COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Terrelle Pryor surveyed the landscape of Ohio State’s close win over Navy and stated the obvious.
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“We’re not worried about USC,” he said of the Buckeyes’ looming opponent on Saturday night. “We’re just worried about getting better this week.”
That should be enough to keep Ohio State busy.
In a season opener that created more questions than it answered, the Buckeyes needed Brian Rolle’s 99-yard interception return of a two-point conversion pass with 2:23 left to preserve a 31-27 win over the 21-point underdog Midshipmen.
A record opening-game crowd of more than 105,000 sat in stunned silence for much of the fourth quarter as Navy roared back from a 29-14 deficit with 6 minutes left to almost tie the game.
Meanwhile, across the country, No. 4 Southern California was hanging a 56-3 whipping on San Jose State. A year ago, the Trojans administered a 35-3 embarrassment to the Buckeyes.
To avoid something similar, Ohio State must patch a lot of problems in the next few days.
“We gave (Navy) a little help along the way in that fourth quarter,” coach Jim Tressel said later. “We did some things that obviously you wish you could have back. … I certainly should have kicked a field goal on fourth and (2), which was a huge mistake in my mind, and of course we didn’t make the (first down) and made it a bigger mistake. And then of course we had the long play against us and a missed extra point and threw an interception — so it wasn’t a dazzling fourth quarter for us.”
Tressel turned down a field goal attempt that would have made it 32-14 on fourth and 2 at the Navy 15 with 6:27 left, with Dan Herron getting stopped for no gain on a run up the middle. On the next play, Navy’s Ricky Dobbs hit Marcus Curry on an 85-yard touchdown pass. Joe Buckley’s extra-point kick made it 29-21, getting the attention of fans leaving the stadium to get a head start on the traffic.
After the kickoff, Ohio State ran the ball three times before Pryor — with Michael Vick’s name written in his eyeblack — overthrew a pass over the middle and Emmett Merchant intercepted and returned it 28 yards to the Buckeyes 33. Three plays after that, Dobbs raced 24 yards up the middle to make it 29-27.
Dobbs’ pass attempt over the middle was right to Rolle, who streaked down the left sideline and went untouched for two points. The Buckeyes recovered the ensuing onside kick, thrilled to escape with a victory.
“When you have a big game you try not to overlook the team before, but it’s real hard because in the back of your mind you’re thinking about next week,” Dobbs said.
The Buckeyes swore they weren’t looking ahead to USC. Maybe they weren’t. Maybe Navy was that good. Or maybe the Buckeyes do have that much to work on.
The offensive line didn’t protect and the running game was mundane. The defensive line got blown out by Navy’s smaller front wall. Pryor had an average game. And the Midshipmen looked as if they had more stamina and more speed down the stretch.
“It was a bit of a wakeup call,” Buckeyes linebacker Austin Spitler said.
Ohio State has been a national player throughout Jim Tressel’s eight-plus years in charge, winning the national championship in 2002. But since 2006, the Buckeyes have made a habit of losing big games in the national spotlight. They lost lopsided games in the national title games after the 2006 and 2007 seasons, then last year were embarrassed by USC, lost a close game to Penn State at home and fell on a late TD to No. 3 Texas in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Buckeyes are well aware that much of America considers them a good team from a bad conference that can’t play at the same level as Florida, USC and other top-tier squads. They’ll likely fall in the next weekly Associated Press Top 25 on Tuesday.
“This is a huge opportunity to prove the to country that we can win a big game,” linebacker Ross Homan said of Saturday night’s nationally televised game against the Trojans.
They’ve got a week to sort through what went wrong in the opener.
“We’ll have our doubters,” Spitler said. “We have to go out and prove we’re good.”