COLUMBUS, Ohio — It started as a bullying and ended as less than a thing of beauty.
Standards are pretty high in and around Ohio State’s program, and during a year in which the stakes and expectations are above even that norm, the 2013 version of the Ohio State Buckeyes looked a lot like the 2012 version in Saturday’s season opener. They relied heavily upon quarterback Braxton Miller and needed a couple bounces to keep Buffalo at a safe breathing distance.
Again, that 2012 team didn’t lose. Somehow.
One game into 2013, Ohio State’s win streak remains intact. But after a blazing start Saturday, the second-ranked Buckeyes sputtered to the finish and ended up scoring a less than impressive 40-20 win. Ohio State led, 23-0, in the first quarter before it got sloppy and Buffalo started battling back.
“When you score 40 points and you’re disappointed, that’s a good sign” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “The bad sign is we’ve got a long way to go.”
The new Buckeyes want to be faster, play faster, show more balance and stay on the gas. They accomplished the first three objectives early Saturday, needing just four plays to score on their first drive and posting first-half scoring drives that covered 1:09, 1:20 and 6 seconds. After the first two scores, Ohio State was successful with two-point conversion tries.
Meyer’s teams never seem to have trouble making people watch. When Miller puts together 286 yards of offense and all involved come away thinking that’s just OK, expectations are clearly high. When a team boldly advertises “The Chase” as its preseason slogan, it’s not thinking about having to battle to shake loose Buffalo on the last day of August.
When Buffalo squelched the Buckeyes’ momentum Saturday, Ohio State looked like it wasn’t expecting the Bulls to punch back. Miller was intercepted by Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack — clearly the best player on the field besides Miller — in the second quarter, and Mack returned the pass 45 yards for a touchdown to cut the deficit to 23-13.
Buffalo scored first in the second half, too, to stay within 10 points, at 30-20. And in the fourth quarter the Bulls failed to score from inside Ohio State’s 1-yard line when Buffalo quarterback Joe Licata mishandled a fourth-down snap. In the third quarter, a Buffalo recovery of a Miller fumble inside the Ohio State 5-yard line was negated by penalty. Miller was sacked four times, and Ohio State turned the ball over twice. The Buckeyes rolled up 298 yards in the first 22 minutes and finished with 460 but needed Miller to get 40 on one improvised fourth-quarter run to get there — and allow a crowd of 103,980 to exhale.
So, what could have been really ugly for Buffalo ended up almost being really ugly for Ohio State. Ohio State’s lead was never truly threatened, but any aura of invincibility was burst.
“The good is that our guys are fighters,” Meyer said. “We were down some players and some young guys stepped up. They jumped out early. The negative is that you need to sustain consistent effort and intensity.
“We’re very satisfied to win a game. But we also know we have to get a lot better.”
With last year’s top two running backs serving suspensions, Jordan Hall stepped in after taking a medical redshirt last season and ran through gaping holes on his way to 162 yards and 2 touchdowns. Highly touted freshman Dontre Wilson got four touches, starting with an 18-yard catch on which he zigged and zagged and came inches from breaking into the open.
Again, there’s a long way to go. With everything.
With Wilson, the unpredictable two-point tries out of the kicking formation and Miller clearly more confident as a passer, the Buckeyes’ offense can be better. The tempo is breakneck; eventually, Miller will have weapons everywhere. But he’s still learning to trust himself as a passer, the offensive line is still trying to lock in, and the defense will be better when top cornerback Bradley Roby returns from his suspension and a very young but very gifted front gains experience.
As with every other team in any kind of chase, 1-0 beats the alternative. Meyer will keep pushing. Miller is clearly very gifted and will continue to grow in an offense that’s already dangerous and is clearly far from a finished product.
The Buckeyes aren’t there yet. What Saturday’s opener showed is they aren’t even close.
Neither are November and December, and there’s no doubt that Meyer is pointing his team toward the games that will be played then.