Cal’s spread offense offers OSU challenge

True freshman leads Bears at QB

OSU defensive tackle Michael Bennett celebrates after he recovers a fumble against San Diego State. Next up for the Buckeyes’ defense is California, which starts a true freshman at quarterback.
OSU defensive tackle Michael Bennett celebrates after he recovers a fumble against San Diego State. Next up for the Buckeyes’ defense is California, which starts a true freshman at quarterback.

COLUMBUS — California coach Sonny Dykes cracked that his 18-year-old quarterback is too wide-eyed to feel the pressure of Saturday night’s nationally televised game against No. 4 Ohio State.

“We'll just tell him last week was on national television, too,” Dykes told reporters Tuesday, “and he won't know the difference.”

Jared Goff, though, will learn the difference between last week’s opponent — FCS Portland State — and the silver helmets trying to rattle him this weekend.

That’s what OSU is counting on as it treks to Berkeley to meet the most prolific — and greenest — quarterback in the nation.

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Really, is there anything more tantalizing for a defensive lineman than a freshman passer who sets up in an empty backfield?

“A true freshman can be really athletic,” Buckeyes defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “But it’s easier to get flustered and to get a little nervous, especially when you see a defensive line closing in.”

Just a few months removed from high school in nearby Kentfield, Calif., the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Goff is one of the season’s improbable early storylines.

The four-star prospect enrolled for spring ball and beat out two veterans to become the first true freshman to start his first game at Cal. He completed 38 for 63 passes for 445 yards and two touchdowns in a 44-30 season-opening loss to No. 17 Northwestern, and he threw for 485 yards — 18 shy of Pat Barnes’ single-game school record set in 1996 — in a 37-30 win over Portland State.

Goff has proven impervious to the big stage, saying “nerves are never really a part of it,” and is a snug fit in a breakneck spread that is invigorating an inexperienced team coming off a three-win season. Under the guidance of Dykes, who boasted the nation’s highest-scoring offense at Louisiana Tech last season, his 930 passing yards make him the country’s runaway leader.

Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer is not sure how he does it — much less in an offense averaging 97 plays per game. The only freshman quarterback he ever used regularly was Florida’s Tim Tebow in 2006, though Tebow backed up starter Chris Leak.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a full-time starter who is a true freshman,” Meyer said. “I’ve had them at other positions, and that’s a handful. I can only imagine what it’s like with a quarterback. But he’s doing a great job for them.”

Still, OSU intends on jarring the freshman. Though Cal’s five-wide sets may keep the Buckeyes from bringing waves of pressure, they have their sights on Goff, who has been sacked nine times and betrayed his inexperience with four interceptions — including a pair of pick-sixes against Northwestern.

Goff may be able to convince himself this is just another game. He has a polish belying his years, saying on Tuesday, “At the end of the day, I really don’t care about those stats. The most important thing is to win on Saturday.”

Treating the Buckeyes as just another defense may be harder.

"I feel like our defensive line does a really good job of applying pressure on the quarterback," Bennett said. "Hopefully, we can make him feel that."

MILLER HEALING: Meyer said he is "fairly optimistic" quarterback Braxton Miller will start Saturday.

The preseason Heisman frontrunner tested his sprained knee in a light throwing workout Tuesday morning and was set to practice in a limited capacity in the afternoon. Meyer hinted a decision on Miller’s status will come after practice Wednesday.

“The arm is fine,” Meyer said during the Big Ten teleconference. “It's just, can he plant, can he move?”

SMOOTH KENNY G: If Miller sits, don’t expect the Buckeyes’ confidence to wobble.

That’s because backup quarterback Kenny Guiton has one thing Miller does not: Unbridled swagger.

“Kenny is crazy,” receiver Corey Brown said. “When he comes in the huddle, he’s loud, obnoxious. You can tell he’s real confident with everything he does. He talks a lot of trash on the field. When Kenny’s in there, he kind of hypes everyone up.”

Asked for an example of Guiton’s jabs, Brown said, “I can’t say the words verbatim. It’s rated R.”

BROWN COMMITS: Ohio State continued to strengthen its latest blue-chip recruiting class with a commitment from four-star receiver Noah Brown.

Brown, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound Sparta, N.J., native, became the Buckeyes’ 18th pledge in the 2014 class after making his official campus visit last weekend.

As a junior last year, Brown caught 41 passes for 630 yards and six touchdowns and rushed for 847 yards and 14 touchdowns. He had offers from Nebraska, Notre Dame, Penn State, and Southern California among others, though his recruitment was widely believed to be a two-team race between Rutgers and OSU.

OSU’s 2014 class is ranked third by Rivals.com and fourth by Scout.com. Coach Urban Meyer’s first two classes in 2012 and 2013 were also ranked fourth or higher by both major recruiting services.

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.