COLUMBUS, Ohio Even Brendan Bigelow's breakout performance couldn't lift Cal past Braxton Miller and No. 12 Ohio State on Saturday.
Bigelow, who had carried the ball just twice in two previous games, ran for second-half touchdowns of 81 and 59 yards, but Miller got the last word in a 35-28 Buckeyes victory.
His fourth touchdown pass of the day, a 72-yarder to Devin Smith on a busted coverage with 3:26 left, allowed Ohio State (3-0) to avoid its first loss to Cal since the Jan. 1, 1921, Rose Bowl.
And it sent the Bears home aching over what might have been.
"It's discouraging for sure because we came here to win the football game, and we played well enough most of the day to do it," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "But the scoreboard doesn't say it, and that's all that matters."
"Everybody's upset," running back Isi Sofele said. "They walked away with a win that we should have had."
Well, maybe. Senior cornerback Steve Williams wasn't letting his team off the hook. "We've got a lot of heart, but we've got to finish games," he said.
A victory could have been a huge lift for the Bears (1-2), who were unimpressive in their first two games and hit the road again next week to face No. 2 USC.
Bigelow, who had 160 yards on just four carries, sparked a second-half comeback from a 20-7 hole. The sophomore's 81-yard third-quarter burst was the longest run ever against the Buckeyes in Columbus, and his 59-yarder tied the score at 28-28 with 8:10 left.
Cal missed a chance to take the lead when junior Vincenzo D'Amato was wide left on a 42-yard field goal attempt with 4:20 left his third miss from that distance on Saturday.
Tedford said it was an easy decision to go for the field goal instead of the first down on a fourth-and-1 play from the 25 late in a tie game.
"I had confidence. Vince had missed a couple to the left, but typically he gets that squared away," Tedford said. "It just didn't happen today."
Three plays later, Smith slipped down the right sideline, left alone by Cal's zone alignment, and Miller found him for the winning TD.
"We needed a safety over the top. He (Alex Logan) came running up, the quarterback threw it, and it was a touchdown," Tedford said.
Cal had one more shot, but Zach Maynard's pass to Keenan Allen sailed high and was intercepted by Christian Bryant with 1:09 left to the delight of an announced crowd of 105,232 fans at Ohio Stadium.
The Bears easily played their best game of the season, outgaining the Buckeyes 512 yards to 412, forging a 22-14 edge in first downs and a 10-minute time-of-possession advantage.
They had just four penalties although one of them erased a 57-yard TD pass from Maynard to C.J. Anderson midway through the second period and just one turnover.
Maynard delivered one of his better games, going 26 of 37 for 280 yards, throwing one touchdown and running for another.
Miller threw TD passes of 25, 1, 3 and 72 yards and ran 55 yards for a score while totaling 324 yards rushing and passing for the Buckeyes.
"He's a wonderful player, one of the best in the nation," Cal cornerback Marc Anthony said. "He came through when they needed him to."
With USC looming, the Bears feel like they created some momentum.
"We showed it to everybody we can play with anybody in the nation," Anthony said. "It's frustrating to lose any game at the last second on a mental error."
But Williams shrugged off the suggestion the Bears finally played to their capabilities. "If we would have won the game, yeah, I'd say we played up to our potential," he said. "We've still got to go out and get a victory against a big team."