Sunday September 12th, 2010

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- With his team's 36-24 win over Miami safely in hand and just over a minute and a half remaining on the game clock, Terrelle Pryor took a knee, got up and started raising his hands toward the screaming student section in the south end zone of Ohio Stadium.

What was he feeling at that moment?

"Relief," said Ohio State's third-year quarterback. "This is the first time [in my career] I've won a Week 2 game."

His teammates echoed similar sentiments. For four years, they've been haunted by the ghosts of nonconference meltdowns, from BCS championship losses to Florida and LSU to the pair of early season defeats against USC Pryor was referencing. Last year's Rose Bowl win over Oregon offered some salvation, but even the normally button-lipped Buckeyes had to admit there was something special about silencing "The U" and its patented, Florida-born-and-bred "swagger."

"If I could just say," boasted OSU linebacker and South Florida native Brian Rolle, "our defense 'outswagged' them."

Granted, no one would mistake the 2010 'Canes for the 2002 squad against which Jim Tressel's program notched its double-overtime BCS championship victory. But Randy Shannon's 12th-ranked team came to Columbus looking to prove it's at least headed back in that direction. Neither team looked championship-ready here today, but the Buckeyes certainly appeared a whole lot closer.

Led by a fast, suffocating defense that intercepted four Jacory Harris passes and limited the 'Canes to one offensive touchdown (the first they'd allowed on the season), No. 2 Ohio State looked to be in every way the better team. Its one notable flaw: allowing Miami to return both a kick and a punt return for touchdowns in the first half, the first time since at least 1936 an Ohio State opponent had done such a thing. ("I'll be sure to put that in my memoir," joked Tressel when told of the fact afterward.)

The Buckeyes are far from a finished product, and no one offers reminders of that more constantly than their star quarterback. Even in this, his third year as starter, the 6-foot-6, 233-pound signal-caller has moments that make the stadium cringe, like right before halftime when, with the clock ticking down under 10 seconds, he attempted to beat it to the sideline rather than spike the ball or use OSU's final timeout. (He made it with two seconds to spare, setting up a Devin Barclay field goal.)

Pryor completed just 12 of 27 passes, but the Buckeyes would never have won this game without both his athleticism and his vastly improved decision making. Time and again, with Miami's speedy pass rushers collapsing around him, Pryor stepped off and took off, notching a career-high 113 rushing yards on 20 attempts. And those 12 completions produced nearly 20 yards per play.

Down 10-3 early in the second quarter, Pryor helped change the momentum in the blink of two plays, hitting receiver DeVier Posey downfield for a 62-yard pass, then following it up with an 18-yard touchdown strike to running back Brandon Saine.

Later, following a Chimidi Chekwa interception deep in Miami territory, Pryor hit Dane Sanzenbacher for a 15-yard strike, then executed a perfect option pitch to Dan Herron for a score that pushed OSU's lead to 20-10.

Those still waiting for Pryor to morph into Vince Young may be left waiting forever. It's not going to happen. But there are worse things to have than a veteran QB who accounts for 346 yards, avoids turnovers (he had none on the day) and can make plays with his feet.

"Part of passing is deciding when not to pass," said Tressel. "If they're going to play man-to-man and edge rush you with speed and so forth, if [Pryor] can step up, they're dead. I don't know how many of his 113 yards rushing were on passing plays, but I think some of them were. So that's a pretty good job passing."

The Buckeyes don't necessarily need Pryor to put up Denard Robinson-like rushing numbers, because their defense simply doesn't give up a lot of points.

Miami's Harris spent most of the night fending off pass-rushers like 6-5, 288-pound beast Cameron Heyward (who, in the game's most important play, picked off a pass deep in OSU territory and rumbled 80 yards, breaking Miami's back), Dexter Larimore, Nathan Williams and Jon Simon. Veteran linebackers Rolle and Ross Homan, along with safeties Jermale Hines and C.J. Barrett, helped snuff out Harris' underneath throws and wrap up his receivers. Corners Chekwa and Devon Torrence each had pass breakups in the end zone.

"Defensively, we flew around," said Tressel. "Our guys up front are relentless and those linebackers are active and the DBs, even if you might catch a few on them, they'll hit you."

What is that we're detecting from the Senator's mouth? Is that ... swagger? It seems to be going around the Buckeyes' locker room these days.

Two years ago this week, then fifth-ranked Ohio State went to Los Angeles and got hammered by Mark Sanchez's top-ranked Trojans, 35-3. In interviews afterward, the Buckeyes players' looked not just defeated but beaten down, not from one loss but from the cumulative effect of yet another big-stage blowout and the accompanying criticism. It's taken two years and a new crop of players to bury those demons and transform Ohio State into a legitimately confident contender.

Going back to last November, the Buckeyes have now beaten four top 15 opponents (Iowa, Penn State, Oregon and Miami) in their past six games. That kind of success tends to have an effect.

"Our confidence level is very high right now," said offensive lineman Michael Brewster. "This game meant a lot. We haven't done well the past few years on the big stage, and now we've done well the past couple of games. So I think this will pay off big down the road."

Many big games remain if Ohio State hopes to earn its ultimate redemption on the biggest stage of all. Coincidentally, the BCS championship game returns to Glendale, Ariz., this January, which is where the Buckeyes first drew the nation's ire with their 41-14 beatdown against Florida following the 2006 season.

However, Arizona was also the site of Tressel's biggest triumph, the stunning Miami upset, now nearly eight years ago. The way he speaks about this team, it's clear Tressel feels this has the makings of a similarly special season.

"As long as we continue to grow," Tressel cautioned, "we've got a chance."

And as long as they continue to grow their swagger.

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