Saturday January 2nd, 2010

PASADENA, Calif. -- Throughout Ohio State's festive week in Southern California, whether attending the Lawry's Beef Bowl, sitting in the hotel hot tub or playing video games in someone's room, Jake Ballard had a constant reminder for his younger teammates.

"I kept telling them, 'I've never won a bowl game," said the senior tight end. "We have to win this game."

With the Buckeyes clinging to a 19-17 lead over Oregon midway through the fourth quarter of Friday's Rose Bowl and facing a third-and-13, Ballard, a 6-foot-6 former high school power forward who came into the game with 13 receptions, leapt high into the air to bring down a jump ball from scrambling quarterback Terrelle Pryor for a 24-yard gain. Six plays later, Pryor lofted a picture-perfect 20-yard end zone fade to DeVier Posey, and 50,000 red-clad faithful could taste a BCS victory that's been four agonizing years in the making.

As he donned his "2010 Rose Bowl Champions" cap on the field following Ohio State's 26-17 victory, senior kicker Aaron Pettrey summed up the feelings of 100-plus teammates and several hundred thousand Buckeyes fans around the world: "It's about time we got one of these damn things."

While former Buckeyes like Troy Smith, James Laurinaitis and Beanie Wells played more visible roles in those BCS Championship blowouts to Florida and LSU and last year's Fiesta Bowl heartbreaker versus Texas, it was current seniors like Ballard and Pettrey who carried the burden of Ohio State's big-game stigma throughout the 2009 season. They heard the catcalls after another early-season loss to USC. They lived through an apocalyptic midseason loss to Purdue.

But for a team whose lone notable star was its perceived-to-be underachieving quarterback (Pryor), the Buckeyes themselves remained fairly even-keeled en route to their fifth straight Big Ten title. In Pasadena, their unsung defense held the usually razzle-dazzle Ducks offense to its lowest scoring output since the Boise State opener, while Pryor finally delivered the kind of big-game performance we'd been waiting to see for two years.

Asked by a Columbus television reporter whether Ohio State's win might finally quiet its many naysayers, defensive tackle Doug Worthington (another senior) turned to the camera and held his hand by his ear.

"I'm listening," he said. "I don't hear them."

Sorry, Doug, but it's probably not going to be that easy. You can already guess the inevitable anti-Buckeyes spin -- it wasn't the national championship; the Pac-10 (as evidenced by its 2-5 bowl record) was overrated.

Whatever the case, there's no denying that OSU showed some things Friday we hadn't seen in a while.

For one thing, Pryor came out throwing. Offensive coordinator Jim Bollman called for passes on eight of the 10 plays on the Buckeyes' game-opening 74-yard touchdown drive. ("That's not customary of me," Bollman said with an almost devilish chuckle afterward.) The drive ended with Pryor hitting Brandon Saine for a 13-yard catch-and-run touchdown.

The Rose Bowl MVP finished the day 23-of-37 for 266 yards -- all season highs -- in addition to 72 rushing yards on 20 carries.

"That was the plan," Pryor said of OSU's unusually prolific passing attack. "I'm glad the coaches had faith in me to wing it around a little bit. It was fun."

Pryor's day wasn't perfect. He endured four sacks (three by Ducks defensive end Kenny Rowe), a third-quarter interception and a couple of near picks. But he also converted several key third downs, often by scrambling when the pocket collapsed, and connected with Posey on two long fade passes, most notably his last touchdown.

"That play's almost unstoppable," he joked. "I got it from Peyton Manning."

The fact Jim Tressel let his quarterback cut loose in such a big game was somewhat stunning considering it was the kind of tight game (tied or within one score from nearly the start of the second quarter up to the 7:02 mark of the fourth) in which The Vest is typically inclined to play for field position.

"We were in some games [this season] where we felt what we needed to do was control the clock and run the ball," said Tressel. "This game we felt like we really needed to come in flinging it around. We felt as long as we were doing it well, we'd have a chance to keep doing it."

The Ducks rallied from an early 10-0 deficit to go up 17-16 with 11:03 left in the third quarter, but the Buckeyes held them the scoreless the rest of the way. Oregon looked like it might be regaining momentum late in the third quarter, but running back LaGarrette Blount -- who scored his team's first touchdown -- lost a fumble at the Ohio State 18 that caromed into the end zone for a touchback.

Oregon's lone remaining scoring opportunity came on a missed 44-yard field goal with 5:10 left.

The Buckeyes' fifth-ranked defense turned in another dominant performance against what had been one of the nation's most torrid offenses. Oregon came in having scored 37 or more points in six straight games. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli kept Pac-10 defenses constantly off kilter with his masterful ball disguise and misdirection running the spread-option. Tailback LaMichael James had racked up 1,476 yards.

From the game's earliest stages, however, Ohio State's front four continually kept Masoli in the pocket, and linebacker Ross Homan (12 tackles and an interception) and the back seven helped hold James to 21 yards in the first half. The Ducks had a handful of big plays but finished with a modest 260 total yards. Defensive coordinator Jim Heacock emboldened his team with a simplified game plan based largely on reading Masoli. Ohio State's defenders rarely seemed fooled.

"They did a great job of staying contained," said Oregon tailback Kenjon Barner. "They studied well."

Ohio State's final game was in many ways a microcosm of its sometimes rocky but ultimately triumphant 11-2 season. It showed promise early, endured a turbulent midsection and finished strong. Its defense (the self-proclaimed "Silver Bullets") was its usual consistent self. And the offense, as always, lived and died with Pryor's inevitable ebbs and flows.

Following his disastrous four-turnover performance in Ohio State's Oct. 17 loss at Purdue, the sophomore called his offense together in a meeting room the next day.

"He told us, 'I'm not a loser. I've never been a loser,'" said offensive lineman Michael Brewster. "'Maybe I've not been the best for you guys, but I'm going to work on it and I'm not going to let us lose again.'"

He held true to his word. And while he wasn't necessarily dominant down the stretch (notching fewer than 200 total yards in wins over Penn State and Iowa), Pryor cut down on mistakes (just thee picks in his last six games) and seemed to become a more vocal leader.

Come next fall, we'll find out whether his MVP performance was truly a "coming-out party," as many will proclaim it. Not only will he have another year under his belt, but, depending on possible NFL defections (defensive end Thaddeus Gibson seems the most certain), the Buckeyes could return as many as 16 starters.

Which means Ohio State will presumably be back in the national-title discussion -- much to the chagrin of its naysayers.

"They're going to be very good," said Ballard. "It's almost a shame this was my last game."

It could be worse. Unlike the Buckeyes' past three senior classes, Ballard's went out with a postgame celebration.

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