JB’s Journal: USC 18 – Ohio State 15


The general rule for games like last Saturday’s “Collision in Columbus” tends to go something like this: the greater the hype about how good the game will be, the larger the margin of victory for USC will be. By now anyone who is even remotely connected to the sporting world knows what happened last night in the Buckeye State, but the storylines of that game, and the emotional highs and lows for both sides, deserve to be told again and again. So if it wasn’t enough that Sports Center seemed to devote 30 minutes of postgame coverage for every second actually played, here’s my diary account of what may be the game of the year…

4:50 We’re settling down around the plasma screen. This is college football viewing at its finest: a bunch of fanatics with plenty of tacquitos, chips, and the holy elixir: Diet Mountain Dew (it apparently has more caffeine than regular).

Lee Corso’s jowls are almost as alive as the 106,000 fans. Pete Carroll is on the pre-game interview and he sums up the one true key for USC: “We don’t need to play the game of our lives or do things outside ourselves. I just tell them to do what they’re capable of and if we do that, we’re pretty tough to beat.” It seems like it’s the Trojans’ game to lose, especially after OSU’s close call with Navy. The only questions that remain seem to center on freshman quarterback Matt Barkley’s ability to handle the electric Ohio Stadium atmosphere.

As the ESPN team breaks it down, the raucous crowd in the horseshoe periodically drowns them out. The band takes the field and Frank Cosenza on sousaphone dots the I of the scripted “Ohio” that the band spells out. It’s truly one of the most unique and special sights in all of college football. For a moment, the hype, the 24/7 coverage, the kids leaving after three years, the corporate sponsorships, the computer-selected champions, and all the other stuff your grandpa complains about fall out of the picture, leaving only the billions reasons why we wait for months for a bunch of college kids to start playing ball.

5:01 YOU ARE LOOKING LIVE! Brent Mussberger’s classic line and the sight of the players saying their pre-game prayers in the endzone after taking the field keeps the feeling going. The teams and fans sing the national anthem and the captains shake hands. USC wins the toss and differs. Carroll (in his second interview) once again hits on an important point: “every game we play is a championship game.” It’s true. So much is made of how badly the Buckeyes (and the Big 10) need to win this game, but the truth is that “Uncle Pete” doesn’t get to consider 2009 a true success unless it ends with an undefeated season and national championship. The Oregon State game last year proved that the Trojans are putting the entire year on the line for every game they play, big or small. The special teams take the field and the most hotly anticipated intersectional game of the season gets underway.

5:10 Barkley and Pryor are both looking nervous on their respective sidelines. As the kickoff is returned and the already loud Horseshoe successfully kicks it up to a round 35 on a volume scale of 1-10.

Pryor’s first pass is a beastly throw for 20 yards on the money to WR Posey. The dangers of SC expending more resources in the box to contain Pryor’s scrambling are on brutal display. The whispers of Vince Young vs. USC: round 2, are growing louder with the crowd. Pryor certainly has the physical skills to take over a game, especially if it’s true that he has been successful in becoming a better pocket passer.

The Trojans… um… answer. A sack on second down is followed by a spectacular interception by MLB Chris Galippo who breaks two tackles to set up Matt Barkley on the two. I guess we should forget the 2005 Rose Bowl and begin to reminisce 12 months back, when Galippo’s predecessor, Rey Maualuga tore off a 55 yard pick for six against the Buckeyes. A run by tailback Stafon Johnson on first and goal and a reviewed pass to Trojan WR Damien Williams aren’t enough to put up 6 for Southern Cal.

5:17 The first test for the 12th man in the shoe ends in a victory for Ohio State as a third and goal with deafening background music results in a hold for the Buckeyes after a run with Johnson again fails it looks like the crowd has already had an impact…

…Wait, hold on now,  “Big Balls” Pete Carroll decides to go for it… on fourth down… away… in the Horseshoe… with a run up the middle… after two of the same plays failed earlier… and… of course… scored. Johnson’s two-yard rumble sends us to the first commercials with the score at 7-0 in favor of Southern Cal.

5:25 Pryor has hit another big throw. This one to Dane Sanzenbacher for 56 yards to the USC three. Dan Herron punches it in shortly thereafter to knot it up. So far, it’s hard to tell who has really shown up. Twice Pryor has had receivers slip through SS Taylor May’s and the USC secondary’s coverage for big gains, but he has also tried to force one that got picked. Barkley and the Trojan offense have only had to drive three yards to score. We have yet to really see a battle between an offense and a defense.

5:35 Barkley goes 0-2 in his first real drive and the Trojans punt. Two quick and off-target passes that won’t necessarily represent his performance tonight. Ohio State’s coverage looks good, even as they load up the box on Barkley. I still can’t decide one way or another on whether the Carroll-endorsed prodigy, or the nervous, inaccurate, and intimidated 19 year old suited up in the cardinal #7 jersey tonight. We will definitely see before the night’s over.

