It's the most curious partnership in college football. On one side is staid, conservative Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, a devotee of the power running game and a man who sometimes seems as if he would be content to punt on second-and-long. On the other is his multitalented quarterback, 6'6", 235-pound sophomore Terrelle Pryor, a gifted runner with 4.3 speed who appears to be playing for the one coach in Division I-A unwilling to take advantage of his extraordinary abilities. Fans in Columbus have been waiting for Tressel to turn the Buckeyes' attack into a freewheeling option powerhouse, not unlike the attack run by Vince Young at Texas in 2005. Instead, they've looked on with befuddlement as Pryor has transmogrified before their eyes into Craig Krenzel—the ball-control passer who led Tressel's team to the national title in 2002.
Despite the lack of offensive excitement, the partnership seems to be working. Witness Pryor's performance in Ohio State's 27--24 overtime defeat of Iowa last Saturday, a victory that secured the Buckeyes (9--2, 6--1) a fifth straight Big Ten championship and an invitation to the Rose Bowl. Checking down repeatedly to short passes, Pryor completed 14 of 17 attempts for 93 yards and, most important to Tressel, no interceptions. When Ohio State wanted to run directly off the snap, Pryor split wide and Dan Herron (32 carries, 97 yards, one touchdown) and Brandon Saine (11, 103, two) took over.
Pryor hardly resembled the disoriented, hesitant passer who turned the ball over four times (two fumbles, two interceptions) in a 26--18 loss to Purdue on Oct. 17. In fact, he has thrown just one interception in 93 attempts since then, and his coaches say that his decisiveness and his mechanics have improved steadily over the last month. Against Iowa he ran just six times for 44 yards (two sacks accounted for 15 yards in losses), and according to quarterbacks coach Nick Siciliano, none of the plays was drawn up as a run. "Those were designed passes where he felt pressure or didn't see anything open," says Siciliano. "That's when we want him to take off."
The Buckeyes have won four straight since the debacle against the Boilermakers, and two straight against top 15 programs when you throw in a 24--7 win at Penn State. With Herron and Saine doing most of the heavy lifting behind an improving line, Ohio State has rushed for at least 228 yards in each game during the streak. And its defense remains one of the best, ranking among the nation's top 10 in four major categories (rushing, scoring and total defense, and pass efficiency). If Pryor can keep the offense moving, the Buckeyes should have little difficulty against reeling Michigan this Saturday. "If we lose to those guys, we'll be hated," says Pryor.
Ohio State fans will be even more upset if the Rose Bowl turns into their team's fourth straight loss in a BCS bowl game. Tressel ball is still sound enough to win in the Big Ten, but a successful coach-QB partnership is supposed to pay dividends in January.
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With a 35--31 victory over UTEP last Saturday, SMU (6--4, 5--1) took over first place in the Conference USA West Division, moving ahead of Houston, a 37--32 loser at Central Florida. But more than that, the Mustangs are probably headed to their first bowl game since 1984—three years before the NCAA slapped the program with the death penalty and shut it down for two seasons. Freshman quarterback Kyle Padron(below), who threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more scores, improved to 3--0 as a starter. Trailing 31--28 in the fourth quarter, he led SMU on a 66-yard drive, capped by a 37-yard touchdown pass to wideout Emmanuel Sanders. "We find a way to win games," said coach June Jones, who credits that to the chemistry and attitude in the locker room.
JOHN BIEVER (BARCLAY)
ALL ROSES With the crown on the line against Iowa, Devin Barclay (23) kicked the game-winning field goal in overtime.
VLADIMIR CHERRY/US PRESSWIRE (PADRON)