Buckeyes didn’t step up vs. USC

It might not have been the most impressive performance by the two big programs, but it was a special comeback 18-15 win for Matt Barkley and USC. Does Ohio State deserve more respect for not getting blown out? The CFN writers give their thoughts on one of the biggest games of the year.

Pryor just ordinary

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Matt Barkley is going to be the face of this epic comeback win that kept USC’s national title dream alive and proved once again that Ohio State not only can’t win the big one, but it doesn’t learn or adapt from the big ones it loses. But there’s one reason for the Trojan win above all else.

Terrelle Pryor.

If you’re the No. 1 recruit in America with alleged 4.3 speed and unlimited talent, you’re supposed to be the best player on the field. If you go to a place like Ohio State, you’re supposed to be the reason the team wins the truly big games, and while the defense has failed late in the last two big battles (the other being the Fiesta Bowl loss to Texas), the team wouldn’t have been there against the Trojans had Pryor stuck the dagger into the beast.

All across the college football Saturday, several young quarterbacks stepped up to take their teams to another level. From Michigan’s Tate Forcier, to Houston’s Case Keenum, to South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia, to Barkley, this was a day of young gunslingers and Pryor could’ve been one of them.

He didn’t run decisively, he didn’t make enough of the right reads and he didn’t move the chains on third downs. Worst of all, his near-pick six thrown early in the game set the tone, and while the Buckeyes came back and took control of the game, Pryor was too tentative for long stretches. This was a USC team ripe for the picking and one that needed to be put away when there were chances. But he and the Buckeyes offense went into its typical shell, allowed the Trojans to stay alive and Ohio State lost another big game.

Pryor will be a special player. Eventually, he’ll grow into a multimillion dollar NFL talent who can use his athleticism and his arm to be a transcendent player at the next level. But at this level, he has to be able to turn it loose. He has to be the player who gave the Trojans fits last year when he ran wild. He has to be the smooth, confident player who led the Buckeyes down the field to beat Wisconsin in a hostile environment. He has to run more decisively, he can’t be afraid to make mistakes, and he has start playing like he believes he’s the best player in college football. This is his Ohio State team, and while quarterbacks get the glory when they lead the way to wins, they don’t get to sit next to Chris and Kirk when they don’t get the job done.

Pete Fiutak

Close isn’t good enough

There’ll be no moral victories in Columbus, folks.

Ohio State had to shut the door on USC in the fourth quarter Saturday night. It didn’t, which is going to haunt the program until the bowl season. There’s no overstating how badly the Buckeyes needed to win this game. Their recent troubles in huge nonconference matchups have been well-documented and well-worn, creating a gnawing feeling in the gut of all things scarlet and gray. This was a chance to exorcise those demons at the expense of a Trojans team that featured a rookie quarterback and a few more question marks than in recent seasons. It was there for the taking until that rookie behind center, Matt Barkley, led USC on an 86-yard game-winning drive that bled the clock and took all the air out of the Horseshoe.

And now, the Buckeyes faithful must wait for that next opportunity to polish up its national image and quiet the critics. Maybe that chance comes in January, or maybe it’s forced to wait until the 2010 season. Ohio State played well enough to win Saturday, but the Buckeyes couldn’t make key defensive stops when they needed them down the stretch. At the end of the day, those final, painful seven minutes of the showdown are all that’s really going to matter.

Richard Cirminiello

Stop hating on Ohio St.

1. OK, very simply: Will America now stop bashing Ohio State? The Buckeyes played USC on even terms, especially in the trenches. This is a stomach-punch loss, but OSU has now played Texas and USC to the wire in consecutive big games. Again, if you want to bash a program for underachieving, how about looking to that Michigan State outfit which spit the bit against Central Michigan? How about looking to Oklahoma State after that face-plant against Houston? How about looking to Florida State after barely surviving Jacksonville State? How about looking to almost every program in the ACC, to Oregon, and to dozens of other programs? Ohio State is not a program in trouble. Roughly 110-113 of the 120 coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision would like to have Jim Tressel’s record of achievement, thank you very much. Can we, as football fans and analysts, begin to direct our ire to programs that merit a bit of vinegar?

2. Speaking of Jim Tressel: Yeah, he played this game conservatively. Yeah, he left himself open to a ton of first- and second-guessing. Yeah, one could easily disagree with his decisions. I would have gone for the touchdown in the first half, instead of settling for an 18-yard field goal. I would have kicked a 53-yard field goal (Aaron Pettrey is a stud kicker) with a 15-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter, and not put myself in position to lose with one touchdown drive by USC. But with all that having been said and acknowledged, you have to admit two things: First, Tressel was philosophically consistent. Sticking to a game plan should generally buy a coach some leeway. Second, and more instructively, the field-position-based, special teams-oriented plan worked pretty darn well for 53 minutes. If the Bucks had stopped Joe McKnight on the final drive, I don’t think anyone would be complaining about Tressel. Let’s face it: Matt Barkley was not the Second Coming; he was, after all, merely a freshman playing his second game in an intimidating environment, and it showed. Tressel banked on this fact to see his team through; in a game where many pundits were predicting a woodshed whipping, Ohio State’s brawny, gutsy performance should give Tressel’s fiercest critics pause. (Not that I expect the vultures to listen to me.)

Matt Zemek

Second-tier program

No matter how Ohio State wants to spin this, it can’t escape the fact that it had a vulnerable USC team pinned deep in its own territory late in the game and couldn’t finish the job. This wasn’t just a big intersectional game; it was a referendum on the OSU program as an elite squad and the Big Ten in general. By surrendering a late lead to the Trojans and their true freshman quarterback, Ohio State took a big step back in the eyes of the nation and showed that no matter how many times it beats Michigan it doesn’t matter. Ohio State can’t beat USC or any other top-five team, and so it must be content with second-class citizenship in the college football caste system. USC showed that it has the kind of big-game mentality needed to succeed on the biggest stage, even if it has a true freshman QB and a rebuilt defense. The Trojans hung tough until they had to produce and then struck when everybody was all-in. Even if USC blows an easy one to a Pac-10 opponent this year, it remains the nation’s premier squad when the bright lights are on, just as coach Pete Carroll wants it to be.

Michael Bradley