Backed up to their own goal line, Matt Barkley and Joe McKnight drove into Southern California lore.
Barkley, the freshman quarterback, and McKnight, the shifty tailback, made big play after big play, and Stafon Johnson capped one of the great drives in USC’s storied history with a 2-yard touchdown run with 1:05 left to give the third-ranked Trojans a 18-15 victory against No. 8 Ohio State on Saturday night.
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“We’re Trojans. That’s what we do,” Barkley said. “This is what we dreamed of, coming back like this.
“Doesn’t matter where we are in the score. We found a way. I love this.”
For the Buckeyes (1-1), it was another big-game heartbreaker, maybe the toughest one yet. Ohio State has now lost six straight against top-five teams, including two national title games and last season’s 35-3 loss to USC in Los Angeles.
For the Trojans, it was their 10th straight victory against the Big Ten. None was tougher – and none was likely more satisfying for Pete Carroll’s team.
“I think it’s a beautiful statement for our whole team,” the coach said. “It was really a great job by a lot of guys.”
The official stats will call it a 14-play, 86-yard drive, but it really started with USC at its own 5, facing a second-and-19 with 6:09 left in the game.
Suddenly, an offense stymied and held scoreless all second half by a hard-charging Ohio State defense came alive.
McKnight darted for 11. Then it was Barkley to McKnight, who weaved for 21 more on third-and-8.
When Barkley threw a strike over the middle to Anthony McCoy for 26 to get USC to the Ohio State 37, the record crowd of more than 106,000 at Ohio Stadium started to grow uneasy.
Barkley converted a fourth-and-short with a sneak. McKnight, so often compared to USC Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, ran three straight times, showing some power to go with all those moves and got USC inside the 10. Another sneak by Barkley got it to first-and-goal.
Then Johnson swept around right end, going in untouched, pointing toward the USC section as he crossed the goal line. It was the only part of the huge crowd cheering. The rest was silent.
Barkley and McKnight hooked up one more time, appropriately, for a 2-point conversion that meant an Ohio State field goal would only force overtime.
But with no timeouts left, Terrelle Pryor and the Buckeyes offense went nowhere with their last chance.
Just when it looked as if the Buckeyes would shake their big-game bugaboos, they’ll now face more questions about their inability to beat the very best. Just when it looked as if Big Ten pride would be restored – at least a little – the league took another high-profile hit.
“All losses hurt,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. “This one hurts the most because it’s today.”
McKnight ran for 60 yards and had 45 receiving, modest numbers, but most of them came at the most crucial time.
Barkley finished 14 for 31 for 195 yards with an interception. He was sacked twice and took some shots, but just a few days removed from his 19th birthday, he already has a drive that could define his career – in his second game.
“He’s not 19,” Carroll said. “He’s our quarterback. I’m not worried about how old he is. Numbers mean nothing.”
Pryor made some plays for Ohio State with his arm and his legs, throwing for 177 yards and running for 36 in a game dominated by defense and field position.
Coming off last year’s drubbing by USC, Ohio State couldn’t have come up with a worse way to start the rematch.
Pryor’s short toss over the middle was picked off by Chris Galippo around midfield and he returned it 51 yards to the Ohio State 2. The Trojans needed four downs, but Johnson bulled in for a 1-yard score to make it 7-0 less than four minutes in.
With their fans a bit stunned and probably fearing the worst after so many recent disappointments, the Buckeyes and Pryor responded.
The rangy sophomore hit Dane Sanzenbacher streaking down the middle for 56 yards to set up Dan Herron’s 2-yard touchdown run. Midway through the first, it was 7-7 and Ohio State’s crowd was back into it and blaring.
The teams traded field goals in the second quarter, with USC’s Jordan Congdon knocking home a 21-yarder on the last play of the half to cap a snappy 2-minute drill by Barkley.
They traded punts and Ohio State won the field position battle and took the lead in the third quarter.
After pinning USC at its own 10, the Buckeyes forced USC to punt from its end zone. That turned into two points for Ohio State when a high snap slipped through the hands of punter Billy O’Malley for a safety with 9:03 left in the third.
Pryor and Ohio State then took advantage of excellent field position after the free kick, and drove to setup a 22-yard field goal by Aaron Pettrey with 4:49 left in the quarter to make it 15-10.