I don't want to sound pessimistic. But as we pick through the ruins of Ohio State's 26-18 loss to Purdue on Saturday, you might want to start getting familiar with words like Alamo, Outback and Capital One.
The salvaging process is going to take a while after this one. Gone, at least for the moment, is Ohio State's advantage in the race for the Big Ten title. Gone, probably for good, is any possibility of even a BCS at-large berth, let alone a slot in the Championship Game. Ohio State's sixteen-game conference road winning streak is kaput. And that isn't all. The Buckeyes left a measure of self-respect in West Lafayette with their fumbling, bumbling, turnover-plagued performance on Saturday.
The warning signs, of course, were there. Ohio State had performed atrociously on offense against Wisconsin, had been hammered in the box score, yet got three touchdowns by other means to beat the Badgers. Against Purdue, it was the same story without the happy twists of fortune. Purdue out-gained the Buckeyes 361-287, held the ball for more than thirty-six minutes, doubled up their visitors in first downs and ran 83 plays to Ohio State's 59. Add in the nine penalties and five turnovers, and you get a loss to a team that came into Saturday's game with a four-game losing streak and a 1-5 record.
Forget the Steve Bellisari comparisons- how about Reggie Ball? Terrelle Pryor's bare pass numbers- 17-for-31, 221 yards, a touchdown, two interceptions- don't do justice to just how badly he- and by extension his offense- performed on Saturday. Pryor accounted for four of Ohio State's five turnovers, needed 21 carries to compile 34 rushing yards, and was so ineffectual in directing the offense that the unit only converted one third-down situation in the first three periods of action. It wasn't all on him. The offense stunk as a unit on Saturday. But a porous line and an ineffective running attack aren't get-out-of-jail-free cards. Pryor is supposed to be a playmaker, and his negative-to-positive ratio on plays made has not been favorable lately.
And I am still not enamored with Pryor's body language when he is struggling. He flings his helmet off, stomps around, barks at coaches and receivers, and in general comes off as immature and petulant. I know he has fire, but so do a lot of players; angrily advertising it isn't advised in his position. A quarterback is supposed to remain cool. He's the pilot, and you sure as hell don't want the pilot flipping out in the cockpit.
Here's another thing I've noticed about Pryor: he doesn't like contact. He's not willing to leverage that 6'6", 240 into hard-earned yards in the middle of the football field, a la God's Quarterback down in Florida. He doesn't want to mix it up like that. So he takes the easy way out, breaking plays outside and trying to beat smaller defensive backs to the corner of the field. Only problem is all that lateral movement oftentimes results in lost yardage, since the long-legged Pryor seems prone to ankle-tackles and he's not going up against 145-pound small-school Pennsylvania secondary players. A few weeks ago I declared that Pryor needs to get more Tebow-like in his running, be more willing to deal out punishment and accept those four-and-five yard gains that keep the chains moving. But he's not going to do that. It just isn't in him. A taste for the physical element of football is something you either have or don't have, and Terrelle Pryor, from the looks of it, doesn't have it.
Was I the only one: who wouldn't have minded seeing Joe Bauserman get some snaps, just for the proverbial shits and giggles? (Apparently I'm not.) He couldn't have done any worse than Pryor and besides maybe it would do the Boy Wonder some good to cool his heels on the bench for at least part of a game.
Reversal of Fortune: Going into Saturday's game, Purdue had consistently made plays to get beat, and they did so again against Ohio State. The Boilermakers turned the ball over three times, including twice in their own territory. In previous games those miscues had proven fatal. But Ohio State failed to capitalize on them, and then turned around and proved even more free-handed than their hosts, with harsher consequences. They got zero points out of Purdue's three turnovers, while their five resulted in thirteen Boilermaker points. The first two Buckeye turnovers- Terrelle Pryor's fumble on the opening possession and Ray Small's weekly muffed punt- set Purdue up at the OSU 20-and-13-yard line, respectively. The Boilermakers cashed in with field goals to stay in the game early at 7-6.
