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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Who would have thought that in the end second-ranked Ohio State would be the one trying to make the score presentable, to salvage its reputation, to save face? Who could have imagined there would come a point Saturday afternoon when more than 100,000 scarlet-clad fans with designs on Heisman trophies and national championships would ask themselves the unimaginable: Is it possible we could lose to Buffalo?

Consider the final score – Ohio State 40, UB 20 – acceptable from either side of the field. The Buckeyes pushed the nation’s longest winning streak to 13 games and scored enough points to convince the faithful they’ll be fine once their defense catches up. As for the Bulls, they comfortably covered the 34ø-point spread, outscored the Buckeyes over the final three quarters and validated their own talk of bowl berths and championship rings.

But the idea that UB might stun the country flickered in a few minds when OSU’s Heisman candidate, quarterback Braxton Miller, was jarred free of the ball deep in Buckeye territory midway through the third quarter. Defensive lineman Tedroy Lynch recovered at the Ohio State 2 yard line. The Bulls appeared primed to take a big cut off their 10-point deficit. But the opportunity vanished when UB linebacker Khalil Mack was penalized for illegal hands to the face. The Buckeyes continued on to a touchdown and that was the end of that.

The call stung the Bulls all the more considering it was Mack who stole the main stage from Miller before a crowd of 103,980. Mack produced a game-high nine tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss and returned an interception of Miller 45 yards for his first career touchdown.

“My comment is I’m upset about that more than anything, just the fact that there’s a critical moment in the game, the officials saw something that they felt was hands to the face,” said head coach Jeff Quinn. “That takes a little bit of wind out of your sails.”

“That turnover would have changed the game a lot,” Mack said. “I know the offense would have pushed the ball in from the 1-yard line. That was a blow. That was a big blow.”

It seemed absurd that a third-quarter play would be classified as controversial as the mighty Buckeyes bolted to a 23-0 lead before the game was eight minutes old. Miller showed the way with TD tosses of 47 yards to Devin Smith and 7 yards to Chris Fields, and Jordan Hall broke off the first of two long scoring runs, this one covering 49 yards.

“First quarter was script,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said. “You can’t play much better than our guys did. We’re pushing the ball down the field, guys making plays.”

UB persevered and reversed the flow of momentum.

“On the sideline we never got down,” wideout Alex Neutz said. “Everybody was keeping each other up.”

“There’s always two ways you can go,” Quinn said. “We just needed to hold things together and we needed to settle them down on the sidelines. Once we settled down I thought we did a tremendous job being able to compete for the next three quarters.”

UB sophomore quarterback Joe Licata was solid in his first season opener and only the fifth start of his career. He completed 19 of 32 throws for two touchdowns against one interception. The scoring plays covered 16 yards to tight end Matt Weiser and 10 yards to Neutz (nine catches, 98 yards).

UB’s confidence in Licata was evident from the get-go. Instead of going to the running game the Bulls sought to establish the pass, with Licata finding immediate success, especially with Neutz.

“I think just getting the ball spread out and getting the ball to our playmakers just calmed everybody down,” Licata said. “You have a guy like Alex Neutz to get the ball to, get the ball in his hands he’s going to make plays for the offense. That’s what we did. We relied on those guys heavily and they did a great job making plays.”

“We studied them,” Neutz said. “We knew the quick game was going to be there. We just attacked there with a lot of quick passes ... and just tried to get 8 to 10 yards and on to the next play.”

UB’s offensive line gave Licata time to throw but couldn’t provide Branden Oliver with room to run. Oliver managed just 73 yards on 26 carries, a 2.8 average.

“There was some tough holes out there,” Oliver said. “We did everything game-planning but some plays didn’t hit the way we wanted them to hit.”

Ohio State’s now 33-2 in its last 35 season openers. The Buckeyes haven’t lost at home to an unranked non-conference opponent since 1981. UB came in knowing it was climbing Mt. Improbability.

“If you’re looking for moral victories that means you lost the game,” Licata said. “So, no, we don’t feel good about losing the game. There are a lot of positives though that we’re going to study, and we’re going to study the negatives and we’re going to be better next week so it was a great learning experience for us.”

email: bdicesare@buffnews.com