With 18 starters returning and a boatload of senior experience at their disposal, Ohio State was a no-brainer pick to win the Big Ten in 2008, but the jury was still out on their national standing. Back-to-back BCS Championship game losses had, fairly or not, made the Buckeyes the main whipping-boy for the entire Big Ten, a league that was perceived nationwide as one that couldn’t run with the big boys.
No matter what happened the previous year or who comes back, college football isn’t always predictable, and things started to unravel on the Bucks right from the outset. Despite a solid 43-0 win over Youngstown State in the opener, Heisman candidate Chris Wells went down in the third quarter with a foot injury. Without the big guy against Ohio University the next week, OSU struggled to a 26-14 win, although with a trip to the L.A. Coliseum next on the slate, the Bobcats probably weren’t on anyone’s mind.
The prime-time matchup with Southern Cal was Ohio State’s chance to not only set the tone for another run at the national title game, but to exorcise the demons of Gator chomps and Tiger bait. All the Trojans did was pour a bag of salt in the open wounds, pummeling OSU 35-3. The aftermath of that beating saw Jim Tressel pull the trigger on a very uncharacteristic move- benching senior quarterback and captain Todd Boeckman in favor of freshman phenom Terrelle Pryor. Now no one expected Pryor to pick up splinters on the bench, but no one saw this coming either. And while Boeckman had regressed considerably since the Penn State game in October of ’07, Buckeye Nation had grown accustomed to Jim Tressel sticking with his seniors. In reality, Tressel also realized that without Chris Wells he really had no ground game and despite Pryor’s inexperience, his running ability was beyond question.
Back in the friendly confines of the Horseshoe, Pryor led the Scarlet and Gray to wins over Troy and Minnesota, setting the stage for a nationally televised night game in Madison. As freshmen in 2005, the ’08 seniors had dropped a huge intersectional evening tilt (Texas), and then fallen under the lights in their Big Ten road opener (Penn State). They certainly now didn’t want to bookend their careers with an encore.
Our “Greatest Drives” series was inspired by the 25-21 thriller over TBGUN in 2005. Ohio State had accumulated 28 victories since then as they headed into battle at Camp Randall, yet none really had the drama of our 25 entries. Conversely, Ohio State’s 4 losses in that same period left no room for late game heroics. The Florida, LSU and USC aggregate score was 114-41, while Illinois played nine minutes worth of “keepaway” to prevent any comeback in 2007. I’m sure there are fans out there still trying to recover from the ’02 title season who don’t dig these Pepto-Bismol contests, but it was worth it all to see the Scarlet and Gray bag an important Big 10 win on the road in prime time.
It sure looked easy from the outset. Pryor faked to Chris Wells on the game’s opening play and circled the right side for an immediate 11. After two C-Dub plunges, Pryor saw the linebacker shadowing Dane Sanzenbacher in the slot coming on a blitz, so Terrelle coolly hit Dane for 17 to move the chains. Wells smacked ahead for 5 to the 33, and then the Bucks came out in their “loaded pistol” formation, with “Boom” Herron behind Pryor who was in the gun with Wells to his right. Beanie got the rock while Ben Person turned his man out and Jim Cordle and Mike Brewster opened a lane over the left side. Wells slithered through and it was full steam ahead. Safety Shane Carter met up with the burly tailback at the 6 and was stiff-armed into the endzone for his troubles. For the second straight week, the OSU offense had used a 33-yard touchdown run to light the board.
Terrelle Pryor continued the “legwork” on his next drive, eluding Matt Shaughnessy for 9, and then coming back two plays later with a nifty QB draw for 10 more to the Badger 45. Jim Tressel went for the jugular and sent Brandon Saine down the left sideline on a fly pattern, but corner Allen Langford was equal to the task and picked the underthrown pass off at his own 4. ABC commentator Todd Blackledge was unfortunately right- with Saine being a tailback and not a wideout, his experience in fighting for a deep pass is probably minimal, and combining that with an underthrow and Langford’s excellent positioning, Saine had no chance.
