Sunday November 15th, 2009

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- You missed your window, Big Ten teams.

You wanted to end Ohio State's five-year reign of conference dominance? This was your chance. With a small senior class, a work-in-progress offense and a quarterback struggling to live up to gargantuan expectations, the Buckeyes appeared to have their most vulnerable team in years. A midseason meltdown at Purdue left the door open for other challengers.

But you couldn't do it, Penn State. Nor could you, Wisconsin. Michigan -- what do we even say about that?

Give Iowa credit for coming the closest. Despite a redshirt freshman quarterback, James Vandenberg, making his first career start in front of 105,000 hostile spectators, despite a set of clumsy receivers who made his job even harder and despite falling behind 24-10 in the fourth quarter, the No. 15 Hawkeyes managed to take 10th-ranked Ohio State to overtime here on Saturday.

But with the game -- and a likely Rose Bowl berth -- on the line, the Buckeyes' defense made a triumphant stand, then turned to the unlikeliest of heroes -- 26-year-old former MLS journeyman-turned walk-on kicker Devin Barclay -- who, in just his third game as Ohio State's primary kicker, nailed the game-winning 39-yarder to send the Buckeyes (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) to Pasadena.

"We played a solid game, bottom line," said Iowa safety Tyler Sash, whose team's 9-0 start has been followed by consecutive heartbreaking defeats. "This game came down to a field goal, and Ohio State made it."

For those keeping score at home, that's five straight Big Ten titles for Jim Tressel's program, seven BCS trips in eight years and a fourth straight January in which the men from Columbus will try to end the notion that they and their Midwest brethren are prehistoric dinosaurs, incapable of playing with the big boys.

Saturday's game was not a ringing endorsement.

Before a drama-filled fourth quarter that saw the two teams score two touchdowns apiece; before Anderson Russell intercepted Vanderberg's desperate fourth-down heave into the end zone in overtime; and before Barclay went streaking down the field in celebration of his destined-to-be-immortalized moment and several thousand red-clad crazies stormed the Ohio Stadium field to join him, the Buckeyes delivered another vintage, headache-inducing, straight-out-of-the-1960s edition of Tresselball.

Knowing full well Iowa's limited offensive capabilities, Tressel played things so close to his trademark sweater vest you could see the intricacies of its knitting. Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State's purported playmaking extraordinaire, spent the large majority of the night as a spectator. The game plan clearly called for Pryor to hand off over and over again to running backs Dan Herron and Brandon Saine, and for the most part, it worked. The pair combined for 200 yards on 43 carries, including touchdown bursts of 49 and 22 yards by Saine and 11 on a direct snap to Herron.

"We didn't need to pass," said Pryor, who completed an impressive 14 of 17 attempts, albeit for 93 yards.

Sure -- but maybe just a couple more passes? Preferably thrown across the first-down marker? Because Tressel's ultra-conservatism ultimately allowed the Hawkeyes to get back in the game.

After Iowa's Derrell Johnson-Koulianos returned a fourth-quarter kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown to get back within 24-17 with 10:56 left, the Hawkeyes gifted the Buckeyes field position at their 45-yard line, thanks to dual penalties. Tressel proceeded to call six straight running plays for Herron, including on third and 9 at the Iowa 28. Barclay, who replaced the injured Aaron Pettrey just three games earlier, missed a 47-yard field-goal attempt.

On Iowa's ensuing possession, Vandenberg (20-of-33, 233 yards, two TDs, three INTs) -- who looked far more poised and potent than he did when thrown into the fire in last week's loss to Northwestern -- averted two near-disasters (a pick-six that was nullified by an offside penalty and a throw into double-coverage that miraculously caromed into the hands of tight end Tony Moeaki) before completing four straight passes, the last one a 10-yard scoring strike to Marvin McNutt that tied the game with 2:42 remaining.

Ohio State took over shortly thereafter -- and made almost no attempt to go for the win. "We knew going into the series that the one thing we couldn't do is turn it over," said Tressel. "If we could pop something, so be it. If not, we're going to have to beat them in overtime."

After running five plays with no particular urgency, the Buckeyes punted back to Iowa with 52 seconds remaining, and boos rained down from the crowd.

About 20 minutes later, however, those same dissatisfied customers would be overcome with elation. Ohio State's defense dominated Iowa in its only possession of overtime. On second down, linebacker Austin Spittler stuffed running back Adam Robinson (20 carries, 74 yards) for a six-yard loss. On third down, defensive tackle Doug Worthington swarmed down on Vandenberg for a crushing sack, leaving the Hawkeyes with a 4th and 26 from the 41-yard line. All Vandenberg could do was hurl one to the end zone, resulting in his third interception.

At that point, every spectator in the building could predict what the Buckeyes would do next -- run the ball three times and send in Barclay. Though even that didn't start of well, with Herron losing two yards. "We had so much confidence in Devin that we were going backwards to make his kick longer," joked Tressel.

On the sideline, Pettrey, standing on crutches, told his replacement, "You're going to have a chance to be the hero." Barclay, who decided to take up football after an injury-plagued five-year professional soccer career (his last two seasons spent playing for the nearby Columbus Crew), had no remotely similar prior experience.

"Playing in front of 110,000 people in overtime? Nothing in soccer comes close," said the kicker, who, with a healthy dose of facial hair, looks closer to 36 than 26. "I was the center-midfielder. I scored some goals from time to time, but nothing like this."

Barclay didn't even wait for the kick to go through before taking off on a mad dash toward the opposite end zone, running into a throng of giddy students ready to meet his path. "I don't know where exactly I went or what may plan was, said Barclay, who lost the name patch on his jersey in the scrum. "I just started running."

Herron and Saine never stopped running -- as has often been the case for the Buckeyes. Since their Oct. 17 loss at Purdue in which Pryor committed four turnovers and Ohio State exhibited the furthest thing from Tresselball, the Buckeyes re-established their running game, netting 200-plus yards in four straight games. Pryor seems to have matured as well -- he's gone without an interception for three straight games.

"[The Purdue game] was a bump," said Pryor. "We overlooked them. You know that. The whole world knows that. The last few weeks, you've seen us play Ohio State football."

Yes we have. And we'll get to see another dose of it on New Year's Day against the as-yet undetermined Pac-10 champ. (Good news, Buckeyes: It won't be USC!).

Do you like third and 9 handoffs? Dumpoffs to the fullback? Punting? Get used to it. The Buckeyes are back in the BCS -- and unless someone else in this conference cares to rise up, they'll probably be returning for the foreseeable future.

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