COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ohio State wasn't great Saturday, but the Buckeyes were just good enough to survive a big scare at home.
Braxton Miller didn't carry the ball nearly as much Saturday as he had in Ohio State's first two games of the season, but the superb sophomore quarterback still did more than his share to help the Buckeyes.
Miller connected with a wide-open Devin Smith for a 72-yard touchdown pass with 3:26 left and No. 12 Ohio State pulled out a closer-than-expected 35-28 victory over gritty Cal before 105,232 in Ohio Stadium.
Miller completed 16 of 30 passes for 249 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 75 yards on 12 attempts.
"Our guys found a way," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "I have been in games before where I thought we were going to lose. I thought someone would make a play. I really did."
Brendan Bigelow, who had carried just two times for 15 yards in Cal's first two games, broke away on two long scoring runs in the Pac-12 vs. Big Ten battle. The second one, a 59-yard scamper, tied the score at 28 with 8:10 left.
The Golden Bears had a chance to pull in front late, but Vincenzo D'Amato was wide left on a 42-yard field-goal attempt, his third miss of the day.
"It is very discouraging because we came here to win and we played well enough to win, but the scoreboard just doesn't say that," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "No matter what the stats are, what the scoreboard says or what happened today, we proved we can play with the best of them."
Cal quarterback Zach Maynard was 29-of-37 passing for 280 yards and one touchdown with one interception. All-American candidate Keenan Allen caught nine passes for 80 yards but was kept out of the end zone.
The Golden Bears racked up 512 yards of offense, outgaining the Buckeyes by 100 yards.
Asked about Ohio State's defensive effort, Meyer called it terrible.
"I wish I had some magic answer," he said. "We don't tackle very well right now. Stupid penalties (11 for 101 yards). It's time to play Ohio State defense."
Cal had stunned the crowd with a 1-yard run by Maynard with 12:25 left to go ahead 21-20 over heavily favored Ohio State, but the Buckeyes responded with an 11-play, 75-yard drive to reclaim the lead.
Miller tossed a 3-yard touchdown pass to Jake Stoneburner with 8:31 left and ran for a two-point conversion to make it 28-21.
Miller had carried 44 times in the first two games and Meyer said that was too many. It was obvious Miller was looking to stay in the pocket against Cal. As a result, the Buckeyes (3-0) spread the ball around more.
Jordan Hall returned for the Buckeyes after missing two games because of a foot injury and rushed for 87 yards on 17 carries.
"He just kept going," Meyer said. "I think he was rusty. I think there were more yards there. I think he could have come out of a few things that he normally would. But I love Jordan Hall."
Smith led Buckeyes receivers with five catches for 145 yards. Corey Brown caught three passes to boost his season total to 16 in three games, surpassing his team-leading 14 from 2011.
Cal (1-2) closed to 20-14 early in the third quarter when Bigelow broke away for an 81-yard touchdown, the longest run for the Bears since Jahvid Best's 93-yarder against UCLA in 2009.
The Buckeyes scored on three consecutive possessions in the first half to take a 20-7 lead. And they bolted ahead with efficiency. The longest of the three scoring drives was 1:33.
Miller made a sick move to elude Cal defenders and darted 55 yards for the opening touchdown in the first quarter.
Cal answered with a 19-yard pass from Maynard to Chris Harper to go in front 7-6, but the Bears' lead was short lived.
Miller responded with a 25-yard scoring strike to Smith. On the next possession, Miller hooked up with Stoneburner for a 1-yard touchdown. Stoneburner's two TD catches gave him 12 for his career.
"The good thing is we are developing some receivers," Meyer said. "Devin Smith had a helluva day.
"Yeah, he dropped a couple. But we need a home-run hitter. When you take a really hard swing every once in a while you've got to hit it out of the park. And he did."
Meyer complained during the week about Ohio State's pass rush and the defense took Meyer's admonishment to heart, sacking Maynard twice on Cal's first possessions and four times in the opening half and finished with six.
Ryan Shazier contributed one sack and 13 tackles. Johnathan Hankins was solid in the middle with 10 tackles and a sack and hard-hitting C.J. Barnett also had 10 stops and a sack.
"We got after the quarterback more today and we need to continue to do that," Shazier said.
NOTES: Longtime Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight, an Ohio State alum, and Mike Vrabel, current Buckeyes defensive line coach who also played on three Super Bowl-winning teams, were inducted into the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame during the weekend. Remaining members of Ohio State's 1942 national championship team also were recognized Saturday. … Troy Smith, former Ohio State quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner, will be returning to the university to work as an intern in the athletics department while pursuing a graduate degree. … Cal coach Jeff Tedford and Ohio State's Urban Meyer are good friends whose teams have met once previously. Tedford's Bears defeated Meyer's Utah team 31-24 in 2003. … Carlos Hyde, the Buckeyes' starting running back in their first two games of the season, was sidelined with a sprained knee and may not be back for next week's game against Alabama-Birmingham.