Wisconsin’s punishing ground game began to get into gear as they punched out to their 22, but James Laurinaitis stood Zach Brown up for no gain on 2nd-and-7 and then Evridge missed Turner again a play later. Nortman could only manage a 33-yard punt and OSU had great field position again at their own 45. The Buckeyes converted a 3rd-and-3 with a Herron reception, but then Wisky’s “D” turned up the heat, dropping Pryor for losses of 4 and 16 on back-to-back plays. A.J. Trapasso’s boot only traveled 31 yards, and Wisconsin set up shop at their 29.
David Gilreath scooted for 12 on an end-around, but as the quarter ended OSU just missed a golden opportunity as Evridge threw behind Isaac Anderson. Kurt Coleman was in perfect position for his third interception of the season, but Malcolm Jenkins deflected the ball just enough to cause it to fall incomplete. Unfazed, the defense came up big. Thaddeus Gibson moved from the outside in, and then dropped into coverage. Seeing Evridge starting to scramble, Thad grabbed him and spun him down. The ball hit Gibson’s knee and popped free, with Ross Homan cradling it at the Badger 46. A “delay” penalty due to the sideline uproar over the fumble recovery cost the Bucks 5 yards, and the running game couldn’t get going. To make matters worse, as Pryor lost 4 yards on 3rd down, “Boom” Herron got the “boom” lowered on him by Jay Valai, who caught him on the chin and left Herron out for several minutes before he was helped off. A.J. Trapasso pinned the Badgers back at their own 9 with a 43-yard punt and again Bret Bielema’s troops had lousy field position.
As the Badgers tried to work out from their own end, their All-American tight end Travis Beckum, who had already missed two games in ’08 and only played in the fourth quarter against Michigan, gave his team a spark by getting inside of Jermale Hines for an 8-yard catch on 3rd-and-5 from his 14. A 17-yard end around from David Gilreath was brought back on an illegal formation call- the same penalty that cost Wisky the tying two-point conversion against TBGUN. This time, they fought through it with Gilreath latching onto an 11-yard toss on 3rd-and-3, thanks to generous room from Chimdi Chekwa.
Gilreath worked the end around for another 11-yard chunk to get the ball into OSU territory, and from there John Clay pounded out 31 yards on 5 totes to help the Cardinal and White advance to the Buckeye 9 against what was appearing to be an outmanned defense. With the stop troops bracing for more groundwork, Allan Evridge brought tight end Mickey Turner in motion from right to left. Turner slipped back over to the right flat as Lawrence Wilson just let him by. Malcolm Jenkins was too late to come over and Turner caught a perfect pass from Evridge for the equalizer. The 91-yard march took 15 plays and burned over 8 minutes off the clock.
Maurice Wells got outside on the ensuing kickoff and motored out to his 41. After Chris Wells carved out 4 yards, Terrelle Pryor rolled right and fired a strike to Dane Sanzenbacher. Dane got loose in the secondary but came together with three red-shirted defenders, including a heat-seeking missile named Jay Valai. The quartet all came together and Dane got the worst of it, dropping the football. Jaevery McFadden fell on it and the Badgers were back in business at their own 32.
P.J. Hill’s tough running accounted for one first down, but the Buckeye “D” knuckled down and forced a punt, thanks in large measure to Marcus Freeman, who collared Gilreath for a 7-yard loss as Wisconsin went to the end around well once too much. The Bucks took over on their own 29, and Pryor immediately looked for Brian Robiskie deep. Allen Langford was all over him but no laundry came, and following a shorthopped pass to DeVier Posey, Tressel waved the white flag and ran Wells on a draw. It did force Wisconsin to burn a timeout, though, and when A.J. Trapasso launched a 67-yard rocket into the endzone, it appeared with only 52 seconds left that the teams would go off tied.