5:43 the Trojans answer back and force a three and out. After a few crazy plays, we’re settling down. Could it be that we have a defensive struggle on our hands?

5:52 Posey smokes the USC zone coverage once again for a 34-yard reception to set up a first and goal from the SC 3. This comes right after Trojan lynchpin SS Taylor Mays heads to the sidelines with a knee injury. Things are not looking good for the Boys From Troy as the first quarter ends 7-7 with the Buckeyes threatening. There is some good news for USC, they held Pryor and Herron out of the end zone for three plays and “Slightly more conservative balls” Jim Tressel opts for three points 10-7 OSU as we begin the second.

6:09 After a promising throw to Ausberry, Barkley commits what could be taken as his first bad “freshman” mistake by trying to throw without setting his feet on a naked boot. The result was an interception. Fortunately for Barkley, a three and out ended the ensuing Buckeye drive before it started. Upon further discussion with the fanatics in the room with me, I suppose it isn’t fair to put all the blame on the kid when USC playcaller Jeremy Bates sent him on a naked boot, rolling left so that his throw would be across his body in virtually any situation. But Barkley didn’t set his feat and he failed to let the play develop and have his receiver slip the linebacker zone coverage. Patience seems to be on the list of skills the young gun from Orange County needs to develop.

6:29, Barkley is heating up, charging the offense to 100 yards in the last 19 plays after going for 5 in the first 10 of the game. A beautiful pass to Damien Williams in the endzone is thwarted by about the inch of sideline that gets under Williams’ cleat. Too bad for Barkley: he and Bates were lightly criticized for failing to throw the ball downfield against San Jose State, now he’ll take heat for Williams’ bad footing. The bottom line for the drive is that we may be seeing the leash coming off of Matt Barkley.

6:42 USC stifles Pryor yet again as a questionable passing call by Tressel on third and four gives USC a minute to tie this thriller up. Barkley comes alive; completing three straight first down passes with a scramble for 6 yards just to keep it interesting. A pass to Ausberry is caught, but Ohio St. makes a heads up play to force him out of bounds. USC kicker Jordan Kongden hits a 20 yarder to make it 10-10 at the half. Momentum seems to be on USC’s side. Pryor started the game nailing wide open receivers for huge gains, but USC defensive coordinator Rocky Seto seems to have figured it out, totally stifling the sophomore dynamo for the last few drives. Meanwhile, the Trojans just received a strong bit of evidence in the last drive that Carroll was right to sit a 3rd year experienced backup and a redshirt junior who was 8-0 at Arkansas as a freshman in favor of the blonde boy wonder who forced his offense into the endzone just now.

7:03 Kickoff for the second half. Heirbie makes the good point: OSU is hanging tough in the trenches on both ends. It has really been the only consistent positive for the Bucks. Barkley’s opening drive for the 3rd quarter is stalled by a holding penalty on first down. It goes to Pryor on the Trojan 49. This recent streak of solid passes by Barkley has been undercut by some truly unlucky breaks. As Pryor once again fails to move the chains, one can’t help but think that the freshman is a little sharper right now than the Heisman-hyped sophomore.

7:16 Gibson and the rest of the OSU defensive line are playing a solid game. After thwarting a McKnight run, Gibson swats Barkley’s third down pass. Then the unthinkable: a high snap to Trojan punter Billy O’Malley sails out of the back of the endzone. OSU will receive the free kick, now leading 12-10 from USC’s own goal. The USC fans around me are in total shock. The LA Times gets a kick out of periodically exposing the belief that USC doesn’t commit to special teams. One can’t help but agree as Pryor literally jumps for joy as he is handed the lead by a pure mental error by the Trojan long snapper.

7:28 Pryor is back to his old self, completing two key 10+ yard passes to get inside the Trojan 10. But Southern Cal stiffens and a very questionable pitch from Pryor (that should have been reviewed) pushes them back. A field goal puts the Bucks up 5 and leaves the USC defense with mixed marks at best for the drive.

7:40 Second instance of Pete Carroll displaying his big… guts. A fourth and one from the fifty keeps the Trojan drive alive… only to have it stop with pressure getting to Barkley to force a check-down to Ausberry on the flat for the ensuring 3rd & 8. The wideout lunges but falls four yards short, bringing on the punt team.

7:55 Pryor rips off a big run on third down in the next drive, but the Trojans lock down again to force a punt. In what is becoming a theme, extremely poor blocking forces Williams to take a fair catch inside his own 20. A bad run by McKnight brings up 2nd, where solid coverage prompts an overthrow from Barkley. On third, a four-man Ohio St. rush somehow manages to get major pressure on the freshman, who throws it away. In what is becoming another theme, Ohio St. gets insanely good field position yet again through poor kicks and poorer coverage. If USC loses this game, it’s going to be at least partly due to spectacularly lackluster special teams play.

