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COLUMBUS, Ohio - For the first time in its short 2012 campaign, the Ohio State football team found its undefeated record in jeopardy on Saturday, when the Buckeyes eked out a 35-28 win over California. Despite trailing the Golden Bears with less than nine minutes remaining in the game, Urban Meyer's first OSU team found a way to win and will now head into next week's matchup with UAB with a 3-0 record intact.
With the game tied at 28 and the Buckeyes facing a third-and-seven situation, OSU wide receiver Devin Smith snuck behind the California defense and turned a Braxton Miller pass into a 72-yard touchdown with three minutes and 21 seconds remaining in the game. Smith's reception wound up being the difference-maker in Saturday's matchup and prevented the Buckeyes from suffering their first home loss to a non-ranked team in 60 games.
"It feels great knowing that I made a play for my team to win the game for them," Smith said.
As was the case with his last minute touchdown catch against Wisconsin in 2011, Smith's game-winning reception on Saturday came off of a broken play. With Miller scrambling in the pocket, the Bears' defense converged on the OSU quarterback, given Smith the opportunity to break free with nothing but the end zone ahead of him.
"The pass wasn't supposed to go me. I seen the corner and the safety bit down on (OSU receiver Corey Brown), and nobody was on me, I was like, 'Man, I hope he sees me,'" Smith said. "So I threw my hand up, and he seen me, and he threw it downfield."
Numbers don't lie
Zero. That's number of combined rushes that were attempted by OSU running backs Bri'onte Dunn and Rod Smith on Saturday. After both players were expected to help fill the void that Carlos Hyde left when he suffered an MCL sprain a week ago, neither underclassmen attempted a single carry as Meyer opted to start senior Jordan Hall behind Miller in the Buckeyes' backfield.
"To say Rod Smith and Bri'onte Dunn, I don't have faith in them, that's too harsh. Because I do," Meyer asserted. "They're still young and green. We have to get them ungreen here real quick because we need them."
Returning from offseason foot surgery, Hall responded with 87 rushing yards on 17 attempts, which is more than Meyer thought he could get out of the Buckeyes' captain at this point of the season. Hall admitted he was sore after the game, but said that he felt just fine while getting his first playing time of the 2012 season.
"I felt good. A little rusty," Hall said. "I think next week, I'll be alright."
Aside from Miller, who turned in season-highs of 249 passing yards and four touchdowns to go along with 75 rushing yards- including one highlight reel 55-yard touchdown scamper- Smith helped steal the show for the OSU offense with five receptions for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Despite also recording a couple of drops, Smith's play caught the attention of Meyer, who spent the offseason harping on the need for the Buckeyes to develop some receivers.
"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 said. "Devin Smith had a hell of a day."
OSU free safety Christian Bryant may have had his best day as a Buckeye on Saturday, recording five tackles and two pass breakups, and an interception California's final drive of the game to help seal the Ohio State victory. The junior from Cleveland gave credit to corner back Bradley Roby and linebacker Ryan Shazier for helping him come up with the game-clinching interception."
"Roby communicated to me before the play they were going to run the seam route and Ryan did a great job of re-routing their receiver and forcing the quarterback to overthrow it," Bryant said.
Cause for concern
In its first two games of the season, the OSU defense gave up an average of 332 yards per game. On Saturday, however, the Buckeyes gave up 512 yards, allowing the Bears to run 79 plays- 16 more than OSU ran against California.
"Bad tackling. That's all I know, is bad tackling. We've gotta get that figured out," Meyer said. "It's time to play Ohio State defense and that wasn't Ohio State defense at all."
The Buckeyes had a particularly tough time bringing sophomore Cal running back Brendan Bigelow to the ground. Carrying the ball just four times against the Buckeyes, Bigelow racked up 160 rushing yards and two touchdowns on Saturday.
"I would say we were losing leverage, but Cal also did a great job of cut blocking our guys," Bryant said. "Their play calling and scheme caused a lot of problems."
From the Buckeyes' slow start in their opener against Miami (OH) to their sloppily-played win against Central Florida a week ago to Saturday's come from behind win, the start of the Meyer era in Columbus has been anything but smooth sailing so far. Nevertheless, the first-year Buckeyes coach made it clear in the opening statements of his postgame press conference that he is going to enjoy each victory, regardless of how it comes.
"The best thing about 3-0 is a chance to go 4-0," Meyer said. "Our guys found a way."