Allan Evridge got hot, opening with a 7-yard flip to Kyle Jefferson, and then dialing up Travis Beckum for 17 and 13 to get to the Ohio State 43. The defense made matters worse with a senseless illegal substitution flag, giving the Wisky braintrusts time to cook something up with 12 seconds left. Evridge hung patiently in the pocket, then stepped up and fired a bullet to Jefferson on a deep post. With Kurt Coleman playing a nice, Heacock-like, marshmallow-soft zone, Jefferson snagged the throw at the 5. The Badgers hustled to the line and spiked the ball, leaving Philip Welch time to pop a chipshot 20-yard field goal at the gun, giving the home team a 10-7 lead at the half.
Of course, it was quieter than usual at the intermission. TBDBITL didn’t make the trip, and the Wisconsin band was suspended for the game for allegations of hazing, alcohol abuse and sexual misconduct. While he may have been frustrated at not having the band available for OSU’s visit, I found Bret Bielema’s “We don’t rely on the band” comment to ABC’s Holly Rowe to be classless. I’m not defending the stuff that’s gone on with Wisconsin’s band, but I find it hard to believe that if TBDBITL had something like that happen that Jim Tressel would say, “We don’t rely on the band”. No, bands don’t play the actual game, but denying their importance to gameday borders on arrogance.
It was back to the bread-and-butter for the Bucks in quarter three as Chris Wells broke through the middle, slipped a tackle and steamed down the sideline for 54 yards. Terrelle Pryor hooked up on short tosses to Brian Robiskie and Ray Small to move the rock to the 14, then Wells and Pryor pushed ahead for 7 and 5, respectively as the offense looked to be in gear for the first time since the opening drive. But then the redzone bugaboo arose- Pryor lost two as he held the ball too long and couldn’t get the corner, Wells was dropped for a gain of 1 on a nice tackle by Aubrey Pleasant, and then Brian Hartline couldn’t haul in a nice pass from Pryor as Allen Langford closed in and broke it up. It was left to Ryan Pretorious and he came through with a 21-yard field goal to knot the count at 10.
Neither team could manage much as the third quarter ticked away. Marcus Freeman and Cameron Heyward each got to Allan Evridge for sacks to stall Wisky’s last two drives of the period, but as Ohio State regained possession in good shape at their 41, they pieced together another scoring jaunt. Chris Wells got things rolling with a 13-yard gain featuring a classic Beanie stiff-arm to Allen Langford. Pryor continued his quietly effective night through the air with completions to Brandon Smith and Brian Hartline as the Scarlet and Gray reached the Badger 14. Again though, the mental and fundamental miscues continued. Ray Small dropped what would’ve been a touchdown pass, although it would have gone for naught as he had run out of bounds and came back in, the second time this year a Buckeye receiver has done it. You knew what was coming next- Tresselball- and “The Vest” didn’t disappoint as Pryor ran a QB draw and lost 2. Ryan Pretorious delivered a 34-yard field goal to give OSU a 13-10 edge with 10:52 to play.
Burly fullback Bill Rentmeester got a solid 20-yard return of the kickoff, and Wisconsin set up shop at their own 37.. There wasn’t much doubt John Clay had been watching film of Chris Wells, as he was sprung by fine blocks from Chris Pressley and Travis Beckum for 14 yards, complete with a leap over Anderson Russell, not wrapping up as usual. Rentmeester was given a little sugar and responded with a 9-yard bolt, but after Ross Homan had stopped Clay for no gain, the freshman answered on 3rd-and-1 with a 5-yard gash for a fresh set of downs. Wisky continued to dissect the middle of the Buckeye defense as Clay stormed through for 17 more, and then two plays later they dusted off the end around. David Gilreath looked like he had made it to the pylon, but his knee hit at the 2 as Donald Washington saved the touchdown. The defense put up a valiant fight, forcing Evridge to throw it away, and when Ross Homan flattened P.J. Hill for no gain, visions of a 13-all tie danced in Buckeye heads. But Hill got the better of Homan on third down, barreling over Ross for the go-ahead score with 6:31 to go.
The stage was set for Terrelle Pryor to come of age, and those in the media (you know who you are, Mark May) who wanted to see what Pryor would do on a “big stage” were about to get an emphatic answer.
