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September 17, 2013Last week, the Buckeyes boarded their plane bound for the West Coast not knowing if their once-Heisman-hopeful QB was healthy enough to play. By the time warm-ups started on Saturday, Braxton Miller had been ruled out with a sprained MCL and didn't even dress. So once again the team turned to highly qualified backup Kenny Guiton to navigate a victory, only this time it was his first career start a nation away on the road.
That being said, "road" turned out to be pretty welcoming, with more than half of smallish Memorial Stadium decked out in red, much like the bleachers at Northwestern vs. anyone. And while it's never easy to play thousands of miles from home, especially without your QB1, it helps when you're facing a defense that struggles to defend anything. With a new D-coordinator, a switch to the 4-3, and atrocious stats so far (they gave up 320 yards to FCS Portland State IN ONE QUARTER), Cal just didn't have the horses to slow down Urban's spread not even for a second.
This was really more a test for the defense, which had to take on a prolific passing offense, aka "Bear Raid," aka true freshman QB Jared Goff who throws 50 times a game and leads the nation in individual total offense and passing yards. Balanced the Bears are not, and their pass-happy philosophy should have played right into the teeth of the Buckeyes' experienced secondary, but they were capable enough to do some damage along the way.
For a while, it looked like Fox had an epic shootout on its hands: in the first quarter alone, these two teams combined for a blur of fast-paced, no-huddle offense, 38 points, 445 yards, and three turnovers. Cal absorbed its two early turnovers and instantaneous 21-point deficit admirably, fighting back to only trail 31-20 at the half, but OSU quickly turned to its ground game (which Cal also had no hope of stopping), the Buckeyes' defense bleeding yards but making stops when it needed to, and cruised to a relatively easy 52-34 victory in Berkeley.
It's becoming apparent that watching this much OSU football takes its physical and mental toll on a rational man. It takes patience to await an opponent with any defensive talent whatsoever to punch the Buckeyes in the mouth and see how they respond. Next week, look for more scheme breakdowns and certain projected matchups vs. Michigan because there's just nothing to be gleaned from the coming beatdown of Florida A&M.
When Ohio Was on Offense
It didn't take long to find out whether or not Guiton could keep his cool as a starter on the road. On the second offensive play, he dropped back, faked a screen to the flat, and then launched a perfectly placed bomb down the right sideline to Devin Smith who sprinted 90 yards for an easy score - a familiar sight for Cal since last year's neck-and-neck affair in Columbus was clinched for the Buckeyes on a similar 72-yard Miller-to-D. Smith TD.
After a Cal punt, Guiton uncorked yet another bomb to D. Smith in the endzone, this one for 47 yards. Then Cal lost a fumble, and six plays later Guiton had his third TD pass of the day, all within the first six minutes of the game.
Through three contests, there's a bit of a pattern here. This offense strikes quickly and repeatedly, having scored 68 points in first quarters so far. Then, things slow down a tad, a few punts maybe, and if the opponent is scrappy enough, there are a few series during which things tighten up and the question remains as to whether or not OSU can step on the throat (this game) or sweat things out into the second half (Buffalo) - SDSU need not apply.
Cal fought back to within 11 at the half, but this offense took to the ground game for the duration, churning out three TDs (two J. Hall shorties and a Philly Brown reception) and 148 yards rushing in the third quarter alone. Scoring was not necessary in the fourth quarter.
There's no arguing with Guiton. In going 21/32 for 276 yds and four TDs along with 14 rushes for 92 yards, he led this offense to school records for longest touchdown from scrimmage (Smith's 90-yarder) and total yards (608) in his first career start.
The fact that people are even amusing themselves for a millisecond about there being a "quarterback controversy" (there's not) is a testament to his play. There is only depth here, no drama, but it will be interesting to see what happens if Miller returns and struggles late against Wisconsin or Northwestern or goes down again with injury.
There's no controversy simply because Guiton cannot match Miller's athleticism - the escapability and rushing threat that Miller brings to the table is usually going to outweigh and be more valuable than Guiton's more game-manager type qualities. But what Guiton excels at is running the read-option, his ability to make his reads, give when he should give, take when he should take, which is what has allowed him to keep the offense moving and also what allowed Jordan Hall to gain 168 yards and three TDs in this game.
A perfect example of this was in the third quarter: Guiton kept it on an option pitch (on a fourth down attempt of course), allowing the defender to commit to the RB and then darting inside him for a 33-yd gain to the Cal five. Adding those accurate deep balls to his already savvier-than-Miller reads makes Guiton plenty dangerous - no, he's not the athlete that Miller is, but he's got some Russell Wilson to him: calm, knowledgeable, protective of the football, and a fine distributor.
The game plan was obviously to strike deep early as Cal cheated up to defend the edges, and then bleed them with the read-option for the duration. Dontre Wilson continued his emergence with some sweeps and options to either side, putting his speed around the edge to good use to the tune of five rushes for 59 yds, three receptions for 48 yards, which is about 13.4 yards per offensive touch.
