While top coaches made strange exits, Terrelle Pryor arrived as a complete college quarterback in leading Ohio State to a statement victory in the Rose Bowl
This is an article from the Jan. 11, 2010 issue
It started with the Hamlet-like deliberations of a burned-out Urban Meyer, who resigned, then unresigned to go on "indefinite leave" at Florida. Next came the tempest at Texas Tech, resulting in sworn affidavits, a threatened lawsuit and an unemployed Mike Leach. Between those soap operas and the poignant leave-taking of Bobby Bowden at Florida State, this was already the most emotionally charged bowl season in memory, and that was before Dan (Boom) Herron set out to find a hat. ¬∂ While his teammates hugged and cheerleaders shed happy tears and the band played Hang On Sloopy in the aftermath of Ohio State's redemptive 26--17 win over Oregon in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, Herron, the Buckeyes' sophomore tailback, roamed the confetti-strewn field like Richard III in search of his mount.
"Who's got the hats?" boomed Boom. "I just want a hat!" Herron had just chipped in 104 all-purpose yards in Ohio State's first bowl victory in four years, and damned if he wasn't going to reap the spoils. His kingdom for a 2010 rose bowl champions ball cap.
In becoming the first Big Ten team to win in Pasadena since 2000, Ohio State did its part to restore some luster to a conference whose programs have won three of six bowl games this season (Iowa faced Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl on Tuesday) after losing six of seven a year ago. However, this time around the annual exercise of rating conferences based on their bowl performances was overshadowed by the high drama off the field.
Leach had been suspended by the Tech administration, following reports that he had ordered reserve wideout Adam James to stand in a dark room. Subsequent arguments about the size of the room seemed to be missing the greater point: that Leach had taken unusual measures to treat a player who had missed practice with a concussion, a situation complicated by the involvement of James's father, Craig, an ESPN analyst. Two days after the suspension, Tech fired the most successful coach in its history for "insubordination" and his refusal "to cooperate in a meaningful way to help resolve the complaint." That he was sacked one day before he was due an $800,000 bonus is an issue sure to be raised by his lawyers in the suit Leach has promised to bring.
The fired Leach, the outgoing Bowden (who resigned under pressure) and the self-exiling Meyer had this in common: Their teams played well in decisive bowl victories. Tech piled up 579 yards of offense in a 41--31 Alamo Bowl win over Michigan State. The Seminoles outscored West Virginia 30--7 over the last three quarters of a 33--21 Gator Bowl victory. And to say the Gators were decisive radically understates the scary efficiency of Tim Tebow and the Florida offense in a 51--24 dismemberment of previously undefeated Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl.
In a fitting final act to an amazing college career, Tebow was transcendent, completing his first 12 passes, leading the Gators to scores on their first five possessions and racking up 533 total yards—exceeding by 66 yards the previous BCS record, set four years ago by former Texas quarterback Vince Young against USC in the title game.
Until they dispatched Oregon on the same field, Ohio State's seniors had won a ton of games—they are the winningest class in school history— just not the ones that mattered most. Before bowing to Texas in last year's Fiesta Bowl, the Buckeyes had dropped back-to-back BCS title games.
"When people keep telling you how bad you are," says senior tight end Jake Ballard, "you can believe it, or you can get pissed off and do something about it."
So if the reaction of Ohio State players and fans appeared to be just a smidge over the top as the Rose Bowl clock wound down, it's because they had more than a victory to celebrate. The Buckeyes had cast off, at long last, the label of the team that can't win a big game. In the process, they witnessed the arrival of the player who stands the best chance of getting them back to a BCS title game.
Yes, Terrelle Pryor remembers the play. "I've got the picture hanging in my bedroom," says the Buckeyes' sophomore quarterback. He is in full flight in that photograph, hurdling a would-be tackler from Washington (Pa.) High in 2005. When Pryor landed in the end zone following that Beamonesque leap, the refs hesitated before signaling a touchdown. "They froze in awe," recalls Ray Reitz, his former coach at Jeannette High. "They'd never seen anything like it."