From the 20, the march got off to a shaky start as Pryor’s throw was too high for Hartline. Chris Wells worked the middle for 4, bringing up 3rd-and-6. Pryor had the faith and went back to Hartline for 19 and a huge first down at the OSU 43. Maybe that relaxed the Bucks too much, as Wells and Pryor couldn’t connect on a handoff and Pryor had to dive to recover the loose ball, losing 5 yards in the process. Dropping back on 2nd-and-15, Pryor- to the O-line’s credit- had an eternity to survey the situation and floated one to a wide-open Hartline. B-Hart got the ball stripped away but Brian Robiskie saved the day by snapping it up to preserve a 27-yard gain. C-Dub worked an option pitch for 9, then powered for 2 and a first down at the Wisky 24. The offensive line again gave Pryor time to make a sandwich in the pocket on first down, but coverage held up and Terrelle slipped trying to take off and lost 4. Ray Small atoned for his gaffe on the previous drive by snaring a 13-yard aerial from Pryor, bringing up 3rd-and-1. Terrelle leaned into the line for 2- a play that should never, ever lose yardage with #2 running it- and the chains moved again. From the Badger 13, Wells ground out 2, bringing up 2nd-and-8.
As OSU lined up, the Wisconsin defensive line was already dug in, but in the linebacking corps there was chaos. All three LB’s and safety Jay Valai were bunched together as the Buckeyes came to the line, and in the confusion they had no time to get set. That momentary hesitation was enough for Pryor and Wells to start an option to the left. Valai sold out on the pitch and dove right at Wells, so Pryor cut back behind an Alex Boone block, kicked it into high gear and used a great block from DeVier Posey to go over for one of the more dramatic touchdowns in recent OSU memory. Ryan Pretorious drove home the critical PAT and the visitors had a 20-17 lead with just more than a minute left.
Aaron Pettrey couldn’t have asked for more on the kickoff. It was short enough to prevent one of the deep men from getting it, but the Badgers committed the “cardinal” sin of letting the ball hit. By the time David Gilreath caught up to it, he was hemmed in and run out of bounds at the 19. With only one timeout at their disposal, the Badgers were up against it, even to get into position for a tying field goal. But seconds later it became a moot issue as Evridge, rolling left to avoid Thaddeus Gibson, floated one right into the arms of Malcolm Jenkins at the 34. Jenkins, who had been covering Travis Beckum, left him to make his second pick of the season and put the lights out in Camp Randall.
Victories over Purdue and Michigan State set up a monster showdown under the lights in the ‘Shoe with unbeaten Penn State. The Nittany Lions held Chris Wells in check but found the going tough against the stubborn Buckeye defense. Terrelle Pryor, who had experienced the highest of highs with the gamer in Madison, wore the goat horns on this chilly October evening. Trying to take a quarterback sneak around the end, Pryor had the ball popped loose. Penn State recovered and punched in the go-ahead score, then picked off a desperation T.P. pass late for a 13-6 win, their first ever in Ohio Stadium as a Big Ten member. The Bucks would run the November table, including a school-record fifth straight win over TBGUN to the tune of 42-7, earning a trip to the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale. OSU made their best bowl showing since 2005 against a Texas team that many felt should have been playing for the title, but Heisman runner-up Colt McCoy hooked up with Quan Cosby for a TD with only 16 seconds left to give the ‘Horns a 24-21 win.
With his team trailing 17-13 in their first Big Ten road game of the season, Ohio State’s quarterback carried a fourth-quarter option keeper to the house for the winning score. October 4, 2008, right? Well, sure, but the exact same scenario played out at old Memorial Stadium in Minneapolis on September 15, 1979. Art Schlichter’s 32-yard scamper finally subdued a stubborn Minnesota squad.
Hmmm, Ohio State engineers a clutch drive to win 20-17 with a freshman scoring the go-ahead touchdown. Sound familiar? (Click Here to see Drive #1 of our “Greatest Drives” series).