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Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor feels grounded

The Buckeyes play to quarterback's strengths and keeps him running, but he thinks it also will take passing to beat Oregon.

December 29, 2009|By Kevin Baxter
  • Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor unloads a deep pass against Michigan in the final regular-season game.
Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor unloads a deep pass against Michigan… (Paul Sancya / Associated…)

At a time when spread formations, rubber-armed passers and gutsy play-calling have college football teams putting up numbers that look more like basketball scores, Ohio State has gone as conservative as talk radio.

And Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor doesn't like it one bit.

"To tell you the truth," Pryor says, "I feel like I'm a good drop-back passer."

Perhaps. But it's a skill that's gone unappreciated the last two months, with Pryor averaging only 17 attempts and less than 100 yards passing in Ohio State's final three games.

But running? Well, that's another story. Pryor led the eighth-ranked Buckeyes in that category, gaining five yards a pop and equaling the team high with seven touchdowns.

So Coach Jim Tressel largely grounded Pryor in mid-October, taking the land route to five straight victories, a fifth consecutive Big Ten title and a berth in Friday's Rose Bowl game against No. 7 Oregon.

And although Pryor is pleased with the results, he sounds frustrated with the methods.

"I'm not Jim Tressel. I can't pick the plays," Pryor says. "Whatever they call, I try to do my best and try to make it happen. I'm going to do whatever the team needs to win."

That's likely to mean a lot of running on New Year's Day then, and for that Pryor admits he has only himself to blame. Because after watching his quarterback throw two passes for interceptions and fumble three times in an Oct. 17 loss at Purdue, Tressel quickly moved to simplify his offense.

Pryor, after all, is only a sophomore. And though he has already started 21 games under center at Ohio State, there have been growing pains. The 20-year-old has occasionally been guilty of using his prodigious talents to try to force things -- and the result was eight interceptions and seven fumbles in the Buckeyes' 5-2 start this season.

Since the Purdue game, however, Pryor has turned the ball over twice, both on interceptions. And the offense, which ran for only 66 yards against the Boilermakers, has averaged 258 yards on the ground since -- the first time in 17 years Ohio State has run for at least 200 yards in five consecutive games.

Several factors contributed to that -- the Buckeyes' offensive line got healthy, for example. But none played as big a role as Pryor's ability to hang on to the ball, even while playing with a partially torn ligament in his left knee, which reportedly happened Oct. 31 against New Mexico State.

"The most important thing that we did -- that he did -- going down the stretch is take care of the football," Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman says. "That's a huge, huge, huge deal for us. Certainly the No. 1 thing we preach as a football team."

But while "three yards and a cloud of dust" may have worked well for Woody Hayes at Ohio State more than three decades ago, Bollman knows the modern-day Buckeyes are going to have to run and pass to stay successful.

"I'm still a believer that in the long haul, if you don't have the threat of doing both, you're probably going to get handcuffed sometime," he says.

Which is where Pryor comes in.

A two-sport star at Jeannette High in southwestern Pennsylvania, Pryor was considered the top prep player in the nation as a senior in 2008 -- which made him something of an option quarterback before he had even picked a college.

One of the options he was considering was Friday's opponent, Oregon, which had a unique selling point since the school was the birthplace of sportswear giant Nike, which retains a major presence in the athletic department.

"It was Nike. All that Nike stuff," Pryor, dressed in a gray Nike sweatsuit and black Nike Jordans, says with a smile. "I would probably have gotten in trouble there, taking all that Nike stuff."

In reality, however, Ohio State made the best presentation and Pryor was smitten from the start.

"The biggest thing was playing for the best program. I just thought Ohio State was the best program," says Pryor, who locks eyes with questioners he often addresses as "sir."

"Once I got to Ohio State, I just felt that was the best place for me. Just from talking to Coach Tressel, I thought he was a real person."

The next conversation he has with Tressel may be about the passing game. Although Pryor says he's OK with "however we put points on the board," he believes it will take a balanced offense to beat Oregon. And he says he can handle the added complexity after learning from his struggles.

"You have to be very smart," says Pryor, who is just that, having earned academic all-Big Ten honors this season. "You have to be smart to also envision what's behind you, where you have to go with the ball, where you have to run with the ball if you want to take off."

What's more, with his speed and ability to improvise, Pryor is arguably a more dangerous running threat when he drops back then when he steps forward.

"You're not sure what's going to happen," says tailback Brandon Saine. "When Terrelle starts moving around back there, it's really good for us because you know he's not going to just sit back there and take the sack. He just might break loose and gain 30 yards for us.

"It's fun to watch, seeing him stiff-arming 250-pound linebackers."

Or now, Pryor hopes, throwing the ball over them.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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