Terrible Call, Part I: It should have been four Purdue turnovers. Late in the first quarter with the Boilermakers operating deep in their own territory, Kurt Coleman ripped the ball away from Keith Carlos, as Kurt Coleman is wont to do, and Cameron Heyward recovered inside the 15-yard line. Carlos was still moving and the whistle hadn't blown when he was stripped, but the officials ruled that his forward progress had stopped and allowed Purdue to retain possession. Instead of Ohio State ball and a golden opportunity to build on its 7-3 lead, the Boilermakers got a first down on the catch. They proceeded to drive the field and cash in with a Carson Wiggs field goal to cut the lead to one.
The Fatal Sequence: Ohio State's third turnover, and the circumstances that led up to it, may have been the most damaging. With less than six minutes remaining in the first half, still clinging to that 7-6 lead, the Buckeyes caught a break on Chris Summers' 19-yard punt and set up shop at the Purdue 30-yard line. Brandon Saine bolted fourteen yards for a touchdown moments later, but the score was wiped out by a Bryant Browning holding penalty. On the next play Pryor's pocket collapsed, he fumbled for the second time, and Purdue recovered at their 45. That was the last, best opportunity Ohio State had to build on its lead. The Boilermakers pretty much dominated from then on.
For a While, They Cooperated: Purdue should have taken the lead earlier, but didn't thanks to a bizarre call by Danny Hope. The Boilermakers took over after Pryor's second fumble and, with Joey Elliott dissecting Ohio State's zone coverage, drove smoothly to the Buckeye 11-yard line. At that point, Coach Hope got cute. He called for a halfback pass, and Dan Dierking (Scott's son) stepped up with a hump-backed floater that was picked off by Chimdi Chekwa in the end zone. Probably a better idea to use a quarterback to throw the pass there, what with that quarterback 4-for-5 on the drive and all.
Play of the Game: Ohio State's idea of capitalizing on Chekwa's interception was a three-play drive that consumed a whole twenty-five seconds off the clock. Purdue got the ball back at its own 31-yard line with 26 seconds left and no timeouts. A couple of Joey Elliott-to-Keith Smith connections put the ball at Ohio State's 38. Carson Wiggs came on and hammered home a 55-yard field goal to put the Boilermakers ahead at halftime, 9-7. And that, really, was the ballgame, right there. Because as bad as the first half was for the Buckeyes, it was going to get a whole lot worse in a nightmarish third quarter.
Terrible Call, Part II (and Terrible Non-Replay, Part I): To be charitable, Ohio State should have been awarded a first down on their final drive of the half. With 2nd-and-13 Pryor threw a deep out to Dane Sanzenbacher, who juggled the ball with one hand and brought it in with the other, with a foot inbounds. Sanzenbacher was ruled out bounds and 1st-and-10 outside the 30 became 3rd-and-13 at the 16. The Buckeyes had to punt after three plays, setting up Purdue's go-ahead drive. The Vest, as usual, was in no hurry to urge a replay review on the officials.
The Quarter from Hell: Ohio State's offensive output in the third quarter, as follows: ten plays, negative-seven total yards, three penalties, two punts, and two interceptions, both thrown to Brandon King, Ohio State's leading receiver in the period. After opening the period with an impressive 67-yard touchdown drive to hike their lead to 16-7, the Boilermakers only had to sit back and wait for the Buckeyes to pass out the goodies. King's second interception set up Purdue's second touchdown of the quarter, on a 47-yard drive capped by Elliott's second touchdown pass of the quarter and Aaron Valentin's second touchdown catch. As a result of all this, Ohio State found itself second to Purdue on the scoreboard by an all-but-insurmountable 23-7 as the ghoulish third quarter ended.
