I wasn't the only one in the immediate aftermath of Ohio State's 26-18 loss to Purdue who thought the shine was off Terrelle Pryor, up-and-coming star, to be replaced by a film of skepticism for Terrelle Pryor, unproven project, who remains indistinguishable from the most mediocre passers in the Big Ten well into his second year as a starter. In fact, Pryor's brutal afternoon in West Lafayette -- two interceptions, two lost fumbles, five sacks and just seven points prior to a minor rally with the game essentially out of reach in the fourth quarter -- drove home just how clearly he's regressed after last year's promising debut as a true freshman:
That corresponds with Ohio State's descent to the bottom of the Big Ten rankings in total offense, which has veteran columnists and aggrieved bloggers alike openly speculating on Pryor's future as the starter; one reporter had the nerve to ask Jim Tressel after the game if he'd considered benching his would-be star, and ESPN draft guru Todd McShay reportedly said Sunday he was considering Pryor more as a receiver or a situational Wildcat type from a pro perspective, not a quarterback. Purdue coach Danny Hope said the Boilermakers' plan was to shut down the run and put the game on Pryor's arm, and the afternoon couldn't have gone more according to that script.-- the Buckeyes finished with 66 yards on the ground, their worst effort of the year, and Pryor led the team with 34 yards on 21 carries, including a single run that covered 35 yards.
Print out that last set of numbers, circle them, and write in the margins: Against Purdue, which entered the day ranked tenth in the conference against the run and hadn't allowed fewer than 24 points in any of its first six games, even in the lone win over Toledo; Northern Illinois and Minnesota scored twice what the Buckeyes managed against the Boilermakers, much of which came against a late prevent defense. The constant feature of Jim Tressel's offense, whether Craig Krenzel, Troy Smith, Todd Boeckman or Terrelle Pryor is the quarterback, is that everything begins with, and functions off of, the traditional, between-the-tackles power-running game. And after four years of literally smashing success in that capacity with Antonio Pittman and Beanie Wells, the fact that OSU's straight-ahead attack is suddenly less formidable than ever has thrown the entire enterprise into a tailspin:
It doesn't look like much on the chart, but the slight downturn in yards per carry from 2008 to 2009, from the stable 4.6-yard mark to 4.2, is one of the keys to the downward trajectory of the entire offense: The Buckeyes found the going easy enough against Toledo, Illinois and Indiana -- terrible teams that all fell behind quickly and posed no threat whatsoever to the stout Ohio State defense -- but both USC and Wisconsin held OSU under 100 yards on the ground and Purdue's front seven on defense effectively dominated the Buckeyes' offensive line on Saturday. Sans a go-to back on the order of a Pittman or Beanie, Pryor has visibly struggling through no-win situations as the offense stalls time and again in all three of those games; if not for an incredible three non-offensive touchdowns to provide the winning margin at Wisconsin, where Pryor was 5-of-13 for 87 yards and the ground game averaged just 3.6 per carry, it's likely this discussion would have begun a week earlier following a loss to the Badgers.
The general downturn of the offense in every facet over the last three years (and the last two, especially) is red meat for the many critics both of Tressel's much-maligned conservatism and of offensive coordinator Jim Bollman in the big picture, but the situation unfolding in the short term is the worst-case preseason scenario writ large: The young offensive line hasn't gelled, neither Boom Herron nor Brandon Sain (nor anyone else) has established himself as the usual grinder Buckeye fans have taken for granted for decades and Pryor is suffering through one hellacious sophomore slump, at no point seeming competent to handle a "wide open" spread or any other scheme that puts the game primarily in his hands.
OSU is still in the Big Ten title race, but as it stands, there's no way the offense on display to date is going to get out of the November stretch against Penn State, Iowa and Michigan unscathed without a significant jolt in the running game -- on the line and in the backfield -- and some overdue maturation by Pryor. Otherwise, the "potential" label this group carried into this season as the overwhelming Big Ten favorite will be prominent again (along with an equally prominent question mark) into another season. But no matter what the label says for the rest of this year or the rest of his career, obviously it will Pryor bearing it for the entire team as long as he's healthy.