In Ohio State's toughest test to date, the Buckeyes came out sharp, completely imploded in the second half, then regained their composure when they needed to most. During the course of the second half, Ohio State saw a 20-7 half time lead melt down to a 28-28 tie with 8:10 to play in the fourth quarter. A Vincenzo D'Amato third missed field goal of the afternoon seemingly gave Ohio State's long stagnant offense new life, with Braxton Miller finding a wide open Devin Smith on a complete defensive breakdown for a 72 yard game go ahead touchdown giving Ohio State the lead for good in the process, 35-28.
Despite an incredibly paltry effort by an extremely lackluster Silver Bullets defense (including yielding 160 yards on 4 touches to sophomore Cal tailback Brendan Bigelow), the Buckeyes were able to find resolve when they had to, and though it was unimpressive and will surely impact their perception nationally, the Buckeyes move to 3-0 on the season. Ohio State showed they still have plenty of work to do but benefitted from the Miller to Smith combination, which accounted for 145 yards through the air and 2 TDs. Jordan Hall returned from injury to add 87 yards rushing on 17 carries on the afternoon as well.
Say what you will about the first real anxiety inducing Ohio State game since last year's Michigan loss, but even in a season that ends permanently in late November, surviving and advancing is still the name of the game.
An afternoon of head scratchers began accordingly with Bri'onte Dunn, who was named Tuesday Ohio State's starter at tailback and then announced by the Ohio Stadium public address announcer as the starter, found himself on the pine behind the back-from-injury senior captain, Jordan Hall. Hall would carry the workman's load on the afternoon, and with Dunn having zero touches on the day, one has to worry if there was another disciplinary matter that impacted Dunn's participation.
Ohio State looked 2012 Ohio State enough in the early goings when on their third drive of the day, Braxton Miller epitomized all the Heisman hyperbole, shook a few defenders loose, and promptly bolted 55 yards to give the Buckeyes their first lead of the day, 6-0. Keeping with the theme of the afternoon, however, usually steady Ohio State place kicker Drew Basil missed the ensuing point after, keeping the lead at just 6. The missed PAT was Ohio State's first since the debacle in West Lafayette which ultimately in part cost the Buckeyes' 2011's game against Purdue.
Cal didn't take the Buckeyes first touchdown scoring series of the game lightly. On the heels of an emphatic Isi Sofele 26 yard run and the brotherly love stylings of quarterback Zach Maynard to future NFL first round draft pick wide receiver Keenan Allen, Maynard found Cal wide out Chris Harper who scampered in virtually untouched to even the game at 6. A Vincenzo D'Amato point after gave Cal it's first lead of the afternoon and had Ohio State fans revisiting the conventional wisdom that Cal would be lucky to keep this one without two touchdowns earlier than essentially everyone expected.
The Buckeyes promptly answered back with another high octane drive of their own. Braxton Miller found Jake Stoneburner on a tight end vertical route amidst the ever sexy four verticals play call setting Ohio State up comfortably at the Cal 25. The very next play would rekindle week one's Braxton Miller to Devin Smith connection and regive the Buckeyes a 12-7 lead. Basil's successful point after try opened that lead up to six.
Following a lack luster Cal offensive possession, the second quarter largely picked up where the first one left off. A drive that saw Braxton Miller connect with Nick Vannett and Devin Smith culminated in a short Miller to former tight end WR Jake Stoneburner TD connection following an impressive nine yard red zone improvisation by Miller. The Buckeyes led 20-7 and Miller at that juncture was 8-for-11 for 124 yards, 2 TDs, and no interceptions and all three incompletions had come on drops.
Ohio State also had their first real scare of the game (Cal offensive series aside) when Jordan Hall left the field temporarily with what appeared to be another injury. Fortunately he'd return to the game and operate at relatively normal effectiveness later in the quarter.
With J.T. Moore and Nathan Williams seeing the bulk of the load at LEO and Storm Klein seeing his first action of the 2012 season following his dismissal and reinstatement to the team, a Garrett Goebel sack, the Buckeyes' third in the game (equaling their number through the first two games of the year), had Ohio State looking like they'd be in cruise control in this one. For all the early Buckeyes offensive and defensive wizardry though, it's worth noting that Cal QB Zach Maynard was off to a hot start as well.
Things begin to get chippy during Cal's next offensive drive when following a great catch by tailback C.J. Anderson being negated by a dumb tight end Jacob Wark hold, Keenan Allen made a highlight reel catch but was facemasked by Travis Howard. During the same sequence, John Simon nailed Zach Maynard with an illegal hit and Cal found themselves in the Buckeyes' red zone. Cal answered the Buckeyes' flags with several of their own, including an unnecessary roughness penalty on Cal guard Chris Adcock for an illegal hit to the helmet on Etienne Sabino that could've resulted in ejection. Cal's D'Amato would go on to miss a field goal horribly, something that would haunt him for much of the rest of the contest.
Following a late Ryan Shazier sack, the Buckeyes took a seemingly comfortable 20-7 lead to the half with Braxton Miller sitting pretty having completed 10/14 passes for 129 yards and 2 TDs plus 6 carries for 64 yards and that one rushing touchdown. The Buckeyes' four sacks raised their season total to seven, and Jordan Hall's 8 carries for 36 yards seemed to be a step in the right direction with Carlos Hyde out for the game due to the injury he suffered late last week.
