When it became known that Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller would not even be in uniform for Saturday's game against the California Golden Bears, some (if not most) Cal fans took that as good news. After all, how could backup quarterback Kenny Guiton be expected to fare in his first start on the road?
The answer to that question was "very well." In what probably came as no surprise to the Ohio State Buckeyes and their fans, the Ohio State offense barely missed a beat in Miller's absence. Guiton commanded an offensive onslaught that rolled up 608 yards of total offense (332 rushing, 276 passing) against an overmatched Cal defense, leading Ohio State (#3 USA TODAY / #4 AP) to a convincing 52-34 victory in front of a sellout crowd at California Memorial Stadium.
The Buckeyes took command of the game early -- and how. Did you have trouble remembering that Ohio State wide receiver Devin Smith got behind the Cal defense for a 72-yard touchdown reception to win last year's Cal-Ohio State game in Columbus? Less than two minutes into the game, Guiton and Smith did their best to remind you. Taking advantage of the Cal secondary biting hard on a fake screen, Smith got behind safety Damariay Drew for a 90-yard touchdown pass on Ohio State's second play from scrimmage, which made the Cal faithful facepalm and electrified the thousands of scarlet-and-gray clad Buckeye fans who invaded Memorial Stadium.
Still not convinced that Smith is a nemesis? The Buckeyes went to him again on their second possession, capping a two-play, 73-yard drive with a 47-yard touchdown pass from Guiton to Smith. Less than five minutes into the game, it was 14-0. And then, after Ohio State parlayed a fumble by Cal quarterback Jared Goff into a short touchdown drive, Cal found itself behind 21-0 with only six minutes gone by in the first quarter.
Ruh roh. Admit it: at this point, you were less concerned with Cal getting back into the game than you were about making sure that Cal did not match (or exceed) Cumberland College's 222-0 loss to Georgia Tech in 1916. In the first six minutes, Cal's defense had shown no signs of being able to slow, much less stop, Ohio State's offense and the Cal offense had barely been able to do anything against the Ohio State defense.
"We have started so poorly for three weeks. It is something as a coaching staff that we have talked a lot about, and talked to some players about it," Cal Coach Sonny Dykes said after the game. "I don't really have an answer at this point, but it is something we need to get fixed. At the start of the game, we fell down 21 to nothing, and gave up a touchdown on the second play of the game for the second week in a row."
But to Cal's credit, a funny thing happened on the way to what had looked like a rout of historic proportions: the Bears showed signs of life and, dare I say, threatened to get back in the game.
It started with a fluky 61-yard touchdown pass from Goff to James Grisom, who caught a ball on the left sideline that may or may not have been intended for Darius Powe Jr. And then, after Cal answered a Buckeyes field goal with a 42-yard scoring pass from Goff to Chris Harper on a nifty misdirection screen play, the Bears suddenly found themselves behind by only 24-14 with 55 seconds remaining in a topsy turvy first quarter. Then, in the second quarter, the Bears managed to slow the Ohio State offense down a little bit, giving up only seven points. The Bears could only muster two field goals, however, and found themselves behind 31-20 at the half.
The second quarter was not without its hijinks, as Cal for the second time in three weeks reached into its special teams bag of tricks. Facing a 4th and 7 at the OSU 38 yard line late in the half, the Bears took full advantage of double jersey numbers being permitted. Cal lined up in punt formation, with a guy wearing number 16 standing as the punter. That was not unusual, as Cal punter Cole Leininger wears number 16. But this time, the guy lined up as the punter was none other than Goff, who also wears number 16. Goff took the long snap and fired a strike to Stefan McClure (a gunner on Cal's punt team) for an 11-yard gain and a first down. The conversion led to a Vince D'Amato field goal as the first half ended, pulling the Bears to within 11 points of Ohio State at halftime.
As fortunate as the Bears were to find themselves down by only 11 after the horrendous start, Cal was clearly hobbling at halftime. Injuries to Cal starting safeties Michael Lowe and Alex Logan in the first half forced the Bears to juggle their defensive back rotation. By unofficial count, ten players saw playing time in the defensive backfield for Cal on Saturday: Lowe, Logan, McClure, Drew, Kameron Jackson, Isaac Lapite, Joel Willis, Adrian Lee, Jason Gibson, and true freshman Cameron Walker. Ohio State took full advantage of Cal's state of flux in the defensive backfield, as Guiton threw for 228 yards and three touchdowns in the first half alone.
Whatever fortune that the Bears felt from being down by only 11 at halftime was quickly blunted by Ohio State in the second half. The Buckeyes took the second half kickoff and drove 75 yards in nine plays, the key play being a 33-yard run on an option keeper by Guiton on a 4th-and-1 at the Cal 38. Running back Jordan Hall (30 rush, 168 yards) punched it in two plays later for the second of his three touchdowns on the day, giving Ohio State a 38-20 lead. The Buckeyes extended the lead to 45-20 on the next possession when Guiton found Corey "Philly" Brown for a perfectly thrown six-yard scoring pass, beating a mismatched Jalen Jefferson who could not (though he tried mightily) commit a pass interference penalty to prevent Brown's reception.
Cal answered Brown's touchdown with a lightning-quick four-play drive that followed a 42-yard kickoff return by Khalfani Muhammad. Goff found Bryce Treggs for a 14-yard touchdown pass over Ohio State's All-America cornerback candidate Bradley Roby to bring the Bears to within 45-27. But after a woefully unsuccessful onside kick gave Ohio State good field position, the Buckeyes added another Jordan Hall touchdown run to break the 50-point mark before the third quarter ended.
The Bears held the Buckeyes scoreless in the fourth quarter and added one more touchdown to account for the final margin. As for the stat sheet, Cal rolled up 503 yards of total offense against a talented Ohio State defense, with 371 of those yards coming from the arm of freshman quarterback Goff. With 371 yards passing, Goff became the first Cal quarterback since Aaron Rodgers to pass for 300 yards or more in three consecutive games.
"I think he's tremendous, and I went and told him that after the game," Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer said of Goff. "They have some very good wideouts, and that's a big, strapping freshman. Unless we see him in a bowl game, we're not going to play him for a couple of years and I think he's going to be really good. A lot of respect for him."
After being largely stymied in the running game in the first half, Cal managed to rush for 132 yards for the game, led by Daniel Lasco's 64 yards on 10 carries. With Ohio State ready for Brendan Bigelow after Bigelow's performance in last year's game against the Buckeyes -- Ohio State held Bigelow to 39 yards on 11 carries -- it was Lasco who was the bright spot in the Bears' running game.
While the offense had its bright spots, it was once again a performance to forget for the Cal defense. Cal was consistently beaten on the edge by the Buckeyes' running game and looked a step slow compared to Ohio State. And, once again, the Cal secondary had its issues, with Guiton torching the Bears through the air for 276 yards passing and four touchdowns.
There is no shame in losing to the third (or fourth) ranked team in the country and there is certainly much to like about the Bears' refusal to fold their tent after falling behind by three touchdowns early. But the continued slow starts and the defense's tendency to give up large amounts of yards and points are trends that have to worry the Bears and their fans as the season moves forward. Now is a good time for the bye week, with Oregon looming in two weeks.