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A BOWL SEASON FULL OF SURPRISES: Terrelle Takes Off

While top coaches made strange exits, Terrelle Pryor arrived as a complete college quarterback in leading Ohio State to a statement victory in the Rose Bowl

It started with the Hamlet-like deliberations of a burned-out Urban Meyer, who resigned, then unresigned to go on "indefinite leave" at Florida. Next came the tempest at Texas Tech, resulting in sworn affidavits, a threatened lawsuit and an unemployed Mike Leach. Between those soap operas and the poignant leave-taking of Bobby Bowden at Florida State, this was already the most emotionally charged bowl season in memory, and that was before Dan (Boom) Herron set out to find a hat. ¶ While his teammates hugged and cheerleaders shed happy tears and the band played Hang On Sloopy in the aftermath of Ohio State's redemptive 26--17 win over Oregon in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, Herron, the Buckeyes' sophomore tailback, roamed the confetti-strewn field like Richard III in search of his mount.

"Who's got the hats?" boomed Boom. "I just want a hat!" Herron had just chipped in 104 all-purpose yards in Ohio State's first bowl victory in four years, and damned if he wasn't going to reap the spoils. His kingdom for a 2010 rose bowl champions ball cap.

In becoming the first Big Ten team to win in Pasadena since 2000, Ohio State did its part to restore some luster to a conference whose programs have won three of six bowl games this season (Iowa faced Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl on Tuesday) after losing six of seven a year ago. However, this time around the annual exercise of rating conferences based on their bowl performances was overshadowed by the high drama off the field.

Leach had been suspended by the Tech administration, following reports that he had ordered reserve wideout Adam James to stand in a dark room. Subsequent arguments about the size of the room seemed to be missing the greater point: that Leach had taken unusual measures to treat a player who had missed practice with a concussion, a situation complicated by the involvement of James's father, Craig, an ESPN analyst. Two days after the suspension, Tech fired the most successful coach in its history for "insubordination" and his refusal "to cooperate in a meaningful way to help resolve the complaint." That he was sacked one day before he was due an $800,000 bonus is an issue sure to be raised by his lawyers in the suit Leach has promised to bring.

The fired Leach, the outgoing Bowden (who resigned under pressure) and the self-exiling Meyer had this in common: Their teams played well in decisive bowl victories. Tech piled up 579 yards of offense in a 41--31 Alamo Bowl win over Michigan State. The Seminoles outscored West Virginia 30--7 over the last three quarters of a 33--21 Gator Bowl victory. And to say the Gators were decisive radically understates the scary efficiency of Tim Tebow and the Florida offense in a 51--24 dismemberment of previously undefeated Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl.

In a fitting final act to an amazing college career, Tebow was transcendent, completing his first 12 passes, leading the Gators to scores on their first five possessions and racking up 533 total yards—exceeding by 66 yards the previous BCS record, set four years ago by former Texas quarterback Vince Young against USC in the title game.

Until they dispatched Oregon on the same field, Ohio State's seniors had won a ton of games—they are the winningest class in school history— just not the ones that mattered most. Before bowing to Texas in last year's Fiesta Bowl, the Buckeyes had dropped back-to-back BCS title games.

"When people keep telling you how bad you are," says senior tight end Jake Ballard, "you can believe it, or you can get pissed off and do something about it."

So if the reaction of Ohio State players and fans appeared to be just a smidge over the top as the Rose Bowl clock wound down, it's because they had more than a victory to celebrate. The Buckeyes had cast off, at long last, the label of the team that can't win a big game. In the process, they witnessed the arrival of the player who stands the best chance of getting them back to a BCS title game.

Yes, Terrelle Pryor remembers the play. "I've got the picture hanging in my bedroom," says the Buckeyes' sophomore quarterback. He is in full flight in that photograph, hurdling a would-be tackler from Washington (Pa.) High in 2005. When Pryor landed in the end zone following that Beamonesque leap, the refs hesitated before signaling a touchdown. "They froze in awe," recalls Ray Reitz, his former coach at Jeannette High. "They'd never seen anything like it."

Aware that freakish athletic ability alone would only get him so far, Pryor chose Ohio State, in large part because he wanted to play in a pro-style offense to bolster his NFL prospects. As he looked back on it, two days before the Rose Bowl, his desire to be that classic drop-back passer turned into one of his biggest problems this season. In order to disprove the doubters, he was determined to stand fast in the pocket, "to try and make the tough throws."

The unhappy result: For the first half of this season he forced passes into coverage, all the while making himself much easier to defend, by not running. Pryor threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles in a stunning 26--18 loss at Purdue on Oct. 17. Seven games into the season he had already thrown eight picks and been sacked a dozen times. He appeared to be regressing. Had coach Jim Tressel put the matter to a vote of Buckeyes fans, Pryor would have been moved to wide receiver.

Far be it from the staid and deliberate Senator Tressel, as he has been nicknamed, to make such a rash move. In a meeting with Pryor the coach urged his pupil to stop worrying about getting to his fourth read and to start using his feet more.

