On the surface, USC won two games over Ohio State in the last two years, one of them handily. Beyond that, however, it's hard to imagine the schedule makers had any idea how much each of the games would alter the seasons of the participants.
After walloping the 5th-ranked Buckeyes 35-3 last year in the Coliseum, the top-ranked Trojans promptly lost to unranked Oregon State the following week. This season, after squeaking by Ohio State in Columbus, USC lost their follow-up game again, this time going down in Seattle to Washington. You can blame a patented Petey letdown and Jacquizz Rodgers for the loss in 2008 and an injured Matt Barkley and Taylor Mays certainly contributed to the upset at the hands of the Huskies, but the end result was an 11-1 team looking in at the BCS Championship from the outside last year and a high probability of a similar scenario playing out later this season.
For the Buckeyes, the consequences have been even more dramatic. Not only did each loss end championship hopes early in the season, but Jim Tressel and staff retooled the offense each time.
Last year we saw the benching of the 6th-year senior quarterback that had taken the team to the national championship game the prior season. This year, we witnessed the pro-style offense with heavy I tendencies that had been a staple under Tressel tossed into the garbage bin shortly after the heartbreaker at home. Given the performance of the offensive line last year, inserting Pryor for Boeckman made sense. While it's still too early to make a call, I also believe the move to the zone-read in an effort to simplify things for Pryor will be the right play this season as well.
For starters, though the offensive linemen have good size, the Buckeyes lacked a true I running back. Most of us thought Herron might be the guy based on his performance down the stretch last season, especially against Michigan and Texas, but he seemed to have problems getting his feet up on his runs and was shoe-stringed several times at the line of scrimmage to start the year. He was enjoying his best game of the season against the Illini before going down with an ankle injury and has but two carries since. Brandon Saine has been a pleasant surprise this year, potentially supplanting Boom as the top back, but again, not a prototypical I formation back especially when you consider some of his shortcomings in pass pro.
The staff, primarily driven by Hazell we're assuming, also wanted to simplify the offense for Pryor. He struggled mightily against a solid Trojan defense, completing just 44% of his passes with the costly first drive interception that provided the margin of victory for USC. Mack Brown did something similar for Vince Young. We're hearing a lot about how Young was given one or two reads on a play and told to take off running if nothing was there. It's pretty easy to move the chains when the quarterback can rip of 17 yard chunks at any time.
Unfortunately, two things have happened to stagnate this approach. First, defenses finally have plenty of film on Pryor and are going to do what Carroll did to him: spy him, contain the edges and bring heat to force him to beat you with his arm. Second, right about when the new offense was coming online, Pryor began to run tentatively, making bad reads or cuts. Whether it's because he's not a fan of contact (an idea that seems more and more plausible with each passing week) or he has too much going on inside of his head to let his natural rushing talents take over, he's clearly not what I would consider a dangerous rushing threat this season. He might break off a 30-yarder here and there, but clearly I couldn't have been the only one to see the Bearcats' Zach Collaros bust a 75-yarder on South Florida and wonder where some of that was for the Buckeyes. Pryor's career long run if you're wondering is 43 yards.
This isn't to say Pryor can't turn things around. Ken Gordon of the Dispatch openly wondered where the team goes from here and the correct answer to that is not back to the pro style set the team spent all spring and summer working on with Pryor. There are some shortcomings to the new offensive strategy employed since the Illinois game, but if you look closely, you can see signs of improvement. Tressel mentioned that Pryor's footwork was in fact improving and it probably is. Based on the running jump of a pick he threw deep to Duron Carter in the Purdue game, it could probably stand to improve some more.
Although he's struggled with the read at the mesh point, I thought the first quarter touchdown he scored against Purdue was brilliant and hopefully a sign of things to come. He held the ball inside Saine's gut long enough to draw to inside defenders to the running back before pulling it out at the last minute and racing to the pylon.
The line, though young, must continue to gel. I know the staff likes to tote the fact that guys like Cordle can play anywhere on the line and they enjoy plugging different guys in on different series, but I really would like to see a group of five start to take all of the snaps and grow. The five being Adams, Boren, Brewster, Browning and Shugarts. While we're on the topic of blocking, Jake Ballard must step up his game. It's probably frustrating to be overthrown by 10 feet when your'e wide open in the end zone, but that's no excuse for how badly he's been handled at times this season when pass protecting.
The receivers, I believe, are a quality group and will only get better over time. They typically bring down the balls that are thrown their way (and then some). Pryor must do a better job of leading them on their routes and he must also improve his short passing game to the backs. The staff should also look to throw more over the middle of the field. Stoneburner is getting more reps and he's a solid target and we know Ballard has the size and hands to make something happen. When defenses are positioning themselves to shut down Pryor on the outside, that leaves huge pockets open in the middle. Tressel, of course, is reluctant to throw over the middle, but that has to change. And quick.
So how will this team respond to the most adversity they've faced in quite some time? We know Terrelle can make the throws -- all you have to do is pop on a tape of the spring game to see that. Will the staff continue to try to put him in a position to be successful and if so, will he start to learn to take care of the ball, especially when going down under pressure? We better hope so. If there's anything you can bank on, it's that a steadfast Tressel likely won't change his offensive philosophy twice in the same year.