Essentially the moment the Buckeyes ran out of the tunnel for the second half, however, the wheels began to fall off.
Despite keeping Cal in check on their first drive of the second half, Ohio State had a penalty ridden sloppy first drive of their own, and the ensuing Cal possession lasted all of 14 seconds. The extremely fleet of foot Bigelow bounced off Ohio State defends scampering 81 yards to get Cal back within a touchdown, 14-20.
The Buckeyes next three offensive possessions would all be lemons, with at one point Ohio State finding themselves having gone 3-and-out on five or their previous six possessions. The Buckeyes' offensive ineptitude wasn't helped by a defense which seemingly allowed Cal to have their way with them throughout much of the second half. John Simon's first tackle of the game, a sack, aside, the Buckeyes routinely were slashed by Sofele and any number of Maynard's targets.
The first drive of the fourth quarter would turn the game from an unpleasant dream to a nightmare for the Ohio State faithful. Zach Maynard hit freshman Bryce Treggs for a 15 yard gain on a bubble screen, a play that seemed to baffle Buckeye defenders essentially the entirety of the afternoon. Following a freshman Adolphus Washington lining up in the neutral zone penalty, a whacky Zach Maynard to Keenan Allen back to Zach Maynard who proceeded to fumble out bounds play setup a Maynard quarterback keeper and ensuing D'Amato point after which regained the lead for Cal at 21-20.
But the Buckeyes offense picked a wise time to regain a pulse. A Jordan Hall 15 yard rush gave way to a long Braxton Miller to (previously ineffective for his high standard of play during 2012) Corey Brown pass-and-catch. A Miller 8 yard scramble put the ball at Cal's 31 and a Miller to Evan Spencer connection got the ball to Cal's 5. In a play straight out of Urban Meyer's days at Florida, Braxton Miller did his best Tim Tebow impersonation faking a run then tossing the ball to a wide open Jake Stoneburner in a jump pass-lite play giving the Buckeyes the lead again, 26-21. Miller would take the two point conversion in himself to level things at 28. That lead would be incredibly short lived.
Brendan Bigelow picked up where he left off earlier in the second half rushing for sixteen yards then taking the next touch a ridiculous 63 yards to put Cal within a point after of trying the game. D'Amato's try leveled things putting the Ohio State offense back into action.
The next Buckeye drive looked far more like the third quarter than the first half or the previous several in the fourth. A Jordan Hall rush for 3 yards and a Braxton Miller incompletion were followed by a completely brain dead direct pass from Braxton Miller to Cal DB Steve Williams, Miller's second such bad interception in as many weeks. With Cal continuing to have their way against the Ohio State D, the Golden Bears were a 42 yard field goal away from taking a 31-28 lead with 4:20 to play (*cough cough*, Berkeley). D'Amato's previous field goal miss (and a second failed attempt which was equally as wide left) gave way to an even uglier third one. Ohio State would regain possession after the failed field goal attempt with the chance to go ahead.
It would only take three plays for the Buckeyes to do just that. Braxton Miller found a wide open Devin Smith in one of the first real secondary breakdowns of the second half for the Bears. Smith would take it the rest of the way completing a 72 yard touchdown and giving Ohio State a 35-28 lead after the try. The Bears appeared to be in a prevent type zone which crumbled and lost Smith in the mix. This after defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast had gone to a double eagle front for much of the second and used zone to keep Braxton Miller and company baffled. All the adjustments in the world couldn't save a lack of execution, however, and Cal was faced with a deficit yet again.
Cal would see their last chance to level things fade away quickly. A huge Johnathan Hankins sack almost ended things before a completely mental lapse turned penalty by Ohio State safety C.J. Barnett, who had a rather lackluster game for the second straight game, gave Cal new life. After an 8 yard reception and run by Treggs, the ensuing series of downs would end things when Christian Bryant got in the way of a Zach Maynard throw and returned the ball to Ohio State's 37. With only one timeout and no way to stop the clock, the Buckeyes ran off the remaining minute twenty two and escaped with the W, 35-28.
The story this week will undoubtedly be a seemingly broken Ohio State defense. While things are likely nowhere as bad as they looked the majority of the afternoon, Luke Fickell's seat will get incrementally hotter in the eyes of the perfection desiring Ohio State super fanatics. The Buckeyes' linebackers not named Ryan Shazier looked lost much of the game (aside from a few notable Sabino plays) and though the defensive line seemed to regain their swagger at times, there were too many missed tackles top-down. The secondary didn't feel as bad as the 288 yards they gave up, but given the number of short passes that turned into long gains for Cal, there's plenty of blame to go around. Urban Meyer, Everett Withers, and Luke Fickell will have to do some real soul searching this week to get things right before two weeks from now's showdown in East Lansing against Michigan State.
For all the defensive frustrations and the bipolar act rendered by the offense, Ohio State stayed perfect on the year. But while sometimes winning is everything, simply winning alone isn't enough. The message boards, comment sections, and talk radio idle guessing and finger pointing in the week that follows should make that abundantly clear. And with little to gain against have not UAB, it could be another two weeks before we know for sure what we have for sure with this 2012 Ohio State Buckeyes team.