COLUMBUS, Ohio — After another game too close for comfort, the overriding emotion for Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was relief.
Braxton Miller lofted a 72-yard touchdown pass to an all-alone Devin Smith with 3:26 left and Christian Bryant snuffed out the Golden Bears’ last chance with an interception to power the 12th-ranked Buckeyes to a 35-28 win on Saturday.
“Our guys found a way,” said Meyer, now 3-0 in his first season back in his home state. “I’ve been in games before I thought we were going to lose. I just kept waiting, I thought someone would make a play. I really did.”
The Golden Bears (1-2) missed three field goals and had a touchdown called back by a penalty, while the Buckeyes (3-0) gave up 512 yards and were manhandled for much of the second half.
Taking over at the Ohio State 25 with the score knotted, it took just three plays until on third-and-7 defensive back Alex Logan saw Miller start to scramble and ran toward him. The quarterback instead threw deep to a wide-open Smith.
“You see somebody open like that you at least have to put some air under it so they can run under it and get position,” said Miller, who was 16 of 30 passing for 249 yards and a career-high four touchdowns with one interception. “You have to be careful with those type of throws.”
Cal cornerback Marc Anthony had a succinct appraisal of the play: “We got caught getting nosey.”
Now down by seven, the Bears still had a shot to tie. But Maynard, who was 26 of 37 passing for 280 yards and a touchdown, overthrew a receiver with 1:09 left and Bryant picked it off and returned it 38 yards.
“(Cornerback Bradley) Roby communicated to me before the play they were going to run the seam route and (linebacker Ryan) Shazier did a great job of re-routing their receiver and forcing the quarterback to overthrow it,” he said.
Ohio State built a 20-7 lead at half but managed 25 yards and no first downs on 14 plays in the third quarter.
Unlike a week ago, when he blasted his team’s mistakes in an up-and-down 31-16 victory over Central Florida, Meyer heaped praise on his receivers and defensive line — two areas he had verbally drilled just seven days earlier.
But he said bad tackling was the No. 1 problem for the Buckeyes.
“It’s time to play Ohio State defense and that wasn’t Ohio State defense at all,” he said.
Cal’s brightest star was undoubtedly backup tailback Brendan Bigelow, who raced 81 yards on his first carry of the game — the longest run ever by an opposing back in 90-year-old Ohio Stadium. Maynard then kept on a 1-yard sneak to give Cal a 21-20 lead early in the fourth quarter. Bigelow twice put his hand on the turf so he wouldn’t go down, each time spinning free to stay upright.
“All I was thinking was to get around the corner as fast as you can — don’t slow down,” Bigelow said. “After I first initiated contact, I spun off of him. I was just thinking to myself, ‘Stay on your feet. Stay on your feet.’”
Miller capped a long drive by running a play that Meyer brought with him from his days at Florida with Tim Tebow.
Miller kept the ball, took a step forward, then stepped back and flipped a pass over the middle to Jake Stoneburner for the final 3 yards — his second score of the game from Miller.
“It’s called a pop,” Miller said. “The quarterback runs a lot on the goal line. So I went for the pop pass.”
Miller then carried on a conversion run for a 28-21 lead.
Just two plays later, Bigelow, who finished with 160 yards on only four carries, burst through the Ohio State defense for a 16-yard run and then topped that on the next play with a 59-yarder to tie the game at 28.
“My eyes get big,” Bigelow said of what went through his mind when he turned the corner. “I got excited — maybe a bit too excited.”
Miller promptly turned the ball over by throwing an interception directly to Cal defensive back Steve Williams.
The Bears then patiently drove to the Ohio State 25, where the drive stalled. On fourth-and-1, they called timeout. While almost all 105,232 in Ohio Stadium thought coach Jeff Tedford would elect to go for it, instead, he sent junior kicker Vincenzo D’Amato out for a 42-yard field goal. He was wide left with 4:20 left, his third kick that sailed left of the mark on the day, missing twice from 42 and once from 40 yards.
“I had confidence,” Tedfor said. “Vince missed a couple to the left. Typically he gets that squared away. It just didn’t happen today.”
Meyer was just pleased his team stayed unbeaten for at least another week. It sure beats the alternative.
“The best thing about 3-0 is what?” he asked rhetorically. “The chance to go 4-0.”