COLUMBUS, Ohio – It was an experience Joe Licata will never forget.
"You walk out and you hear 100,000 people booing," the Buffalo quarterback said with a smile. "That's awesome. It really is awesome."
Licata and the Bulls might not have been the fans' favorite at No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday, but they left with more than their share of grudging admiration.
Licata threw two touchdown passes and Khalil Mack earned rave reviews for his play — including a 45-yard interception return for a score — as the Buckeyes rolled to a 40-20 victory over the Bulls.
The Buckeyes, striving for a crisper start after a lethargic outing in Meyer's debut in 2012, led 23-0 after the first quarter before the Bulls made things interesting.
Licata, who completed 19 of 32 passes for 185 yards and the two scores with one interception, hit Matt Weiser and Alex Neutz on scoring throws of 16 and 10 yards, respectively.
The Bulls cut that early deficit to 10 points — twice.
"There's only two ways you could go," coach Jeff Quinn said. "Our kids didn't (quit). I was really proud of them for that. It's a more mature team."
A crowd of 103,980 didn't know what to think.
The Buckeyes always seemed to have an answer.
"After we created a little momentum going our way, then all of a sudden — BAM! — they're right back in the end zone," Quinn said. "That's the mark of a good football team."
Branden Oliver gained 73 yards on 26 carries for the Bulls, who were playing Ohio State for the first time.
As good as Ohio State played that first 15 minutes was — 216 yards of offense, a big lead and Buffalo looking thoroughly defeated — the Bulls were far from dead.
After Ron Tanner picked off a tipped Licata pass for Ohio State, speedy freshman tailback Dontre Wilson gave it right back on the next play when he was hit by linebacker Blake Bean and Buffalo's Derek Brim recovered.
Licata needed just three plays to cover the 44 yards, hitting three consecutive passes with help on a late hit against Ohio State cornerback Armani Reeves. The touchdown came on a pass over the middle to tight end Matt Weiser, who rumbled into the end zone from 16 yards out.
Four plays later, Miller tossed a short pass directly to the Bulls' Mack, considered one of the top linebackers in the nation, and he outran intended receiver Wilson into the end zone to make it 23-13.
"We was rolling at first," Miller said. "(With) that screen, that blind throw I threw, the momentum went down and shifted a little bit."
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer raved about Mack.
"They've got a kid that kicked our tails, that outside linebacker," he said. "He had a couple of sacks and pressures. I know he beat guys that I expect to play very well on our offensive line."
Mack finished with eight tackles, including seven solos, with 2.5 sacks for 10 yards in losses to go with the interception.
Buffalo pulled to 30-20 in the third quarter on Licata's pass to Neutz.
The outcome might have tilted on the very next series.
Miller, who threw two TD passes, went down without being tackled and left the field, causing some concern before it was determined he had cramps. He returned a play later only to be sacked by Mack and then fumbling at his own 1.
But Mack was called for a hands-to-the-facemask penalty which nullified the turnover and instead gave the Buckeyes a first down at their 37.
"That turnover would have changed the game," Mack said. "That was a blow. A big blow."
"I'm upset about that more than anything," he said. "We create a turnover at a critical position on the field that could have given us a lot of momentum. That took a little bit of wind out of our sails."
Substitute quarterback Kenny Guiton's 21-yard pass to Chris Fields pushed the lead back to 17. When the Buckeyes stuffed Licata on fourth and goal at the Ohio State 1, the end was in sight.
"I do want to give the team we played, Buffalo, a lot of credit and I have a lot of respect for their coach," Meyer said. "Those guys played hard."
That was little consolation to Licata.
"If you're looking for a moral victory, that means you lost the game," he said. "No, we don't feel good about losing."
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