Not This Week: All season Ohio State has been getting great pressure on the quarterback with just the men up front. That wasn't the case on Saturday. With his offensive line doing a remarkable job in protection, Joey Elliott dropped back to pass fifty times and was sacked just once. Somewhat surprisingly, the Buckeyes stayed with the four-man rush long after its ineffectiveness was painfully evident. I'm not a huge fan of blitzes- I agree with Vince Lombardi's axiom that they're a "sign of weakness"- but it probably would have been a good idea for Ohio State's defensive staff to dial up a few more of them as the game went on.
Last week I talked about the "redundancies" that enable the team to keep winning even as one or more units struggle. The defensive line has been the biggest redundancy this season, and when it faltered against Purdue, the Buckeye plane corkscrewed into a flat spin and smashed into the ground, taking a lot of hopes with it.
Folding Station: After a disastrous first three periods, Pryor finally started making positive plays as the fourth quarter opened. With his team down sixteen the sophomore first hit Ray Small 38 yards downfield, then peeled off a 35-yard run on the keeper to bring the Buckeyes to a 1st-and-goal at the Purdue 2. Three plays later, on 4th-and-goal from the 2, Jim Tressel called for the field-goal team. Aaron Pettrey's 24-yarder made it 23-10, Boilermakers. Purdue's response was a quick drive and a matching field goal to make it 26-10. I thought the field goal was a defensible call at the time- Ohio State's offense didn't look inclined to convert the fourth down- but I won't bother to defend it now. If you think it was a spineless decision, I won't argue.
Appropriate Ending: Despite their horror-show of a performance, the Buckeyes were within one score late at 26-18, and could get the ball back with a chance to tie provided the defense stop Purdue's offense one more time. With 2:04 left and facing 3rd-and-9, Elliott threw a screen pass to Aaron Valentin, who was stopped for no gain. But Doug Worthington had grabbed Valentin's facemask as he attempted to cut up the field, and with the penalty went Ohio State's last forlorn hope.
So Where Do We Go From Here: Probably down the same path we've started on. The problems the Buckeyes face aren't going away. Jim Tressel is not going to start channeling Sid Gillman as a play-caller. The offensive line will continue to struggle, as they've done for much of the last eight years. Brandon Saine and Dan Herron will continue to be what they are- decent runners, but not guys who can carry a team. We can hope the light suddenly goes on for Terrelle Pryor, but we can't count on it.
The cavalry isn't coming up over the horizon. For better and for worse, we're pretty much stuck with this team as is.
Around the Nation
Game of the Week- Florida-Arkansas: The Gators are spent much of Saturday's 23-20 victory over Arkansas looking like a suicide case. They committed four turnovers- including two fumbles inside the Razorbacks 10-yard line in the second quarter- were gashed for 107 yards by Arkansas tailback Dennis Johnson, coughed up the 73-yard go-ahead touchdown on a 3rd-and-17 play, and needed a pair of missed Razorback field goals and a pair of dubious penalties just to make it out alive. There's going to be a lot of talk about the pass-interference and personal foul calls that aided Florida in its game-tying fourth quarter drive. I just want to see two undefeated teams play in the SEC Championship Game, and if it takes some favorable officiating to make that happen, so be it.
You Never Know with College Football: A month-and-a-half ago when the season began, who would have believed that the Iowa-Michigan State game on October 24th may well decide who represents the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl? It's true. The Hawkeyes moved to 7-0 with another tough road victory, this time over Wisconsin, and are alone in the first place thanks to Ohio State's loss. Sparty, meanwhile won its third in a row, over Northwestern, and is now 3-1 in conference play. An Iowa victory in East Lansing next week means that, provided the Buckeyes lose to Penn State, the Hawkeyes can absorb a Big Ten loss down the line and still win the title. If Michigan State beats Iowa and wins out, the Spartans will own the tie-breakers needed to go to Pasadena.
The Meek Shall Inherit the BCS: Members of the mid-major conferences had to love what transpired in Dallas, West Lafayette and South Bend on Saturday. Thanks to the losses by Oklahoma and Ohio State, it's likely that neither the Big Ten nor the Big 12 will get multiple invites to the BCS party, and Notre Dame's shot went up in smoke against USC. The door is now ajar for both Boise State and the Mountain West champion, be it TCU or Brigham Young, to get at-large bids.
