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October 28, 2008

Ohio State falters in spotlight once again

COLUMBUS, OHIO Mix a big game with Ohio State, take two steps back and watch the explosion.

It's a volatile cocktail.

The past four times Ohio State has faced a top-three foe, the Buckeyes have flopped. There was the 41-14 thrashing by Florida, a 38-24 whipping by LSU and a 35-3 pummeling by USC. Now, this a 13-6 home loss to Penn State on Saturday.

That makes it official. A third consecutive trip to the BCS title game? No way. A fourth Big Ten championship in a row? Unlikely. So, what's left?

"I think the first thing you always play for is to become the best team you can become," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "And obviously there are some things that are attainable at the beginning of every year. You always want to be the Big Ten champions. You always want to earn the opportunity to become the national champions "

It was all right there for Ohio State on Saturday night in the Horseshoe. Beat Penn State, and the Big Ten championship was there for the taking. And with a few crazy twists in the national landscape, the Buckeyes possibly could have found their way to the BCS title game for a third year in a row.

It's not going to happen. The 2008 season will be remembered as a "transition" season in Columbus, a season when Ohio State came back to the pack.

The rest of the Big Ten should thank Penn State for muting Ohio State's dominance. The Buckeyes had turned the Big Ten into "The Big One and Little 10" from 2005-07, posting a 22-2 league mark. No other BCS school had been as dominant in its conference in that span. USC went 22-4. West Virginia was 17-4. Virginia Tech was 21-5. LSU, Oklahoma and Texas were 19-5.

Ohio State still has hopes of winning the Big Ten, but they are faint. The Buckeyes likely will win out, finishing with games at Northwestern, at Illinois and against Michigan. But the Buckeyes also need Penn State to stumble down the stretch. That's not likely to happen with the Nittany Lions playing Iowa, Indiana and Michigan State to close the season.

Ohio State was the pick by almost everybody to win the Big Ten. Why not? The defense was loaded, returning nine starters from a unit that led the nation in 2007. The offense teemed with potential, led by Heisman-contending running back Chris Wells, a line with four returning starters and a wide receiver corps returning its top four players. The only question? Quarterback. And that's why Ohio State finds itself in this uncomfortable and unfamiliar spot.

That's no knock on freshman Terrelle Pryor. He has shown glimpses of greatness, getting eased into the action before finally assuming starting duties from incumbent Todd Boeckman in the fourth game of the season. Slowly, Pryor has developed as a runner and passer, showing why so many dubbed him the "next Vince Young" when he was the No. 1 recruit in America last season.

Ohio State has floundered when facing top-five opponents since 2005, posting a 3-5 record. The losses have been by an average of 16.5 points.
No. 2 Texas, L, 25-22
No. 5 Notre Dame, W, 34-20
No. 2 Texas, W, 24-7
No. 2 Michigan, W, 42-39
No. 2 Florida, L, 41-14
No. 2 LSU, L, 38-24
No. 1 USC, L, 35-3
No. 3 Penn State, L, 13-6
But Pryor's inability to consistently throw downfield has hampered the offense. Ohio State has had just two pass plays of more than 50 yards, and just one more that went for more than 40. The lack of a vertical attack has allowed defenses to bunch the line, sneaking an extra defender into the box to shut down Wells. That never was more evident vs. the Nittany Lions, who held Wells to a season-low 55 yards - on 22 carries.

Pryor also holds onto the ball too long, apparently listening to those whispers in his ear from coaches about not forcing passes. That's one of the reasons Ohio State quarterbacks have been sacked a league-high 22 times.

"Every experience you have is one you can really grow from," said Tressel, whose team has been held without an offensive touchdown three times (USC, Purdue and Penn State) this season. "My experience in life is that the hardest (losses) are the ones I've grown from the most. So it's a tough loss, and I'm sure that he'll grow from it."

Pryor had the best passing day of his career against Penn State, going 16 of 25 for 226 yards. But Pryor committed two turnovers, including a key fourth-quarter fumble that led to Penn State's only touchdown.

"Everyone can say it's not my fault, but if you really look at it, it is," Pryor said. "I'm close with this senior group and I just let them down."

The good news for Ohio State is that even though it likely won't win the Big Ten, it still could land in the Rose Bowl where the Buckeyes haven't played since the 1996 season. That's not a bad consolation prize for a program that is in transition.

"We have to become an 8-2 Ohio State team first, so we're going to work to do that and keep working to get better, and as I always say, you get what you deserve," Tressel said.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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