Aware that freakish athletic ability alone would only get him so far, Pryor chose Ohio State, in large part because he wanted to play in a pro-style offense to bolster his NFL prospects. As he looked back on it, two days before the Rose Bowl, his desire to be that classic drop-back passer turned into one of his biggest problems this season. In order to disprove the doubters, he was determined to stand fast in the pocket, "to try and make the tough throws."
The unhappy result: For the first half of this season he forced passes into coverage, all the while making himself much easier to defend, by not running. Pryor threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles in a stunning 26--18 loss at Purdue on Oct. 17. Seven games into the season he had already thrown eight picks and been sacked a dozen times. He appeared to be regressing. Had coach Jim Tressel put the matter to a vote of Buckeyes fans, Pryor would have been moved to wide receiver.
Far be it from the staid and deliberate Senator Tressel, as he has been nicknamed, to make such a rash move. In a meeting with Pryor the coach urged his pupil to stop worrying about getting to his fourth read and to start using his feet more.
Did the criticism sting? "Besides my coaches, I don't listen to anybody," Pryor says. "I know what I can do. No one has seen what I can do yet."
With its quarterback's confidence in question, Ohio State relied more on its ground game in the second half of the season. The Buckeyes rushed for nearly 1,300 yards over the final five games. Oregon noticed.
"They're a traditional, downhill running team," declared Ducks defensive tackle Brandon Bair two days before the game. "Obviously, that's what they're going to want to do—establish the run. With Pryor they haven't really gone to the air to win games."
Having connected on five of 13 passes in last year's bowl loss, Pryor completed five passes on Ohio State's opening drive against the Ducks, the last a 13-yard-touchdown toss to tailback Brandon Saine. The drive took 10 plays; the Buckeyes dialed up passes on eight of them. Just when you think you have Tressel pegged as this predictable, conservative fuddy-duddy, he pulls alongside you at the intersection on a Harley. So to speak.
"After that drive," said left tackle Jim Cordle, "we knew our offense was better than their defense."
Even on third down. Reminded earlier in the week of Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti's observation that pressure "seems like it rattles him a little," Pryor agreed. "That's what we work on a lot," he said, "third-down pressure. That's one of my weak points, and I'm sure Oregon will go after that."
Yet there was the sophomore completing seven of 10 passes during a 19-play, 67-yard second-quarter drive that ended with a field goal and chewed 8:03 off the clock. Against the Ducks, Pryor & Co. converted 11 of 21 third downs, or 52.4%—almost 12 percentage points better than their season average. One conversion stood above the rest: Staring down a third-and-13 at his 45 and the Buckeyes nursing a 19--17 lead, Pryor called Right 64 Cam—one of the many pass plays in which Ballard is a safety valve, an afterthought.
"I was supposed to be floating in the [right] flat," he recounted. "Then Terrelle started scrambling, so I started heading upfield."
Sprinting to his right, Pryor lofted a 24-yard floater that hung in the air for the length of a TV timeout, or so it seemed. Ballard launched his 256-pound frame roughly three feet off the ground and made the catch.
Working the other side of the field five snaps later, Pryor perfectly placed a 17-yard pass on the outside shoulder of wideout DeVier Posey, whose twisting TD catch gave the Buckeyes a nine-point lead with 7:02 left.
"I got that off of Peyton Manning, just watching him a lot," Pryor said. "That play's almost unstoppable." His confidence had been found. Against Oregon he rushed 20 times for 72 yards, while completing 23 of 37 passes for 266 yards, with two touchdowns, one interception and one MVP trophy.
In the postgame chaos, Herron finally found a hat. Pryor boarded a golf cart with senior safety Kurt Coleman, who draped an arm around his shoulders and told him, "Great game."
He was right. Pryor has never been better. And we still haven't seen what he can do.
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