By the time bowl season rolls around, teams have a firm grasp of their identities. But in September, notes Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, "you're really figuring out who you are." He made the observation while pointing out the difference between Saturday's collision between the Buckeyes and the 'Canes and the last time these teams met. While one Cleveland columnist believes that Ohio State's 31-24 double-OT victory over Miami in the 2003 BCS title game was the best college football game ever, many Hurricanes fans will counter that it was decided by the worst call ever.
The point is: Don't believe your own eyes until at least, say, the autumnal equinox.
Having proferred that advice, I'm now going to ignore it by scooting way out on a limb here to declare that, in his third year at Ohio State, Terrelle Pryor has arrived, that his performances against Oregon in the Rose Bowl and Marshall on Sept. 2 were not outliers, but the shape of things to come. That strong belief, admittedly, has been shaped by the 20 or so minutes I spent on Wednesday in the company of ... Terrelle Pryor, who practically oozed cool confidence while munching sunflower seeds and watching video from that day's practice.
"Today I changed a bunch of protections," he announced during a discussion of his improved grasp on the nuances of his position. His increased willingness to call out new protections at the line of scrimmage has led to arguments with his center, Mike Brewster. ("He'll say, 'No, no, no,' and change it to something else.")
Pryor's sophomore slump was lowlighted by his awful performance in a 26-18 loss to a Purdue squad that had dropped five straight games. He basically melted down in that game, throwing two interceptions and losing two fumbles. After the defeat, Roy Hall got a text from Tressel. Hall, now the head coach at Jeannette (Pa.) High, remains exceptionally close to his former quarterback. "T's a little down," texted Tressel. "If you get a chance, give him a call, try to pick him up."
For a couple months, Pryor was a piñata for talking heads who fixated on his lack of polish, his unconventional footwork and his tendency to stare down receivers. "There were a couple times I wanted to climb through the screen to get to [ESPN analyst] Mark May," admits Hall, who also points out: "The thing about Terrelle is, when people start to doubt him, that's when he rises."
Pryor's problem is that his job description is, basically, impossible. "Hardest job in the state," concurs Buckeyes quarterbacks coach Nick Siciliano. "Harder than the governor. Harder than the head coach!"
The coaches want Pryor operating on a smooth, uncluttered plane where he can immediately and instinctively summon his freakish athletic gifts. Before arriving at that Zen-like state, however, he must process untold gigabytes of data that continue to stream in (did the safety just flinch?) up to and after the moment the ball is snapped.
Not surprisingly, Pryor "started thinking too much" last season (his words), sometimes suffering paralysis by analysis. He was also susceptible, he admits, to the conflict faced by many dual-threat quarterbacks with something to prove. "I think I felt like, if I ran the ball, people would say I couldn't throw" -- a state of affairs that results in a dual-threat quarterback who is neither.
Tressel settled him down by taking the ball out of his hands for a spell, emphasizing the run. Slowly, Pryor's confidence returned. In Ohio State's last six games, all wins, he threw just two picks. The spell culminated in his selection as Rose Bowl MVP. The nitpicking about his footwork and sometimes wobbly ball faded away. At some point -- during last year's five-week bowl prep, or last spring, or in fall camp -- he crossed a threshold.
It didn't happen by chance. Throughout his sometimes-turbulent tenure in Columbus, there has been a constant. Pryor works hard on every aspect of his game: strength, conditioning, mechanics (he's throwing a much tighter spiral these days, as he pointed out this week) and film study. Most mornings, he's one of the first guys to show up at the Woody Hayes Athletic Facility. (By his account he arrived before 6 a.m. most days this week.)
"The past three or four games," Pryor says, "I haven't been nervous. I've been so comfortable with the offense, so comfortable with watching film. I've studied and studied so much that, when we play a team, it's like we've been playing 'em four or five weeks" in a row.
"Everything has slowed down," he says. "Like in The Matrix."
In that movie, Keanu Reeves must occasionally run for his life, unlike Pryor against Marshall. After he rushed for just 17 yards against the Thundering Herd, concern arose in Buckeye Nation that he intends to abandon that thrilling aspect of his game. The concern is unfounded. As Pryor announced Wednesday, "My goal is still to get over 1,000 yards rushing."
That reluctance to run is in the past, apparently. "Forget all that," Pryor says. "The plan this year is to throw 35, 40 times a game." If he can't find a receiver, he's pulling the ball down and going. "My job is to move the chains, and however I move 'em, I move 'em. I'm getting in the end zone, and I'm gonna smile while I do it."
Either Pryor is going into the Miami game with an extraordinary level of confidence, or he is a very good actor. "They say once you're confident going into a game, you play well," he notes. "And I'm finding that out."
And it's only September.