The Golden Bears turned a 20-7 halftime deficit into a 21-20 lead at the 12:26 mark of the fourth quarter, triggering a wild back-and-forth finish that wasn't cemented until OSU safety Christian Bryant grabbed his first career interception with 1:09 remaining.
The Buckeyes moved to 3-0 for the first time since the vacated season of 2010 and only the second time in the past five seasons. The record was of little consolation to OSU head coach Urban Meyer.
"The best thing about 3-0 is the chance to go 4-0 and that's about it," Meyer said. "We played a very quality opponent … and I thought our guys found a way. Defensively, it was bad tackling. I don't know. It's time to play Ohio State defense and that wasn't Ohio State defense. We've got to get that figured out."
Meyer also lamented the fact his team committed 11 penalties worth 101 yards.
"We also had (11) penalties … and some stupid penalties," the coach said. "We're going to lose a game like that."
Cal rolled up 512 total yards, the most by an OSU opponent since Minnesota had 578 during a 45-31 loss to Ohio State in October 2005. Tailback Brandon Bigelow rushed for 160 yards and two touchdowns on only four carries, while quarterback Zach Maynard completed 26 of 37 pass attempts for 280 yards and one score.
Sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller was once again the main cog in the Ohio State offense, having a hand in all five of his team's touchdowns. Miller completed 16 of 30 passes for 249 yards and a career-best four touchdowns, and added 75 yards and one TD on 12 rushes.
Miller's classmate Devin Smith had a breakout game, grabbing five passes for a career-high 145 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Jake Stoneburner had three catches for 44 yards and two scores.
OSU was led in rushing by senior Jordan Hall, who was making his 2012 season debut. Hall, who missed the first two games after offseason foot surgery, picked up 87 yards on 17 carries.
Miller got the scoring started late in the first quarter when he turned a simple read-option play into a 55-yard touchdown burst. Miller faked a handoff to Corey "Philly" Brown, got a seal block on the outside from fullback Zach Boren and then did the rest himself. He faked Bears safety Alex Logan nearly out of his shoes near the line of scrimmage, broke toward the home sideline and outraced linebacker Nick Forbes and safety Josh Hill – who seemingly had the angle on Miller – to the end zone.
The score stayed at 6-0 with 5:09 remaining in the first quarter when kicker Drew Basil left his PAT kick outside the right upright.
Cal answered on its next possession with a 75-yard drive that included three big gainers. Tailback Isi Sofele, who had 86 yards on a game-high 21 carries, broke off a 26-yard run on the first play followed two plays later by an 18-yard completion between Maynard and wide receiver Keenan Allen. Allen had a game-best nine receptions for 80 yards.
That pushed the ball to the Ohio State 26, and three plays after that, Maynard found freshman wideout Chris Harper on a throwback bubble screen for a 19-yard touchdown pass. Kicker Vincenzo D'Amato came on to add the extra point, giving the Bears a 7-6 lead at the 2:38 mark of the opening period.
That advantage didn't last long as Miller brought the Buckeyes right back with a 75-yard scoring march that took only four plays. The sophomore QB dropped a beautiful pass into Stoneburner's hands for a 40-yard gain down the middle of the field. Then Miller rifled a spiral that Smith snatched out of the air and away from Cal cornerback Steve Williams for a 25-yard touchdown.
This time, Basil converted the PAT to give Ohio State a 13-7 lead with 1:27 remaining in the first quarter.
Another Miller-to-Smith connection set up the Buckeyes' next touchdown. On a third-and-10 play at the Cal 45, Smith beat Williams' coverage again and Miller hit his receiver in stride for a 35-yard pickup. Two plays later, Miller flipped a 1-yard touchdown pass to Stoneburner, and after Basil added the extra point, Ohio State looked to be firmly in control at 20-7 with 13:30 to go in the second quarter.
But the remainder of the first half was extremely sloppy on the part of both teams – so much so that one California possession saw the teams combine for eight penalties – five personal fouls, two holds and an illegal block. The start-and-stop drive culminated in D'Amato yanking his 40-yard field-goal attempt wide to the left.
The game remaining a 20-7 affair until Cal struck quickly early in the third quarter. Bigelow broke three tackles in the left flat, somehow managed to maintain his balance and then outran everyone to the end zone for an 81-yard touchdown burst. The play, which represented the longest TD run from scrimmage by an opponent in Ohio Stadium history, pulled the Bears within six at 20-14 with 9:34 left in the third quarter.
Cal had a chance to draw three points closer late in the third quarter, but D'Amato pulled another field-goal try to the left, this one from 42 yards out.
But the Bears came right back on their next possession, taking advantage of a personal foul penalty on an Ohio State punt and a short field to move 46 yards in 2:34 to take the lead. Maynard scored on a 1-yard quarterback sneak and D'Amato followed with the PAT to give Cal a 21-20 lead with 12:26 remaining in the game.
Miller answered that volley on the Buckeyes' next drive, moving his team 75 yards in 11 plays. The big plays in the drive were a 21-yard pass to Brown and a 10-yard completion to Evan Spencer that the sophomore receiver stabbed out of the air as he was falling to the ground.
The touchdown was reminiscent of a play Florida used against Ohio State in the 2006 national championship game when Miller took a shotgun snap and one stutter-step forward before straightening up and flipped a 3-yard pass to a wide-open Stoneburner.
Miller took care of the two-point conversion himself to give the Buckeyes a 28-21 lead at the 8:31 mark of the fourth quarter.
That lead was extremely short-lived as Bigelow broke off a 16-yard run and then broke several tackles for a 59-yard touchdown run. The two-play, 75-yard drive took exactly 21 seconds and left the score knotted at 28 with 8:10 remaining.
California had the next scoring opportunity after Miller pitched his first interception of the year, a deep ball picked off by Williams with 7:17 to go. But the Bears got only to the OSU 25 where Cal head coach Jeff Tedford decided to go for a 42-yard field goal on fourth-and-1. Unfortunately for Cal, D'Amato missed again wide to the left to leave the game tied at the 4:20 mark.
Two plays into Ohio State's next drive, a busted coverage by Logan allowed Smith to get loose behind the Cal secondary for a 72-yard touchdown reception from Miller to push the Buckeyes back into the driver's seat at 35-28 with 3:26 remaining.
The Bears went right back to work on the ensuing possession and moved out to their own 42 with a first down at the 1:37 mark. But then Maynard got a little greedy, overthrowing his intended target and allowing Bryant to make the game-clinching interception at the OSU 37.