Ohio State, which wanted so desperately to regain a measure of national respect after a string of big-stage beatdowns, came tantalizing close to achieving that goal.
In the end, however, the No. 8 Buckeyes couldn’t come up with a final defensive stop and dropped an agonizing 18-15 decision to third-ranked USC in front of an Ohio Stadium record crowd of 106,033.
Freshman quarterback Matt Barkley directed his Trojans on a 14-play, 86-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter, topped by a 2-yard run by tailback Stefon Johnson at the 1:05 mark. That overturned Ohio State’s precarious 15-10 lead, and when backup tailback Joe McKnight scored the two-point conversion on a pass from Barkley, the Buckeyes were faced with trying to make a miraculous comeback.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor was flagged with a questionable intentional grounding call on the first play of the ensuing drive, pushing the Buckeyes back to their own 18 with a second-and-28. Pryor scrambled 14 yards on the next play and completed a short 4-yard pass to receiver DeVier Posey. But that only made it fourth-and-10, and when Pryor couldn’t hook up with freshman Duron Carter on a deep ball into USC’s prevent coverage, the game was over.
“That was a tough ball game,” OSU head coach Jim Tressel said. “Our kids prepared extremely hard and played extremely hard. We just didn’t come up with enough of the things you need to do to win a ball game like that.”
The Buckeyes were the ones making the comeback early. Pryor threw an ill-advised pass on the third play on the game’s opening possession and USC linebacker Brian Galippo made him pay. Galippo picked off Pryor and returned the interception 50 yards to the OSU 3. The Ohio State defense stuffed the Trojans on the first three plays but Johnson finally bolted into the end zone from 1 yard out on fourth-and-goal.
USC kicker Jordan Congdon added the PAT to give his team a 7-0 lead at the 11:37 mark of the first quarter.
Ohio State immediately responded with a quick-strike 72-yard drive. Pryor found receiver Dan Sanzenbacher on a simple slant pattern to the middle of the field and the two connected for a 56-yard gain to the USC 3. Two plays later, tailback Dan “Boom” Herron sliced into the end zone for a 2-yard run. OSU kicker Aaron Pettrey added the extra point to knot the score at 7 with 8:06 remaining.
The teams traded field goals in the second quarter. Pettrey booted an 18-yard chip shot on the first play of the period and Congdon added a 21-yarder on the final play of the half. That score was particularly tough on the Buckeyes after they punted the ball away with only 48 seconds left until the break. Barkley moved his team 77 yards in that short amount of time to give his team a chance to tie the score at halftime.
Ohio State seized the second-half advantage with some help from the Trojans. USC punter Billy O’Malley allowed a high snap to go through his hands and out of the end zone for a safety. That gave the Buckeyes a 12-10 lead at the 9:03 mark of the third period, and they got a 22-yard field goal from Pettrey on the ensuing possession for a 15-10 advantage at the 4:43 mark.
That was the way it stayed for much of the rest of the game as OSU kept USC pinned deep in its own territory before Barkley engineered the game-winning drive.
The Buckeyes had their second-half chances. In the fourth quarter, they moved to the USC 32 but Pryor was sacked on third-and-7, pushing Ohio State back to the 36. That would have meant a field-goal attempt of about 53 yards from Pettrey – who has five career field goals of 50 yards or more – but Tressel elected to stay with the field-position game. Punter Jon Thoma pinned the Trojans back at their own 14, but they were up to the task.
USC immediately got pushed back to its 5 when Barkley was sacked for a 4-yard loss on first down and the Trojans were whistled for a false start. But McKnight ran over right tackle for 11 yards on second down and then hooked up with Barkley for 21 yards on third-and-8 to keep the drive going. It was one of two third downs USC converted during that final drive and it also made good on a fourth-and-1 at the OSU 28.
Barkley finished the night with 15 completions in 31 attempts for 195 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. He was also sacked twice. His top receiver was flanker Damian Williams, who had five catches for 51 yards.
McKnight wound up the game’s leading rusher for 60 yards on 16 carries. Johnson added 50 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries.
For Ohio State, Pryor completed 11 for 25 passes for 177 yards, no touchdowns and one pick. He was sacked once. Sophomore DeVier Posey set career highs with six catches for 81 yards. Sanzenbacher had two receptions for 58 yards while tailback Brandon Saine had two catches for 33 yards.
Herron was OSU’s leader rusher with 44 yards on 18 carries. Pryor carried 10 times for 36 yards.
Ohio State started quickly and held a lopsided 148-5 edge in total yards after one quarter. By the time the game was over, however, the Trojans had outgained the Buckeyes, 313-265.
“They came up with plays when they needed to, so they go home with the spoils,” Tressel said. “Our kids were in a dogfight and flailed right along with them to the end. What we need to do is stick together and get better. That’s what life is about and that’s what our kids will do.”
Ohio State (1-1) will be back in action next Saturday when the Buckeyes travel to Cleveland Browns Stadium to take on in-state rival Toledo. The Rockets will be coming off a big 54-38 victory over Colorado on Friday night. Kickoff next Saturday will be shortly after 12 noon Eastern.