Not only that, the ACC also has an opportunity to put two teams in the BCS for the first time ever. Miami, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech are all sitting in the top 15 of the initial BCS rankings, and they are finished playing one another. If one of those teams wins the ACC title and another finishes with one or two losses, it'll be tough not to let both of them walk through the velvet rope.
So while some things will remain the same- the SEC as top dog, for one- in other ways the college football landscape will look a little unusual in January. Just think- you might get a chance to watch Cincinnati play for the National Championship.
Speaking of Cincinnati: They're getting to be in an issue down there on the shores of the Ohio in their basketball school with the quant little on-campus stadium. The Bearcats moved to 6-0 with another decisive road victory, this one in Tampa over previously unbeaten South Florida, and open at fifth in the BCS standings, just behind Boise State. With a pair of ranked teams left on the schedule in West Virginia and Pitt, Cincinnati should jump the Broncos at some point if they manage to run the table.
Which brings us to the issue. The loser of the SEC Championship Game- AKA the Real National Championship Game- isn't going to get a re-match in the BCS version. Texas will get the berth opposite the SEC Champion if they win out. But if they don't, and Cincinnati does, the Bearcats should play Florida or Alabama for all the marbles- and they probably will, if it comes to that.
That development isn't going to make people happy, at least those outside Porkopolis. The Bearcats would lug a skeptical outside perception into the title game, some loud whispers that even with their perfect record they don't deserve to be ranked ahead of one-loss titans like Texas and USC. And that very well may be the case. I wouldn't put money on Cincinnati to win and cover in a neutral-site match-up with USC, Texas, or even the three top teams in the ACC for that matter.
But if they're undefeated, you almost have to let them in. Fifteen years ago Cincinnati wouldn't sniff the National Championship- see 1993, when one-loss Florida State got a title shot against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl instead of undefeated Big East Champion West Virginia. But the BCS system has painted us into a corner. If you're a BCS conference you have certain privileges- one of which is the notion that an undefeated season in one BCS conference is just as worthy as an undefeated season in another BCS conference. If Cincinnati goes 12-0 and gets snubbed for a one-loss team, be it Texas or USC, the entire reason for the Big East's participation in the BCS is undermined, and by extension so is the system itself.
And while that might not be a bad thing in the long run, in the short run the system should work as intended.
Don't Forget These Guys: Of course, there is one undefeated BCS team that could make the end-of-season scenario even more interesting: Iowa. The Hawkeyes are 7-0 and own solid victories over Arizona, Michigan, and on the road against Penn State and Wisconsin. They're ranked sixth in the BCS, behind both Boise and Cincinnati, but that will change if they keep winning. Road conquests of Michigan State and Ohio State should be enough to push Iowa past the Broncos and Bearcats and into a position to compete for the National Championship. I don't see any way an undefeated Cincinnati gets snubbed for a one-loss team from another conference; nor do I see any way the Bearcats get the nod over an Iowa team that gets through the Big Ten unbeaten.
Probably a moot point anyway, because I don't see Iowa winning in Columbus. They never do.
Winners of the Week
Florida: It got awfully scary in the fourth quarter, but in the end the Gators passed the kind of home test they failed against Ole Miss last season. Firmly ensconced at the top of the BCS rankings, Urban Meyer's team now readies for a soft-three game stretch consisting of Mississippi State, underachieving Georgia and Vanderbilt, which can't score on any defense, let alone Florida's.
