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COLUMBUS — Urban Meyer got his wish for a louder, more raucous Ohio Stadium on Saturday.
It just wasn't for the reason he expected.
As Ohio State receiver Devin Smith streaked down the right sideline for the winning score late in a 35-28 victory over California, the crowd of 105,232 exploded in equal parts joy and relief.
The play had fittingly detoured from the script. What didn't on this wild afternoon?
The Buckeyes had bent to the brink against a 17-point underdog they were expected to throttle — even trailed by a point in the fourth quarter. They had 11 penalties, a tissue-thin defense, and an upset-minded opponent.
Moments earlier, Meyer forcefully ran his hands through his hair as backup Cal running back Brendan Bigelow ran for his second long touchdown of the game to tie the game at 28.
"It's time to play Ohio State defense, and that wasn't Ohio State defense at all," he said after the Buckeyes allowed 512 yards.
When it mattered most, though, No. 12 OSU (3-0) salvaged its imperfect day with an imperfect play.
The winning touchdown pass was not supposed to go to Smith, the third-and-7 play from the OSU 28 instead was designed for quarterback Braxton Miller to throw an option route to Corey Brown.
"Devin's job is to merely clear out," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said.
Miller, though, saw Brown covered and scrambled out of trouble to the right. From the press box, Herman's eyes widened as he watched the cornerback and safety collapse toward Miller and Brown.
"Holy smokes, the guy that's covering [Brown] is the guy that's supposed to be covering Devin," Herman remembered thinking.
Smith realized the same. It was the classic scramble drill — short go deep, deep go short. The sophomore took off up field and threw up his hands. No defender was within eight yards of him.
"I looked back thinking, ‘Man, I hope he sees me," Smith said.
Miller did, and the noise that rocked the old stadium told the rest of the story. Ohio State went ahead 35-28 on the 72-yard touchdown pass with 3 minutes, 26 seconds remaining, then clinched the victory seven plays later when Christian Bryant intercepted Golden Bears quarterback Zach Maynard.
Finally, nearly four hours after OSU (3-0) and Cal (1-2) kicked off for the first time in 40 years, the Buckeyes could celebrate a win Smith called "crazy."
"I've been in games where I thought were going to lose, where I just kept waiting," Meyer said. "[But] I thought someone would make a play, I really did."
Few would have blamed the crowd for losing hope. The Buckeyes hardly resembled the team from the first half.
In a game that began just after 9 a.m. Pacific time, the hosts delivered a resounding early wake-up call.
It was everything Meyer envisioned when he challenged his players to create an "inferno" inside a stadium that had been muted during two largely drama-free victories to open the season. The Buckeyes besieged Maynard for four first-half sacks — they finished with six to triple their season total of three — and had four plays of 25-plus yards, including a 55-yard touchdown run by Miller. The sophomore quarterback — who completed 16 of 30 passes for 249 yards, four touchdowns, and an interception and ran for 75 yards on 12 carries — also threw two early scoring passes to put the Buckeyes ahead 20-7 less than two minutes into the second quarter.
But the Buckeyes stammered after halftime. They went three-and-out on their three possessions in the third quarter while Cal suddenly showed life. Bigelow ran for an 81-yard score — the longest run by an opposing tailback in Ohio Stadium history — then Cal took a 21-20 lead on a one-yard sneak by Maynard.
OSU countered with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive capped by a three-yard touchdown pass from Miller to Jake Stoneburner, only to watch Bigelow run for a game-tying 59-yard score and Miller throw an interception in his own territory. Not until after Cal kicker Vincenzo missed a potential go-ahead 42-yard field goal wide left with 4:20 remaining — his third wayward attempt of the day — and Smith's touchdown dash could the Buckeyes exhale.
"I guess I've just lost enough games to know that when you win, go enjoy it," Meyer said. "I won't say [today] will be all peaches and cream, but enjoy the win, man."
Contact David Briggs: at email@example.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.