STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Wearing shiny black shoes and a gray, pin-striped suit that was a good-luck gift from his mother, Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor burst through a metal locker room door about an hour after his team's 24-7 victory at Penn State and headed toward the Buckeyes' bus.
Other than a peck on the cheek from a friend and a quick snapshot with a fan, Pryor ignored the 100 or so fans who had waited nearly an hour behind a barricade Saturday to score an autograph or a high-five from one of college football's biggest names.
"Look at him," a wife said to her husband as Pryor bee-lined to the bus. "He's acting like a star."
And playing like one, too.
In what was easily the biggest win of his young career, Pryor passed for two touchdowns and ran for another to lead Ohio State to a dominating victory over the Nittany Lions in front of 110,033 fans at Beaver Stadium.
Less than a month after a shocking loss at Purdue, Pryor now has the Buckeyes in position to earn a Rose Bowl berth by winning a fifth straight Big Ten championship.
"This," Pryor said, "was my first time to lead the team and lead the offense down the field and score some touchdowns against another big team, a ranked team. It felt good."
Ohio State can clinch at least share of the league title by defeating Iowa next week in Columbus. Victories over the Hawkeyes and Michigan (Nov. 21) will result in an outright championship.
"He's been able to shut out all the [criticism]," offensive lineman Jim Cordle said. "Hopefully this week, he'll be able to shut out all the praise."
Indeed, as gratifying as it was for his teammates, Saturday's victory had to be extra-special for Pryor – and not just because it came in his return to his home state and against the school so many people hoped he'd attend.
No college football player this season has been as scrutinized as Pryor, a sophomore who was the No. 1-ranked recruit in the country when he signed with the Buckeyes in the spring of 2008.
The nit-picking began in Week One, when a late interception against Navy nearly set the stage for a shocking home loss. Instead Ohio State eked out a 31-27 win. Pryor was picked off again the following week in the loss to USC, when he completed less than half of his passes. By the time the Buckeyes lost at Purdue on Oct. 17, Ohio State partisans had just about had it with Pryor.
Some flocked to Internet message boards and pleaded for coach Jim Tressel to move Pryor to receiver. Ray Reitz, Pryor's coach from Jeannette (Pa.) High School, told reporters that Tressel wasn't making good use of Pryor's talents and that Pryor looked like a "robot" in Ohio State's conservative offense.
Things got so bad that a mutual friend asked Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James to contact Pryor and counsel him about living life in the spotlight.
"The good thing about Terrelle," offensive lineman Bryant Browning said, "was that he always stayed positive. Even when some of that stuff was getting to him, you could never tell. He always came to practice with a smile on his face. He was always ready to come out and be our leader."
It's not as if Pryor's task was easy. Ohio State went 10-3 last season and earned a berth in the Fiesta Bowl, where it lost to Texas. But this year's squad is largely different. Seven offensive starters from 2008 are gone, including standout receivers Brian Hartline and Brian Robiskie and linemen Alex Boone and Steve Rehring. Quarterback hurries have become common. So have dropped passes and missed assignments. Not once has Pryor complained.
"I've never wavered in my thinking of his progress," Tressel said. "I know others have. But I get to be at practice. I get to be in meetings."
Tressel's confidence in Pryor paid dividends Saturday. No one will say that Pryor dominated the game against the nation's fifth-ranked defense. Rather, it was management, level-headedness and leadership that impressed onlookers most.
Instead of getting flustered after overthrowing a wide-open receiver early in the second half, Pryor kept his poise and responded by heaving a beautiful, 62-yard scoring pass to DeVier Posey late in the third quarter to put the Buckeyes ahead 17-7. Pryor sealed the win on his team's following possession by orchestrating a 10-play drive that ended when he found Brandon Saine on a 6-yard touchdown strike.
Pryor finished with 125 yards through the air and 50 on the ground. His leadership was infectious, as Ohio State gained 228 rushing yards against a Penn State squad that entered the game allowing just 84.1.
"We failed," Penn State linebacker Ollie Ogbu said. "Our game plan was to stop him, and we didn't do it on a consistent enough basis. So I would say we failed."
So, too, did Pryor in his attempt to get one of the t-shirts that were initially going to be sold at the stadium. On the shirt was a drawing of the Nittany Lion mascot with one arm around Pryor and the other offering Pryor a tissue. Below the drawing was the phrase, "The Nutcracker – a Terrelle Cryer Story."
The design was based on a picture of a downtrodden Pryor sitting on the bench during Ohio State's 13-6 loss to Penn State in 2008. Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno put a stop to the t-shirt idea last week.
"I would've liked to get one of those t-shirts," Pryor said. "It's all fun and games. I did mess up last year. You learn from that kind of stuff."
Just like Ohio State fans learned Saturday that they should've shown a little more patience with their sophomore quarterback, who couldn't help but notice a sign in the Ohio State section of the stands.
Written in black against an orange background, the sign read: "Silence The Doubters."
As he trotted off the field, Pryor pointed to it and smiled. His naysayers may not be completely "silenced."
But for now, at least, they've lowered their voice.
- Penn State
- Ohio State