Seeking redemption in Camp Randall

By Bill Livingston
Updated: October 13, 2010

COLUMBUS — Wisconsin at night, with the upper deck of Camp Randall Stadium in Madison rocking at the start of the fourth quarter as the students jump in unison, seems like the epicenter of a quake.

Wisconsin at night, with the noise engulfing the opposition and the inmates of the Madtown madhouse trying to will the Badgers to victory. Wisconsin at night is a very tough place to play.

Yet that game made Terrelle Pryor’s reputation as a raw freshman two years ago. It is that game now that can validate his top-ranked team’s laurels and his own serious Heisman Trophy candidacy.

For most of the game two years ago, Wisconsin owned the night.

Pryor, a 19-year-old freshman, trotted out for the last-chance drive when the Buckeyes were down four points and nothing less than a touchdown would do.

He led a long drive in the last minutes, lasering into the end zone on an option keeper when the baffled Badgers had only one defender to take both Pryor and the pitch man, tailback Beanie Wells. The Buckeyes slipped away like thieves in the night with a 20-17 victory.

It has not been a linear progression from the Wisconsin game then to the upcoming Wisconsin game Saturday night.

Pryor’s fumble at the line when he almost broke a scoring run on a quarterback sneak at midfield cost the Buckeyes a heavily hyped home game at night against Penn State in 2008.

Pryor’s biggest play in a narrow loss to Texas in the Fiesta Bowl after that season was a touchdown catch when he was playing wide receiver.

His potential at 6-foot-6, 233 pounds with a 4.33 time in the 40 was so intriguing that teammates stood on the bench for a better view when he was suddenly thrust into the lineup against a premier team in a lopsided loss at Southern California in 2008.

But his mechanics were sloppy, and there is a limit to how much raw, undisciplined talent can overcome against top-shelf opponents.

It took a four-turnover debacle at Purdue last season to humble Pryor enough to stop denying his flaws. It took his gutty work then on a knee that would require off-season surgery to earn his teammates’ respect for what he had done and not for what he might do.

Since his Most Valuable Player performance in the Rose Bowl against Oregon, Pryor has had no regressions. Yet he has still never graded a winning game performance, because Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, an old quarterback himself, is such a stern taskmaster.

“One of the hardest things to grade perfect on is when you’re in a shotgun and still get the [pass] drop because you think, I’m already back here, let me read this thing. Well, the problem is the timing with the receiver is off, because you are ready to break and he’s not ready to break, your feet are set, his aren’t. So discipline in sets is huge,” said Tressel.

Every smidgen of improvement is precious because there is no Beanie Wells, who ran for 168 yards against the Badgers in 2008, at Ohio State now. Pryor, the team’s most dangerous runner, doesn’t pass the ammunition so much as he tucks it under his arm and takes off.

“We feel going into every game that we need the two-way threat because sometimes the best decision that a quarterback makes is to tuck it and take off and it just so happens when he tucks it and takes off, it could be 60,” said Tressel.

Because of the quadriceps strain Pryor suffered in the Illinois game, he was reluctant even to consider running last week against Indiana. But he seems to thrive on hostility and adversity.

He willed himself into the end zone as a sophomore on a 7-yard run on the bad knee at night at Penn State, which the Jeannette, Pa., native had spurned for OSU.

Later, he ran as fast as his knee let him to celebrate a 62-yard touchdown pass to DeVier Posey in front of the section where Penn State students in their “White Out” shirts were sitting. The kids looked like a conclave of ghosts haunted by the recruiters’ past failure.

It is part of the lore at Ohio State that Wells challenged Pryor to take a step into manhood as the last drive began at Wisconsin in 2008, shouting at him, “It’s a man’s world out there.”

Now, Pryor is a junior, and he is the quarterback of the No. 1 team in the land. He wears No. 2, but there is no doubt now Pryor is The Man.