a year ago to overtime in a game that required a miraculous drive from backup quarterback Kenny Guiton just to force an extra session, facts that haven't escaped coach Urban Meyer or his veteran leaders. Even Meyer's first signing class, a group that has never lost a game with the program, is aware of the danger of overlooking the Boilermakers thanks to that close call last season, and the Buckeyes have been on high alert all week to try to avoid something similar.
Passing fancy: A few Buckeyes had given Braxton Miller a hard time about not scoring a rushing touchdown entering the Penn State game last week, so he went out and produced two of them. But the offense has been operating just fine without the junior quarterback running wild, as he often did a year ago, and the Buckeyes have his arm to thank for their recent explosiveness. Miller is coming off two of the finest games of his career in the passing game, and the Buckeyes have plenty to show for it collectively with 97 points in victories over Iowa and Penn State. Miller added three touchdowns through the air against the Nittany Lions, bumping his completion percentage to 70.6 in the process and giving Ohio State yet another way to pick apart defenses.
Roby restart: Initially there appeared to be some buyer's remorse about his decision to return for another season with Ohio State, and Bradley Roby's uneven play early in the season surely didn't help him feel much better about holding off on the NFL for another year. But the redshirt junior tried to simply wipe his personal slate clean after hitting the midway point of the season with mixed results, and he bounced back against Penn State with perhaps his most consistent performance at cornerback. The spring in his athletic steps seems to have returned, and now, with eight passes defended and two interceptions for the season, Roby figures to be looking to improve those numbers against a Purdue offense that already has surrendered 10 interceptions this season.
Riding Hyde: Meyer has grown tired of hearing about never having a 1,000-yard running back on his roster, but he's certainly on schedule to put an end to that conversation heading into the final month of the regular season. Despite missing three weeks because of a suspension, Carlos Hyde has been almost unstoppable in Big Ten play, averaging more than 137 yards per game against league opponents and giving Ohio State one of the most potent rushing attacks in the country as he partners with Miller in the backfield. Hyde could cross that milestone even without the benefit of two potential postseason games for Ohio State, as he needs just more than 100 yards per game down the stretch to get there. On Saturday, he's facing a rushing defense ranked No. 92 in the country.
Pressure applied: The two most productive tacklers behind the line of scrimmage in the Big Ten suit up for the Buckeyes, and Purdue might have little choice but to pick its poison with Ryan Shazier blitzing from his spot at linebacker and Noah Spence developing into a force at defensive end. They have combined for 18 tackles for a loss this season, and while Shazier is a proven commodity, Spence is only starting to live up to the enormous potential that made him a five-star recruit for Meyer when he arrived at Ohio State. The sophomore took a sledgehammer to Penn State's offensive line last week, finishing with two sacks and disrupting a handful of other plays on near misses, and the combination of those defensive terrors is allowing both to thrive.