COLUMBUS, Ohio -- As Urban Meyer walked to the podium following Ohio State's wild 35-28 victory over California Saturday, he paused for a second before offering an assessment of his team's performance.
"Well, I guess the good thing about being 3-0 is having the chance to go 4-0," Meyer said.
Meyer is right, but the relief in his voice was audible. His Buckeyes' win over the Bears was fast, exciting and the desired result for the crowd of 105,232, but even Meyer admitted that he felt a loss was brewing late in the game.
"I have been in games before where I thought we were going to lose, where I just kept waiting," Meyer said. "But I thought someone would make a play, I really did."
Thankfully, Meyer has Braxton Miller.
After Miller juked his way to a 55-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and commandeered a 75-yard drive to erase a one-point deficit in the fourth, the sophomore quarterback pulled out his finest play. Miller improvised a 72-yard strike to a wide-open Devin Smith with 3:26 remaining to stave off the Bears, who outgained the Buckeyes 512 yards to 412 on the day.
"That was a scramble," Meyer said of the game-winning touchdown. "You hear them talk on TV about how the quarterback can extend the play. He extended the play and he made one."
But Meyer's postgame statements, not to mention Cal's gaudy offensive stats, will probably do little to quell the growing doubts surrounding Ohio State's supposed return to prominence this season. If not for three missed field goals by Cal kicker Vincenzo D'Amato, Meyer might have faced the wrath of the Columbus faithful just three games into his high-profile tenure. He still had to answer for a game in which the Buckeyes looked helpless against Cal's rushing attack and committed 11 penalties for 101 yards.
"It was terrible, terrible," Meyer said of his defense. "I wish I had some magic answer for you. We're not tackling very well right now. We'll get better, though. I promise you that we're going to get better."
Meyer harped on his team's lack of discipline and hinted that it might endure a pretty vicious day of practice Sunday.
"I guess I've just lost enough games to know that when you win, you go enjoy it," Meyer said. "I won't say tomorrow will be all peaches and cream. The good thing is they expect to go to work now. I see it in their eyes."
It's not just the Buckeyes defense that needs to get better. Despite scoring five touchdowns, Ohio State's offense was rendered wholly ineffective in stints. Miller was the quintessential dual-threat quarterback for two-and-a-half quarters, but he struggled mightily during the middle of the game. Cal switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme at halftime, successfully limiting Meyer's trademark speed attack.
But Miller rediscovered his rhythm after Cal took a 21-20 lead, and one pivotal mistake by Cal safety Alex Logan (who was also badly fooled on Miller's 55-yard touchdown run) allowed Smith, who made five receptions for 145 yards and two touchdowns, to break free down the sideline, leading to Miller's eventual game-winning pass.
But none of it overshadowed the stagnant portions of the second and third quarters that looked more like the Tresselball of old than Meyer's quick-strike attack. Eating up the play clock and opting for mostly option reads, the Buckeyes were outgained 195-23 in the third quarter alone. It wasn't until falling behind that the offense appeared to wake up from its extended second-half slumber.
"They made some halftime adjustments on defense, and that bogged us down," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "I've got to get us into some manageable plays and distances and keep some of the pressure off of Braxton. But Braxton made plays when it mattered."
On the opposing sideline, Jeff Tedford's head-scratching decision on fourth-and-one with 4:25 remaining probably cost him any rest on the plane ride back to Berkeley. Though Cal hadn't turned the ball over all afternoon, Tedford pulled his offense at the Ohio State 25-yard line, opting instead for a 42-yard field goal attempt.
D'Amato, who had already missed his first two tries of the game, hooked a nasty drive that was wide left from the point of contact. And just like that, Tedford may have cranked up the heat on his seat during a game that should have cooled it.
"At that point of the game, you're there to go ahead," Tedford said. "Run the clock down a little bit, try not to give them any clock and kick the field goal."
Cal quarterback Zach Maynard turned in one of the finest performances of his career, finishing 26-of-37 for 280 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He spread the ball around with ease amid constant pressure (he was sacked six times), finding eight different receivers on a series of delay screens and crossing routes. Maynard appeared to throw a second touchdown pass before it was negated by a holding call; that drive ended with one of D'Amato's three missed field goals.
But the real story for Cal -- and the real thorn in Ohio State's side -- was speedy sophomore Brendan Bigelow. Despite logging only four carries, Bigelow was electric, racking up 160 rushing yards and two touchdowns. First, he twisted and twirled and somehow stayed on his feet before charging 81 yards to bring the Bears within six points in the third quarter. In the fourth, fresh off Ohio State's go-ahead touchdown, Bigelow struck again, effectively turning the corner and sprinting 59 yards to bring Cal even with just more than eight minutes to go.
"I initially took the handoff and thought 'don't slow down,'" Bigelow said of his long touchdown run. "I spun off a few people and just tried to stay on my feet, keep pumping and keep running."
In all, the game featured a combined 924 yards of total offense. It was a welcome change of pace for Cal fans, who endured an upset loss to Nevada in Week 1 and a mistake-filled 50-31 victory over FCS team Southern Utah in Week 2.
For Ohio State, however, the game only raised questions about a porous secondary and Miller's focus over the course of 60 minutes. Though he made big plays when needed, Miller was functionally absent for the entire third quarter, and he completed just 16-of-30 passes on the afternoon.
Ohio State hosts UAB next weekend before traveling to Michigan State on Sept. 29. There's a long way to go until then, but the Buckeyes recognize there's plenty of work to be done.
"It was a tough game for us," said defensive lineman John Simon. "I think both sides of the ball were physical. Fortunately, we were able to come out on top which makes things a little bit better."