It wasn’t the death march to the gallows – not the slow, measured trek to a public execution -- that so many had predicted. In the end, the biggest game Saturday just concluded in another loss for Ohio State to Top 5 team.
All things had been pointing to a demoralizing blowout for the No. 8 Buckeyes, regardless of the fact they were playing No. 3 Southern Cal inside The Horseshoe and the Trojans were starting freshman – and not a redshirt freshman -- Matt Barkley at quarterback. But the game wasn’t a blowout; it was an 18-15 nail-biter.
None of that meant much to the Buckeye faithful.
Not in The Horseshoe. Not in Columbus. Not anywhere Ohio State goes when its opponent on the other side of the football field is more than Navy or the Mid-American Conference punching bags the Buckeyes fatten their out-of-conference record on.
The Trojans, who have beaten Big Ten opponents 10 straight, resembled those lesser programs the way Tiger Woods does a weekend hacker with a 18 handicap.
In this game, the Trojans showed an unshakeable will to win. Not once did they put their sleek, young quarterback at serious risk. They let their defense dominate late, and it displayed the kind of toughness, discipline and quickness that secures Southern Cal's place among college football’s aristocracy.
Forget about the fact USC coach Pete Carroll had to rebuild his defense from scratch. It didn’t matter. Carroll dipped into his deep pile of talent and found replacements better than anything coach Jim Tressel had to counter them.
Tressel had no schemes – and no clue how -- to exploit the Trojan defense or to free his quarterback Terrelle Pryor for long runs or efficient, quick-strike passes. At times, the skittish Pryor looked to be operating a short-handed offense: something in the order of nine against 11.
Yet that’s been routine for Tressel’s Buckeyes. Time and again in the past five years, they have come up against top-tier programs and fallen apart.
Coming into this season, no one but the most rabid fan had penciled Ohio State down as a contender for a National Championship. Next year, its fans said. For the Big Ten title, sure; a conference title was doable.
But the Big Ten isn’t much of a football conference these days. Michigan State lost to Central Michigan, after all. OK, Michigan did beat Notre Dame, but how good are the Fighting Irish anyway?
So winning the title means what?
Teams in the Big Ten live on yesteryear’s successes. Those yesteryears were in the long ago. In the present, in these Saturdays that tick toward bowl selections, the Buckeyes and their Big Ten brethren have plenty to prove.
That became clear from watching the Trojans wear down the Buckeyes, a team that most were calling the best in the conference.
For Tressel and his Buckeyes, the conference title – and, of course, beating Michigan again -- is about all that remains. Both are nice consolation prizes, ones that Ohio State fans can think about as they replay in their minds another loss to a big-time program.