This has not been a good start for the Big Ten in 2012. Already, just three weeks into the season and conference play still a couple weeks away, several of the conference’s top contenders have suffered devastating losses.
That nearly was the case for No. 12 Ohio State on Saturday, with the upset-minded California team in Columbus. Barely, barely, OSU managed to hold on for dear life in a back-and-forth 35-28 victory.
Just like last week against Central Florida, however, the Buckeyes came out strong in the first half, looking like they’d cruise to an easy victory. But lazy defense, especially in terms of penalties and finishing tackles, made this contest way more interesting.
To begin the contest, Ohio State had two punts and Cal had one, leading to a big field position advantage for the Golden Bears. They started their second drive at the OSU 45, but solid defensive pressure – this only occurred in the first quarter, so don’t get used to it – forced a turnover on downs.
Thus, nine minutes into the game, with the offense struggling, Urban Meyer turned to what worked so well in the first two games: Braxton Miller using his legs to make plays. On the third play of the next drive, the sophomore from Dayton juked by several Cal defenders, poking holes in their attack for a 55-yard TD scamper.
Kicker Drew Basil would miss the extra point, and just 2:33 later, Cal scored 7 points of their own thanks to a mystifying 6-play, 75-yard drive. That was the sign of awful things to come in the second half for the OSU defenders, even though fans might not have seen it yet.
Trailing 7-6, Miller went crazy in the air over the next two drives. He constantly went with back-and-forth with his two favorite targets – Devin Smith and Jake Stoneburner – while completing six consecutive passes for 119 yards and two TD. That gave the Bucks a 13-point lead heading into halftime, with many reasons to feel happy about their play on both sides of the ball.
Cal started the second half with another turnover on downs, but then several penalties – the beginning of sloppy play at the ‘Shoe – forced Ohio State to punt.
And so, with 9:48 remaining in the third, seldom-used Golden Bears running back Brendan Bigelow suddenly made the game exciting. On the first play of the next series, he one-upped Miller, nearly falling down at the line of scrimmage against several would-be tacklers, but somehow avoiding the trouble, scooting over to the far sideline and advancing 81 yards for a touchdown.
That seemed to suck the life out of the Ohio State crowd and offense. Over the next three drives, Miller’s squad managed just two yards on 9 plays. Despite the second California missed field goal of the game, it seemed that the margin was hovering way too close for comfort at 20-14.
That’s where things began in the fourth quarter as the visiting team continued yet another possession. Several plays involving star wide receiver Keenan Allen – including a trick pass back to QB Zach Maynard in the red zone – led to yet quick another touchdown, giving the Bears the one-point lead.
Finally, the Bucks offense woke up, as Miller drove down the field in a hurry as well to lead to a first down at the goalline. A false start and a couple running plays brought up a 3rd and goal at the five, when Miller found Stoneburner in the end zone on a play straight from Meyer’s years with Tim Tebow at Florida.
A well-designed scramble by Miller scored the tying two points on the conversion, giving the home team a more manageable seven-point lead halfway through the final period.
So what happened next? Yep, it was Bigelow again, who carried the ball 75 yards in just two plays – of course, he only had three carries on the game – to knot the score yet again at 28 each.
Suddenly, OSU was forced into a must-score position. They’d have the ball with 8:10 remaining and needed to be careful. Even if they scored, they’d need to ensure that not too much time was left on the clock for another quick strike from Cal. And if they failed to score – or worse, committed a turnover – then maybe they might not have another chance to win in regulation.
Right on cue, the third play of the series was a horribly positioned throw by Miller right into coverage – Cal had secured an interception and had the chance to take the lead.
The pivotal drive began at the Ohio State 44. Workhorse running back Isi Sofele helped gather one first down, but then an impressive third-down and 1 play by the Buckeyes lead to yet another field goal opportunity at the 25-yard line.
Would you have gone for it in this situation? It seems that head coach Jeff Tedford was at least considering it, taking his sweet time with the play clock, calling a timeout and then sending out his kicking unit one more time.
Poor Vincenzo D’Amato then missed horribly for the third time in the game, demoralizing the Berkeley squad and turning the ball over yet again.
On the third play of the next possession, Miller found a wide open Devin Smith, who broke a few more tackles and hurried into the end zone for a 72-yard play. Finally, it seemed the Bucks could relax comfortably and know that their 35-28 lead would likely stand up against the Bears.
Several penalties seemed to potentially aid the final Cal drive, but Christian Bryant made the last game-changing play with his interception and 38-yard return just past midfield.
So, just barely, the Buckeyes managed to hold on against a mediocre Pac-12 school during a day when both No. 2 USC and No. 10 Michigan State fell victim to ranked rivals. In no way, shape or form does Meyer’s team look ready for the Spartans in East Lansing in just two short weeks, but that doesn’t mean we saw some encouraging signs amidst the chaos and struggles.
Miller’s passing was prolific outside of that one fourth quarter mistake. He finished the contest 16-for-30 with 249 yards, 4 passing TDs and that interception. That should do in Big Ten play, especially if the Bucks can continue to run for 150+ yards regularly.
Jordan Hall was a big help there, as he returned for his first action of the season and provided 87 rushing yards on 17 carries. That’s not a stellar performance, but certainly a big boost as Miller only carried the ball 12 times as opposed to a school-record 27 last week.
Storm Klein returned on defense after his tumultuous offseason, and although he wasn’t a big contributor, it’s encouraging to think of what could happen next week when UAB comes to town. Everyone knows Meyer will be on that unit for their lack of effort and concentration in the second half, so hopefully things start to look up soon.
As one final note for the day, let’s take a look at the Big Ten standings and how the top teams fared on Saturday:
Big Ten – Leaders
Northwestern (3-0) – W 22-13 vs. Boston College
Minnesota (3-0) – W 28-23 vs. W Michigan
#10 Michigan State (2-1) – L 3-20 vs. #20 Notre Dame
#17 Michigan (2-1) – W 63-13 vs. Massachusetts
Nebraska (2-1) – W 42-13 vs. Arkansas State
Iowa (2-1) – W 27-16 vs. Northern Iowa
Big Ten – Legends
* #12 Ohio State (3-0) – W 35-28 vs. California
Wisconsin (2-1) – W 16-14 vs. Utah State
Purdue (2-1) – W 54-16 vs. E Michigan
Illinois (2-1) – W 44-0 vs. Charleston Southern
Indiana (2-1) – L 39-41 vs. Ball State
*Penn State (1-2) – W 34-7 vs. Navy
Jacob Rosen is a long-time contributor to WaitingForNextYear. He's also a writer online at SportsAnalyticsBlog and Nylon Calculus . An Akron native, Jacob is a current MBA student at the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. You can follow him on Twitter @WFNYJacob or e-mail him at udjrosen(at)gmail(dot)com.