8:07 USC is nearing a time of reckoning. A strong Ohio St. drive is stalled again with an Everson Griffin sack on Pryor. Yet another Williams fair catch means that Matt Barkley is taking the field from his own 15 with 7:00 minutes to go, a rocking and extremely hostile crowd, and a five-point deficit to overcome. Either a legend will be born, or Aaron Corp will be swearing his fibula is much better come practice on Monday.

8:12 Barkley is sacked on the first play of the drive and USC is facing 2nd and 19 from inside their own 5. The Horseshoe is deafening, and louder than Heirbstreit has ever heard it. Everyone is standing. I will join them. The nerves are physically debilitating. This is it.

8:15 JOE MCNIGHT!!!!!!! The USC tailback has put the Trojans back in this game. The junior rips off a huge 11 yard run and turns a short Barkley pass into a 21 yard display of cuts, jukes, and pure speed to breathe life back into Southern Cal and give his team a first down on their own 37. If this works out, he better not hear another word about his earlier penchant for sharing the ball with the other team.

8:17 I can’t write. This is too insane.

8:22 Matt Barkley is putting his season on the line. Following the McKnight reception (which seems like ages ago), he finds TE Anthony McCoy for a magnificent 26 yarder. One incompletion and a useless one yard lurch by McKnight and the kid is called upon to deliver on 3rd and long yet again.

… and he delivers yet again, finding Williams for 8 crucial yards and running a sneak for the first down and suddenly this game is changed. The Trojans have that familiar look to them, it feels like the Ohio St. defense that has blunted the Trojan weapons all game is teetering under the resolve from the cardinal and gold that they will not be denied 6 points. Just as Barkley had to step up, now its time for Tressel’s guys to dig in and prove that there’s a reason why they’ve led this whole game.


Joe McKnight wasn’t finished with this drive! He runs for 21 yards in 3 attempts (with a Barkley pass to Williams in the endzone nearly scoring before being broken up by some very clutch Buckeye D) to set up Barkley for yet another scramble on third down to bring up a first and goal from the 2.

Stafon Johnson closes out one of the biggest drives in recent USC history with an untouched two-yard stretch run. USC will not be denied. Barkley has shown a flash of something USC hasn’t had at QB since Leinart: a champion’s desire. Sure, Booty was solid in the system, and Sanchez was beyond polished and played with some serious emotion; but it takes a very special player to do what Matt Barkley just did. This kid is something special.

There’s a voice in the back of my head as I feverishly write this that is telling me not to forget about Terrelle Pryor. This was supposed to be his night. He has just under a minute, with no time outs, to change everything. And if there’s one guy who is supposed to be able to do this that isn’t named Tim, Colt, or Sam, it’s Pryor.

8:45 A pulse pounding four plays and it’s over. Pryor is sacked on the first play and is given an intentional grounding penalty right after. It’s second and huge (just like Barkley’s miracle drive’s beginning) when Pryor does the last thing USC wanted him to do: run. He rips a killer 14 yarder to keep Buckeye nation’s national title hopes alive, but barely. He then completes a short 4-yard pass to Posey (who has been rock-solid all game) to bring up fourth. A USC timeout that lasts about 3 eternities leads to the last hope for Pryor and OSU: an incompletion. It’s a turnover and Barkley kneels to secure an amazing win for USC. The room is crazy. I had to retype the last two sentences about 7 times because of all the high fives and hysterics. This is a big one for Southern Cal

I’ll leave the postgame up to the guys who claim to be experts. I know football well enough to say that the USC-OSU masterpiece that we all witnessed was too good of a game to mess it up with over-analysis.

Bottom line:

Ohio State didn’t get embarrassed, playing very good run defense and showing sparks on the offensive side of the ball. It is clear though that Pryor is still not the polished passer and offensive leader that the Bucks need to make this a great year, and they still couldn’t get it done in a big game, even with the huge advantages of the Horseshoe and the drive to avenge last year’s beatdown.

USC has got something special in Matt Barkley. He’s the real deal in my opinion and it’s only a matter of polishing him up and getting him playing time before he becomes a really scary weapon for this offense. Also, the 4th quarter play from McKnight will permit SC to get out of Columbus with their running game’s reputation more or less intact, but there were some big problems in the blocking for the now 2-0 Trojans. It was probably the special teams more than anything which should scare the hell out of USC fans. A just-short 44 yard field goal in the first half (that somehow escaped my diary… I was probably yelling about it too much, my bad.) and consistently abysmal performances on both punt returns and coverage on OSU’s returns gave Ohio State huge advantages in field position for the entire game. It’s a huge credit to the USC defense that the game was still close enough for Barkley and McKnight to win it with just one touchdown.

All in all: a wonderful game, a spectacular ending, a wild week for football, and even greater anticipation for next Saturday, when it happens all over again.