After 21 months of seeing the Buckeyes come up short in big games and the second guessing that accompanies that, they came through in a classic that was both nerve-wracking and one of those games that was so fun that you tip your hat to it at the end and think to yourself how honored you were to have been a part of it. From your couch.
Saturday night in Madison marked Terrelle Pryor's first start in a hostile road environment and with one slick 11 yard keeper with just over a minute to go, he crossed some other things off of his list. Pryor got his first comeback victory and the satisfaction of hearing Mark May praise his performance (through gritted teeth no doubt) looped on ESPN throughout the night. He played a part in snapping the Badgers' 16-game home winning streak, the second-longest in the nation. He handed Bret Bielema his first ever home loss and helped even his own coach's record against the only conference team that had logged a winning mark against him.
Pryor's night was far from perfect. He made his share of mistakes and seemed to let a hesitation funk stick with him for the middle quarters. You could also argue that Beanie Wells was just as, if not more important to the team's effort. But it will be Pryor's 80-yard victory march and the plays he made on that drive that will be remembered for years to come. He was so clutch, in fact, that we're considering switching the nicknames up a little and calling LeBron Terrelle in High Tops.
The two-headed backfield monster of Pryor and Wells got off to a raging start. On the opening series of the game, the two would account for all 71 yards, capped by a 33 yard rushing touchdown from Beanie. His run was a thing of beauty. Brewster got to the 2nd level and delivered a nice block on Casillas, while Browning, Boone and Cordle either sealed off their guys or bothered them long enough for Beanie to break through the eight Wisconsin defenders that were jammed into the box. The last ten yards of the play featured Troy, Ohio native Shane Carter getting clubbed by Beanie's forearm all of the way in to the endzone. It was 7-0 quick and the Buckeyes looked like they might have easy work ahead of them.
After forcing a punt, the Buckeye offense got the ball back again and moved 24 yards on three plays before a poor decision by Pryor led to an Allen Langford interception inside the Badger five. Pryor actually had plenty of time on the play as Wisconsin chose to only rush four, but he locked in on Saine from the snap and an underthrown bomb gave the ball back to the Badgers. Saine, not being a natural receiver didn't quite get up high enough to meet the ball, but credit to Langford with the nice snatch as well.
It seemed like it was at that point that Bielema and his staff decided they were going to start a heavy rotation of blitzing to force Pryor to beat them with his arm. For the better part of three quarters, that strategy almost paid off. Starting with that interception and carrying over possessions that included getting the ball at midfield off of a turnover, Pryor appeared to be trying to do too much by himself as he took several costly sacks, including a 20-yarder. He missed wide-open receivers on several instances that led to tackles or sacks for loss including Posey coming across the middle and Boom on the play he was destroyed on (wondering why there isn't a helmet-to-helmet rule/suspension in the college ranks).
But on the winning drive, Pryor answered the call by going 3 for 4 for 59 yards including a huge 3rd down pickup on the ground and through the air. We're going to cut him some slack and try not to dwell on the fumble he had on the fourth play of that drive. There's something about winning that washes some of that stank away.
Beanie was big beyond his early touchdown jaunt. I continue to be mesmerized by something he does each week and what really stood out to me from the Wisconsin game was how he was almost looking for and trying to make his cutback before receiving the handoff. I didn't think that was possible until I saw him pull it off a handful of times Saturday night. He finished with 168 yards on the ground, one less than he had against the Badgers last season and though he got his points early, his 54-yard burst down the far sideline on the Buckeyes' first offensive play of the 2nd half seemed to be his way of telling the team to get their heads out of their asses and they promptly began flipping the momentum that they had lost in the 2nd quarter.
That and he brought Pryor out of his funk by questioning his manhood.
Hartline lead the team in receptions with three for 57, with 46 of those coming on the final drive (in which he gave us all a jolly good scare by fumbling the ball -- thanks Robo!). Robiskie was largely ineffective, pulling in just 2 catches for 10 yards. Good enough to extend his regular season reception streak to 30 games, but not much more. Sanzenbacher had a couple of nifty catch-and-runs, but his second one ended in disaster when Badger corner Jay Valai, the same guy that knocked Boom out, was the major contributor in a four-man collision that saw the ball come squirting off and Dane being helped off of the field. I'll save you from going broken record on my thoughts about Sanzenbacher, but he's on pace to be helped off the field in four games this year. Posey did get into the game on the fourth play (and later caught a pass), so that placates me somewhat.
I thought the offensive line played well again. No, not perfect, but as long as I continue to see improvement on a game-by-game basis, I'm a happy man. Brewster had some great moments, as did Boone and Browning. The Badgers did get across for four sacks, but most, if not all of them were the result of Wisconsin bringing the heat and Pryor maybe not getting rid of the ball when he should have.
A youth movement is starting to take place on the defensive side of the ball. Homan may have played his best game as a Buckeye, tying his career high with 10 tackles. Ditto for Thaddeus Gibson. He's spoken of as probably the best cover lineman on the team and his forced fumble against Evridge early in the 2nd quarter was a thing of beauty (pounced on by Homan, of course). Later on, it was Gibson flushing and getting a hand on Evridge forcing the errant throw right into Jenkins' waiting arms to clinch the win. Sabino also made an appearance at linebacker, when the game was kind of on the line, so that bodes well for his continued ascension.
There were times when the Wisconsin offensive line just dominated the Buckeye defensive front and while that's frustrating as hell -- especially the despar you get when you realize that your boys can't stop a 3rd and 3, that's what Wisconsin lines do. They were playing at home and there may be three future NFL draft picks in that group. Heyward got a nice sack and from the interior, which is nice because he got it by overpowering his man. Freeman had the other sack for the Buckeyes, but his was a little less overpowering and more of the accidental variety. Still, we'll take it.
Jenkins got the big interception to end the game and Chekwa made some plays, but the safeties were eaten up at times, most notably during the 9 minute window of the 2nd quarter when Evridge looked like Dan Marino. Beckum is going to get his on whatever defense he goes up against and he did lead the Badgers with six receptions for 60 yards, but the Buckeyes held him out of the endzone.
It certainly wasn't lost on me or some of the other participants in the live blog that both Heyward's sack and Jenkins' game-ending interception (along with a few other notable defensive plays) occurred while the team was in man coverage. Hopefully that really jumps out on film.
Not much to complain about on the special teams front. Trapasso was once again the star of the unit, punting four times for 195 yards -- good enough for an average of 48.8. Impressive. His long was a 67-yard beauty that just barely missed getting downed inside the five.
Pretorius was two for two on a pair of short kicks while the return teams remained consistent by not doing anything spectacular. Rasta Wells had a nice 24-yard kick return off of a nice Sabino block (marking the fourth straight week he's stood out on that unit).
Some good, some bad on special teams, but this wasn't going to be a game won on special teams.
I loved seeing the players dancing it up during "Jump Around"... Tressel chose the ball first and for the third straight time, Pryor led the Buckeyes to a touchdown on their opening possession of the game. He's now 3 for 3 doing that as a starter... Wisconsin held almost a two to one yard advantage at the half (236 to 122)... The Buckeyes were penalized five times for 30 yards, while the Badgers were whistled just three times for 19 yards (I can only remember one of those being on the Buckeye line, though, so that's good news)... Why was Travis Beckum jawing at Beanie after he had run out of bounds following planting Allen Langford into the turf?