For a second consecutive season, the Ohio State football team is set to play California for the third game of the year, looking for a win to remain undefeated.
Beating California at Ohio Stadium didn’t come easily for the Buckeyes last season.
The Golden Bears took a 21-20 lead over OSU with 12:26 left to play in the fourth quarter. After the Buckeyes took a 28-21 lead on a touchdown pass followed by a two-point conversion with 8:31 to play, California tied the game just 21 seconds later on a 59-yard touchdown run by then-sophomore running back Brendan Bigelow.
It took a 72-yard touchdown connection from quarterback Braxton Miller to wide receiver Devin Smith, both sophomores at the time, with just 3:26 to play for the Buckeyes to win the game 35-28.
This year the Buckeyes will have to win in a road game Saturday at California’s Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif.
The Golden Bears will look to capitalize on the home-field advantage and turn the tables after a close defeat last season.
“We have a chip on our shoulder,” Bigelow said Tuesday. “We went up there and we almost upset them, and came short.”
Bigelow, now a junior running back, was the star of last year’s loss to the Buckeyes as a sophomore. He only received seven touches in the game — four rushing attempts and three kickoff returns — but gained a whopping 234 all-purpose yards. Prior to his game-tying 59-yard touchdown, he scored an 81-yard touchdown on the first play of a drive early in the third quarter.
OSU junior linebacker Ryan Shazier and senior safety Christian Bryant said Wednesday after practice that the OSU coaches have stressed the concept of maintaining leverage on defense in this year’s game to keep Bigelow in check.
“He’s a pretty good back. He’s real fast, so once somebody makes a mistake, he can capitalize on it real quick,” Shazier said. “We just got to keep him under control, we just can’t let him get where he want to go.”
Bryant said the Buckeyes, who had a number of missed tackles on Bigelow’s two touchdown runs, have also been working on open-field tackling since last year’s game.
“It was just some guys just making small mistakes,” Bryant said of Bigelow’s touchdown runs last season. “He’s a guy who likes to get on the edge and showcase his speed. Agile guy, can make you miss in the open field.”
Bigelow hasn’t been at his best in California’s first two games of the season. He underwent offseason knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus and acknowledged he does not yet have full confidence in his ability to plant and cut off of the rehabilitating knee.
“In time, I’ll have more faith in it,” Bigelow said Tuesday. “Right now, I’m still struggling with that.”
Through the first two games of the season against Northwestern and Portland State, Bigelow has 136 rushing yards on 33 carries. He also has six catches for 60 yards.
He said he would grade his performance in the first two games as a “D-minus.”
“I’m pretty hard on myself though, and I expect more out of myself,” Bigelow said. “I want to improve on my cutting ability, more vision, seeing the field better and my blocking.”
Although Bigelow is back, the California offense will be a considerably different one than OSU faced last season. The Golden Bears have a new coach, Sonny Dykes, a new offensive coordinator, Tony Franklin and a freshman starting quarterback, Jared Goff.
Using the fast-paced offensive scheme Dykes brought to California, the Golden Bears have run 194 total offensive plays through their first two games. The Buckeyes, by comparison, have only run 138 plays and had 135 run against them.
Shazier said the defense’s goal will be to control the game’s tempo and stop California from reaching its average of nearly 100 offensive plays.
“To be honest, when you’re a good defense, you’re not allowing people to (run) 100 plays,” Shazier said. “If we can control the tempo of the game, I feel like we can win it.”
Dykes expects OSU’s defense to present a “huge challenge” Saturday.
“Ohio State’s defense matches up pretty well against everybody,” Dykes said.
Franklin said the Buckeyes defense has no shortage of talent.
“(OSU coach Urban Meyer) is a phenomenal coach, but he’s also a great talent evaluator and brings in guys that can do what he wants them to do,” Franklin said. “There’s so many good players on the field, it’s not that none of them stand out, it’s that they all do.”
That defensive talent, however, has not changed California’s offensive game plan, Goff said. He and his team is preparing the same way to play the Buckeyes as it did for its first two games.
“I think our offense can match up with any defense in the country,” Goff said. “We go into every game the same way … we’re going into Ohio State the same way we went into Northwestern and the same way we went into Portland State. We don’t really change much with our offense, we stay the same way every week.”
On the other side of the equation, OSU’s offensive star is also dealing with a knee injury. Wednesday, Meyer said Miller’s status for the game remains uncertain after he suffered an MCL sprain last Saturday.
If Miller is out, the Buckeyes will turn to redshirt-senior backup quarterback Kenny Guiton, just as they did when Miller was injured on OSU’s first drive of the game last week.
Even if the Buckeyes are without the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Dykes said California’s defensive game plan would not change significantly.
“There’s not much drop-off (from Miller to Guiton),” Dykes said. “It’s hard to say that when a Heisman Trophy front-runner goes down … but I think that’s a credit to the supporting cast. They’ve got a lot of good players offensively, and they just got to keep on humming when Braxton comes out.”
The Buckeyes still put up 445 total yards of offense, 43 of which came while Miller was in the game, in their 42-7 victory against San Diego State. Guiton completed 19 of 28 passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns and added 83 rushing yards and a touchdown on nine rushing attempts.
California redshirt-freshman linebacker Hardy Nickerson said the defense is prepared to face either quarterback.
“One is down and the other guy steps in, we’re still going to do the same thing. We’re still going to do our jobs,” Nickerson said. “Everybody has to do their assignments, so it’s not much of a difference whether one plays or one doesn’t.”
The 1-1 Golden Bears, who already lost to a Big Ten school in their season opener against Northwestern, will be the underdogs against the No. 4-ranked Buckeyes. Dykes said his team is going to have to play at a “very high level” to win.
“We’re a little bit inconsistent, we have been up to this point,” Dykes said. “We feel like we’ve got some talent and some kids that are hungry and want to get better, and are excited about the opportunity, but we’re going to have to certainly play better than we played last week.”
Franklin concurred with Dykes that California must play better, but he is confident in his team’s chances if it focuses on its own game and not its opponent.
“They’re young men and they’re good players, but (we’ve) got good players,” Franklin said. “You just go out and play and sometimes, teams that aren’t ranked beat teams that are. Sometimes it doesn’t happen that way, but again, the No. 1 focus we have is just the fact that this week we play a really good football team.”
Kickoff for Saturday’s game at California is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. ET.