Texas: The Longhorns used their defense to gun down Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout, knocking Sam Bradford out of the game, forcing five turnovers and holding the Sooners to minus-sixteen rushing yards in the 16-13 win. This was Texas's toughest test in the regular season; take care of business in Columbia and Stillwater the next two weekends and a relatively friendly final stretch awaits.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats withstood the loss of Tony Pike and came away with a 34-17 road win over South Florida. Backup Zach Collaros got the job done in Pike's absence with 132 rushing yards, including the a backbreaking 75-yard jaunt, and he's good enough to defeat Louisville, Syracuse and Connecticut as the fill-in. But Cincinnati needs Pike to be healthy if they're going to knock off West Virginia and Pitt and complete their improbable run to the National Championship.
Georgia Tech: Thanks to their 28-23 upset of Virginia Tech the Artists Formerly Known as the Engineers are not only in the thick of the ACC Atlantic race- they're also in the thick of the race for a BCS at-large berth.
Idaho: Right now there's a clear choice for Coach of the Year, as far as I'm concerned. It's Rob Akey, whose Idaho Vandals just moved to 6-1 with a workmanlike 35-23 conquest of Hawaii at their bantam-sized playroom, the Kibbie Dome, smallest venue in all of the FBS. Idaho hasn't enjoyed a winning season since 1999 and was 3-21 in Akey's first two years at the helm, but they're bowl-eligible, and the idea of a WAC title showdown with cross-state rival Boise are more than just a pipe dream. Rob Akey has done more with less than anyone else in college football this year, and that's the mark of great coaching.
Losers of the Week
Oklahoma: The best 3-3 team in the country suffered its third loss by a total of five points and lost Sam Bradford with an aggravation of the same shoulder injury he incurred in the opener against BYU. It's just one of those years for the Sooners, a very good team that has been on the wrong end of some very bad breaks. At this point everything tangible- a Big 12 title and a BCS spot- are probably dust in the wind for the Okies. It might not be such a bad idea to shelve Mr. Bradford and go get that Alamo Bowl bid on the arm of Landry Jones.
Notre Dame: The Irish had their best chance in years to knock off USC and couldn't do it. Their shaky defense allowed a true freshman quarterback to throw for 380 yards, while their heralded offense didn't get its wakeup call until the second half and couldn't score the tying touchdown at the end on two plays from the USC four-yard line. Like Ohio State before them, Notre Dame had an opportunity for a program-defining win over the Trojans and failed to seize it. Don't expect next year's edition of the rivalry in Los Angeles to be this close.
Nebraska: It was a bad week for Big 12 North contenders; none more so than for Nebraska. Still flying high from their win over Missouri the week before, the Cornhuskers were manhandled by Texas Tech in a lopsided 31-10 loss in Lincoln. It was Nebraska's third straight loss to the Red Raiders, a team that the Cornhuskers treated as scrimmage fodder during the good old days under Tom Osborne.
Kansas: Did I mention that it was a bad week for Big 12 North contenders? Kansas suffered its first loss of the season in embarrassing fashion, falling behind 24-3 to hapless Colorado and, after surging ahead 30-27 in the fourth quarter, failing to hang on to the lead. The Buffaloes have actually played pretty good run defense lately, but being held to minus-eight yards on the ground is embarrassing for the Jayhawks. All of a sudden the leader in the Big 12 North is Kansas State, something no one could have foreseen even at this relatively early point in the season.
Texas A&M: Then again, aside from Texas it wasn't such a great week for the Big 12 South, either- particularly A&M. The Aggies committed five turnovers in losing their third straight, a 62-14 walloping at the hands of a Kansas State team that had given up 66 points to Texas Tech the week before. Now 3-3 after three wins to open the season, A&M faces a stretch of four road games out of five, including trips to Lubbock and Norman.
And Lastly: Thoughts and prayers go to the family and friends of Connecticut cornerback Jasper Howard, who was murdered on campus a few hours after the Huskies defeated Louisville on Saturday. Howard was twenty years old and, an expected father and the first young man in his family to attend college. Describing this crime and loss as "senseless" is putting it mildly.
Next Week: The Buckeyes come back home to face Minnesota, Saturday at noon. Dan Wismar and I will preview the Golden Gophers and conduct an inquest on the Purdue game on our next Buckeye Friday podcast.