The Buckeyes could have been accused of looking ahead to a big showdown next week or simply sleepwalking for much of the 2½ quarters, but finally answered the alarm and walked off with a 26-14 victory over their instate rivals from the Mid-American Conference.
Ohio held a surprising 14-12 lead over Ohio State after three quarters, but the Buckeyes recovered a fumbled punt – one of five turnovers they created during the afternoon – to score a touchdown early in the fourth quarter and then got a 69-yard punt return from Ray Small to finally put the Bobcats away.
"I guess the way I would take a nutshell look at it is it kind of looked like what everyone thought it might look like in between your opener and your national stage game – and that's really disappointing," OSU head coach Jim Tressel said. "We didn't make much progress.
"We did make progress in takeaway area, and it was good to see us hit a home run in the punt return game. But we have a lot of work to do. The good news is that we're 2-0, it's still September and we hope to get a lot better."
Despite displaying an offense that appeared to spin its wheels for much of the game, the Buckeyes wound up with 272 total yards, including 162 on the ground. In place of injured starting tailback Chris "Beanie" Wells, Tressel found success – especially late in the game – when he threw a trio of running backs at the Bobcats.
Senior Maurice Wells started and finished with 48 yards on nine carries while freshman Dan Herron and sophomore Brandon Saine combined to carry 17 times for 65 yards. Herron and Saine also scored one touchdown each.
Senior quarterback Todd Boeckman completed 16 of 26 passes on the afternoon, good for a 65.4 percentage. But the Bobcats took away the Buckeyes' deep game and Boeckman's passes went for only 110 yards, an average of just 6.9 yards per completion.
Boeckman was also sacked three times.
Meanwhile, Ohio lost starting quarterback Theo Scott early in the game to a shoulder injury. However, backup Boo Jackson was a constant thorn in the side of the OSU defense. Jackson scrambled seven times for 55 yards. But he completed only 9 of 25 pass attempts for 86 yards and was intercepted three times.
The Buckeyes got the first score of the game when kicker Ryan Pretorius knocked through a 27-yard field goal at the 3:00 mark of the first quarter.
But Ohio came back with a 15-yard touchdown run from tailback Donte Harden with 6:56 remaining before the half. Kicker Barrett Way added the extra point to give the upset-minded visitors a 7-3 lead. Pretorius added a 38-yard field goal with 5:02 left until the break, leaving the Bobcats with a 7-6 lead at intermission.
Things really got interesting – or desperate depending upon your point of view – early in the third quarter when Jim Cordle's center snap sailed over Boeckman's head and the OSU quarterback couldn't gain control of the football in the end zone. Ohio defensive end Curtis Meyers recovered for the touchdown, and after Way's PAT, the Bobcats had a 14-6 lead with 9:00 left in the third quarter.
That seemed to provide the wakeup call the Buckeyes needed. After being outgained 173-111 by their opponents to that point, they took the ensuing possession and marched 73 yards in 13 plays capped by a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Herron. However, Pretorius badly shanked his extra point try, leaving the score at 14-12 in favor of Ohio with 2:51 remaining in the third period.
Ohio State finally regained the lead early in the fourth quarter when Ohio punt return Mark Parson mishandled a kick and OSU senior Shaun Lane pounced on the loose football just before it went out of bounds. Saine bulled his way into the end zone from 2 yards out and after Pretorius' PAT, the Buckeyes had a 19-14 advantage with 14:00 left in the game.
There were still several tense moments until Small gave OSU some breathing room, returning a punt 69 yards for a touchdown with 5:57 remaining. Pretorius kicked the extra point to provide for the final 26-14 advantage.
Ohio State (2-0) returns to action next week for the much-anticipated showdown against No. 1-ranked Southern California. ABC will telecast the game to nationwide audience with kickoff slated shortly after 8 p.m. Eastern time.
"I don't know that much about (the Trojans) right now," Tressel said, "but I do know we'll have to play better next week against them."