Congratulations, Ohio State. Terrelle Pryor is now the most interesting player in college football.
Pryor hung 338 yards on the Oregon Ducks' defense by himself—but this is not a time for numbers. What Pryor accomplished in this Rose Bowl comes down to much more than yardage, third-down conversion percentages, or the number of broken tackles.
Pryor prepared for this bowl, intensely. How much he prepared was evident by the Ohio State playcalling. The Buckeyes were calling—gasp!—plays from shotgun. They were passing—double gasp!—on first down.
They were taking risks, putting the game on their quarterback's shoulders.
And what's more, Pryor was succeeding. He was making all of those throws. His corner route for the killer score in the fourth quarter was magic. His slant passes in tight man coverage were right where they needed to be, low and away, where only his receivers could get them.
Even his improvisational shots downfield weren't ill-advised. The plays were possible, you could see why he made them, and on some, like Jake Ballard's crucial 24-yard grab to convert 3rd-and-13, they were right on the money.
Pryor was reinventing the game, and it was improving the players around him. That's a little thing we in this business like to call "exerting your will on the course of the game."
And in the end, that's what will make this Rose Bowl the most critical game of the season. What it does for the Big Ten and the prestige of the bowl is minimal compared to what it will do, what it already has done, for Pryor and his legacy.
It will almost certainly land Ohio State in the top three of everyone's preseason list for next year. More importantly, it showed the coaches will put games on Pryor's shoulders for now and the foreseeable future, and that he alone can win games for his team (something his doppelganger, Mr. Vince Young, was also famous for doing).
Last year, the Bucks' victory over Wisconsin flashed a glimmer of this possibility, but Pryor's will seemed tempered by time, artful neuroses, and more importantly, by the crumbling at home against Penn State, and the general blandness of it all.
His performance against Texas in the Fiesta Bowl was sporadic, and his fade catch for a touchdown probably did more harm than good. It contributed to our questions as to whether his true, divine calling was to be a quarterback.
This year was supposed to change that. Pryor was selected preseason Offensive Player of the Year, and the USC game was penciled in as his tentative breakout party.
That, as they say, didn't so much happen. Rather, Pryor seemed to hesitate, and his performance was noticeably one dimensional.
We all chalked it up to the playcalling, Tressel's ultra-conservative approach, and in response, we brought about a host of invectives against him as offensive coordinator. He was wasting Pryor's talents, we all said. The kid would have been better suited elsewhere. (One of my favorite writers went so far as to pronounce Tresselball dead).
Even the OSU fanbase seemed restless, and it hasn't been a particularly mutinous bunch up until now.
The Bucks bounced back—tentatively—but lost it all again against Purdue. Pryor's horrifying performance—turnovers, bad throws, and a host of mental errors—was believed by many to be another nail in his legacy's coffin. Many felt he and his coaches had set back the program, significantly, and the Buckeyes' dominance was in the rear view.
Penn State was encouraging, but the Nittany Lions were credited more with incompetence than the Buckeyes were with winning the game. Against Michigan and Iowa, Pryor continued to be treated like a liability.
The rumors of his and his coaches' demise continued to be exaggerated all the way up until the Rose Bowl, which we all thought would the mortal stroke to the Pryor experiment.
But maybe all that talk helped.
Maybe doubt like ours, as loud and as profound as it was, was what drove Pryor to prepare, to maximize, to rise to the occasion more than merely possessing the talents that he has ever could. Different things motivate athletes. Perhaps our disbelief was what forced his hand.
In this business, you have to hope you're being heard. You have to believe that, when you call for someone's head, they hear you. Tressel's baroque comments about the fanbase's doubts—implying that some of them "must lead pretty sad lives"—seemed to indicate business would continue as usual.
But not so fast, my friend. Tressel's corps adapted. He heard what we were saying, how we felt about what he was doing with Pryor, and instead of forging stubbornly ahead, or kowtowing and completely retooling the attack to feature more innovative runs, Tressel designed a gameplan that would take advantage of Pryor's arm, his eyes, and his intelligence against a defense that publicly made it evident it wasn't expecting it.
Those passes on first down, those shotgun formations, those risks were all counters set up by the bland plan the Buckeyes had been running all year. Oregon's coaches got the predictable ISO runs for three yards that they were expecting. But by the time they actually got them, the game was over.
Tressel's is a calculating mind. His approach, which appears different to us now, is age-old. He sets up defenses in games as good as the best of them, or he wouldn't be where he is today.
Likewise, there's nothing dumb or misguided about Tresselball. Controlling clock, bleeding a team slowly, are as deadly, or even more deadly, than "being explosive," or whatever else the kids are calling it these days. Only the means differ.
Now, keep in mind, Oregon was the evil for me. I'm rooting for the Big Ten in this dance, and if that means my view is altered to be favorable, blame my sympathies. I wonder if Oregon fans will agree with my assessment, or if they will blame their offense, their turnovers, etc.
In the end, I believe, Oregon will be a side point in the larger narrative. It was playing one of the greatest players the sport will ever see in his coming out party. Anyone and everyone would have lost. Therefore, the Duck's loss will never be mocked. It was, like Michigan's to Vince Young in 2005, meant to be.
This is not a day of disappointment for anybody, except for all our programs that missed out on the kid.
This is a day of congratulation. Like Young was after his first Rose Bowl victory, Terrelle Pryor is now the most interesting player in college football, if he wasn't already.
This time, however, the similarities to Young actually pertain. Pryor has taken a game, a Rose Bowl, an entire legacy on his back, and he's succeeded. Though the resemblance to Young's performance in terms of pure playcalling is so-so, the effect is still the same.
Pryor wants to be larger than life. Today, he and his coaches showed they're prepared, and preparing, for that to start happening.
In Pryor's hands, anything is possible.
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