The O-Line had a day, giving Guiton time when he needed it and getting to the second level to spring ball carriers for big gains. Center Corey Linsley returned from injury and played well, and previous short yardage concerns didn't even arise, mostly due to Cal's ineptitude.
The Cal defense just lacked the speed and scheme to slow this attack. Their D-Line failed to get any push, their corners got easily gobbled up in blocks, and their LBs were hesitant against the option. There are defenses out there that can give OSU trouble, but Cal is certainly not one of them, and that's why this unit barely sweated a record-yardage day on the road.
There will be questions to answer once Miller is back healthy and Hyde returns from suspension, but one thing is certain: this team hasn't missed a beat with its backups leading the show. Only time and a better defensive opponent will tell the true tale. For now, there are a lot of mouths to feed here, with a few more cupcakes on the counter.
When Ohio Was on Defense
It was a capable effort by this defense against a tough passing attack, but again, it's still difficult to tell where their ceiling is. Make no mistake, Cal earned its 503 yards of offense and 34 points, and that's a lot to give up on a given Saturday on the road.
For a true freshman, Cal's QB Goff handles such a high-paced, free-flinging scheme surprisingly well, and his accuracy along with some crafty play calling allowed Cal to put together extended drives, big plays, and scores on the Buckeyes. Like last year, this D is still vulnerable to missed tackles and giving up big plays against teams that can use its over-pursuit and poor tackling against it.
The problem for Cal was, when the game was actually close (for about 5 minutes), Goff lost a sack fumble and threw a horrific flea-flicker interception that put any chance they had of contending out of reach.
For the Buckeyes' D, the pass rush was without Adolphus Washington (groin strain), but DT Michael Bennett continued his disruptive play in the middle, as did Noah Spence off the edge. Spence remains the main source of pressure, quietly notching sacks and making QBs uncomfortable. Joey Bosa is coming on as a true frosh DE, so the depth is becoming clearer on the edges, less so in the middle.
Ryan Shazier had his usual day (11 tackles, one sack, one FF), the sack and fumble coming on a designed blitz in the first quarter when he rushed free and pummeled Goff from the blind side. The ball came loose, Bennett recovered, and Shazier had his highlight for the week. He also got rung up for a personal foul after hitting Goff along the sideline, and penalties continue to be an issue for this team (seven flags for 56 yards, many of them costly).
When pressed, this defense does miss some tackles. Stalwart CB Bradley Roby failed to wrap up on the sideline and let Cal WR James Grison get loose for a 61-yd TD. Certainly something to watch against good offensive opponents.
All in all, this team is built to win shootouts like this. The question will be if they can stop people should the offense run into a D that actually gets into the backfield, is present on the edges, and is capable of limiting big plays. For now, the new defensive starters and the depth behind them have a lot of time to develop and come together during this easy first quarter of the season.
There was a little trickery here, with Cal dialing up a fake punt late in the second quarter on fourth-and-7 on the OSU 38 yard line. Goff wears the same number as the Cal punter, so he slipped in and chucked it for a first down to prolong the drive. It certainly could have swung momentum even further, but the Bears settled for a field goal right before the half.
Urban can't have been too upset: the man goes for fourth downs while on vacation (they were 4-4 on the day). This probably had a lot to do with the offense's trouble on third-down conversions (only six in 15 tries), but opponents have to know that most territory is four-down territory in Urban Meyer's world.
What Does It All MEAN?
This much is clear: this offense can score on horrific defenses. I'm honestly not trying to harp on the weakness of schedule here, and there's nothing they can do about the quality of teams they face at this point besides beat their heads in, but through three games, Ohio has racked up plenty of yards and points against the 112th (SDSU), the 120th (Cal), and the 121st (Buffalo) ranked defenses in the country. The only teams Ohio opponents have beaten so far are FCS powerhouses Stony Brook (Buffalo nipped them in quintuple OT) and Portland State (Cal squeaked by in Week Two).
While it's been impressive numbers-wise, it's also been expected, and real questions about discipline, defensive depth, the O-line, and Miller's durability will remain until somewhere along the conference slate. For now, this team will continue to develop, regain full strength, and await a challenger who can make them work for it. Wisco, they of the mystifyingly nonexistent game-winning FG try, is first up in two weeks.
The Road to an SEC Evisceration
Aug. 31 Ohio 40, Buffalo 20
Sept. 7 Ohio 42, San Diego St. 7
Sept. 14 Ohio 52, Cal 34
Sept. 21 Florida A&M
Sept. 28 Wisconsin
Oct. 5 @ Northwestern
Oct. 19 Iowa
Oct. 26 Penn St.
Nov. 2 @ Purdue
Nov. 16 @ Illinois
Nov. 23 Indiana
Nov. 30 @ Michigan