California had seen Braxton Miller burn two opponents with his speed and agility and was determined not to be the Ohio State quarterback’s third victim this season.
The Bears wanted to turn him into strictly a passer and did everything they could to keep him from crossing the line of scrimmage except put up barricades and barbed wire. But when Miller sees extra defenders waiting to stop him, he knows the Buckeyes’ passing game is efficient enough to make teams pay.
“I love it when they do that. It opens it up for all our guys on the outside,” he said, meaning his receivers. “They just key on me and forget the guys on the outside. Our guys worked hard all week to beat man-to-man coverage.”
Miller torched the Cal secondary for four touchdown passes, including the game-winner with 3:26 to go, and even managed one scintillating TD run himself in a 35-28 victory before 105,232 fans Saturday.
Cal kicker Vincent D’Amato missed all three of his field-goal tries, including a 42-yarder with 4:20 to go that would have given the visitors a 31-28 lead. The Golden Bears, who had 512 yards on offense, decided to go for three points rather than trying to convert on fourth-and-1.
Miller then made the Pac-12 team regret that decision. On third-and-7, he extended a play by drifting to his right and found receiver Devin Smith behind the defense for a 72-yard TD with 3:26 left.
“At first, the pass wasn’t supposed to go to me,” said Smith, who had five catches for 145 yards and two TDs. “When I saw the cornerback and safety go down on (teammate Corey ‘Philly’ Brown) and nobody was on me, I was like, ‘Man, I hope he sees me.’ I threw my hands up in the air, and he threw it down field.”
An interception by safety Christian Bryant on an overthrown ball with 1:09 to go ended Cal’s upset bid.
“Our guys found a way,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said. “I’ve been in games before where I thought we were going to lose, but I felt someone would make a play, I really did.”
The Buckeyes (3-0) took a 20-7 lead with 13:30 left in the second quarter but didn’t score again until 8:31 of the fourth.
Cal (1-2) cut the deficit to 20-14 with 9:34 left in the third period on an 81-yard touchdown scamper by Brendan Bigelow. It was the longest run by an opposing player in 90-year-old Ohio Stadium and the third-longest overall by an OSU opponent.
While the Buckeyes were stringing together three-and-outs, Cal grabbed a 21-20 lead with 12:26 left in the game by taking advantage of a short field and driving 46 yards. QB Zach Maynard scored from the 1.
The Buckeyes, though, rumbled 75 yards in 11 plays with Miller exhibiting plenty of aplomb. On third-and-goal from the 3, the sophomore faked a rush up the middle and threw a jump pass to receiver Jake Stoneburner, a la former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. Miller ran for the two-point conversion for a 28-21 lead.
Cal needed just two plays and 21 seconds to tie the game at 28. Bigelow ripped off a 59-yard run when linebacker Ryan Shazier over-ran the play and Bryant missed a tackle.
Miller threw an interception at the OSU 44, but Cal couldn’t convert the turnover into points because of D’Amato’s botched kick.
“I had confidence,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. “Vince missed a couple to the left. Typically, he gets that squared away. It just didn’t happen today.”
After averaging 22 carries in his first two games, Miller’s workload was reduced to just 16 rushes. He gained 75 yards, about half his average of 151. He finished 16-of-30 passing for 249 yards with one pick.
“What’s going to happen is we’re going to have to throw the ball,” Meyer said. “We’ve gotten better. Look at the evolution the last 12 or 24 months since Braxton became our quarterback. He’s gotten much better. It’s turning into that kind of world for us. They’ve got players and numbers committed to stopping the run. The good thing is we’re developing receivers.”
The Buckeyes, though, were plagued by at least three dropped passes, seven personal-foul penalties and defensive lapses. A missed extra point by the normally reliable Drew Basil also looked as if it might loom large.
But while the excess infractions likely can be fixed, the defensive woes were far more troubling for the Buckeyes.
“On defense, not tackling,” Meyer said. “We have to figure that out. It’s time to play Ohio State defense, and that wasn’t Ohio State defense.”
But he chirped: “The best thing about being 3-0 is the chance to go 4-0.”
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