September 13, 2009
USC 18, Ohio State 15. So Buckeye partisans can breathe easy about being embarrassed again on national television: This wasn't that. No, in lieu of the ache of humiliation, OSU will have to bear instead the sting of the straight giveaway, which is always more intense.
When the losing streak against top-10 teams (now at six games) finally ends, it won't be under more favorable conditions than Ohio State faced tonight, because those conditions don't exist. For 55 minutes, this was the big game of Jim Tressel's dreams: Far from spreading the field or revamping his offense in any consistent or significant way to exploit Terrelle Pryor's specific talents, the Sweatervest was his usual conservative self, mixing safe passes with a steady dose of a very determined Boom Herron between the tackles and the occasional draw or counter with Pryor from the shotgun, neither of which met with much success -- the Bucks averaged 2.7 per carry, significantly less than in last year's blowout if you exclude sacks. An option pass on the first play of the game (later repeated for the interception that set up USC's first touchdown) and some creative use of tailback Brandon Saine as a receiver in the third quarter was about as wild as Tressel got. And the Buckeyes led for most of the game.
Mainly, that was because the Buckeyes finally, finally came up against another offense willing to match them vanilla for vanilla. Pete Carroll probably played the postgame questions in his head a couple dozen times throughout the second half, because they were so obvious: The decision to start a true freshman quarterback, a stunning development when it was made a little over two weeks ago, was totally baffling after actually watch Matt Barkley play for three-and-a-half quarters in his first road game. Barkley completed fewer than half his passes with no big plays, no touchdowns and a head-slapping interception that had "rookie" written all over it; he led a competent two-minute drill for a field goal at the end of the first half, but otherwise was shut out when not taking over inside the OSU five-yard line. At one point in the third quarter, Barkley got up from a hit favoring his throwing arm, and everywhere but the Trojan sideline, the cat-calls for Aaron Corp were already beginning.
From a dead stop -- 30 total yards and four punts on four possessions in the second half -- the 14-play, 86-yard, game-winning drive from the shadow of their own goal post was like flipping a switch. Barkley cooly hit Joe McKnight for 22 yards on 3rd-and-9, Barkley's longest completion of the night, then immediately topped it with a 26-yard strike to tight end Anthony McCoy. The running game took it in from there for the winning touchdown, but the finish was defined by Barkley's sudden chutzpah, and vice versa: Whatever else Carroll saw in him, obviously the kid owns the two-minute drill.
Which is direct contrast to Ohio State's version of the thing when the Buckeyes got the ball back, a grab-bag that included two penalties, nearly 40 seconds run off the clock in just four plays and a desperate, no-shot heave down the field on a makable fourth down. The home crowd obviously brought it, increasingly so as the game went on, in direct contrast to their team, which was content to try to bring its early success back into the shell, as if running, punting and field position could ward off a USC comeback the way it always does against Purdue or Illinois. And it almost worked, thanks to Barkley's struggles, until the freshman woke up and left Pryor and Co. grasping for a counterpunch that apparently isn't a part of their repertoire.