Did the criticism sting? "Besides my coaches, I don't listen to anybody," Pryor says. "I know what I can do. No one has seen what I can do yet."

With its quarterback's confidence in question, Ohio State relied more on its ground game in the second half of the season. The Buckeyes rushed for nearly 1,300 yards over the final five games. Oregon noticed.

"They're a traditional, downhill running team," declared Ducks defensive tackle Brandon Bair two days before the game. "Obviously, that's what they're going to want to do—establish the run. With Pryor they haven't really gone to the air to win games."

Having connected on five of 13 passes in last year's bowl loss, Pryor completed five passes on Ohio State's opening drive against the Ducks, the last a 13-yard-touchdown toss to tailback Brandon Saine. The drive took 10 plays; the Buckeyes dialed up passes on eight of them. Just when you think you have Tressel pegged as this predictable, conservative fuddy-duddy, he pulls alongside you at the intersection on a Harley. So to speak.

"After that drive," said left tackle Jim Cordle, "we knew our offense was better than their defense."

Even on third down. Reminded earlier in the week of Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti's observation that pressure "seems like it rattles him a little," Pryor agreed. "That's what we work on a lot," he said, "third-down pressure. That's one of my weak points, and I'm sure Oregon will go after that."

Yet there was the sophomore completing seven of 10 passes during a 19-play, 67-yard second-quarter drive that ended with a field goal and chewed 8:03 off the clock. Against the Ducks, Pryor & Co. converted 11 of 21 third downs, or 52.4%—almost 12 percentage points better than their season average. One conversion stood above the rest: Staring down a third-and-13 at his 45 and the Buckeyes nursing a 19--17 lead, Pryor called Right 64 Cam—one of the many pass plays in which Ballard is a safety valve, an afterthought.

"I was supposed to be floating in the [right] flat," he recounted. "Then Terrelle started scrambling, so I started heading upfield."

Sprinting to his right, Pryor lofted a 24-yard floater that hung in the air for the length of a TV timeout, or so it seemed. Ballard launched his 256-pound frame roughly three feet off the ground and made the catch.

Working the other side of the field five snaps later, Pryor perfectly placed a 17-yard pass on the outside shoulder of wideout DeVier Posey, whose twisting TD catch gave the Buckeyes a nine-point lead with 7:02 left.

"I got that off of Peyton Manning, just watching him a lot," Pryor said. "That play's almost unstoppable." His confidence had been found. Against Oregon he rushed 20 times for 72 yards, while completing 23 of 37 passes for 266 yards, with two touchdowns, one interception and one MVP trophy.

In the postgame chaos, Herron finally found a hat. Pryor boarded a golf cart with senior safety Kurt Coleman, who draped an arm around his shoulders and told him, "Great game."

He was right. Pryor has never been better. And we still haven't seen what he can do.

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For analysis of the BCS championship game, go to SI.com/cfb

"I know what I can do," Pryor says of the criticism he has endured. "No one has seen what I can do yet."

ROUNDUP

The Undercard

Who scored knockouts in the non-BCS bowls? Here's a game-by-game review, plus projections on which programs will be on the rise? and on the decline[down arrow] in 2010

Offensive Forces

Kyle Padron passed for 460 yards as SMU[up arrow] and second-year coach June Jones whipped Nevada[up arrow] 45--10 in the Hawaii Bowl. The game was played in the same stadium where Jones coached for nine seasons at Hawaii. Aloha Stadium was also the site of the Mustangs' last bowl appearance, in 1984.

Mike Ford of South Florida[up arrow] had the best two quarters of any running back this bowl season, rushing for 189 yards on 19 carries in the second half of the Bulls' 27--3 thumping of Northern Illinois[down arrow] in the International Bowl. Ford carried just once in the first half (for 18 yards), but with the teams deadlocked 3--3, USF coach Jim Leavitt put the game in the hands of the 6'2", 225-pound junior.

Missouri[up arrow] entered the Texas Bowl with the nation's 12th-ranked rushing defense, but Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs (right) ran the triple option to perfection, scampering for 166 yards and three touchdowns in a 35--13 victory. Navy[up arrow] piled up 385 yards on the ground and held the ball for 40:54.

Redshirt sophomore John Clay ran for 121 yards and two touchdowns as Wisconsin[up arrow] held off Miami[up arrow] 20--14 in the Champ Sports Bowl, then delighted Badgers fans by announcing that he would return in 2010.

A chant of "one more year" rang out at the Emerald Bowl after junior wideout Damian Williams hauled in 12 passes for 189 yards as USC[up arrow] beat Boston College[down arrow] 24--13. Williams made a jaw-dropping, 49-yard catch between three defenders that set up Matt Barkley's game-clinching quarterback sneak.

In the Interim

Trailing Michigan State[up arrow] by four points in the fourth quarter of the Alamo Bowl, Texas Tech interim coach Ruffin McNeill benched Taylor Potts, who had passed for 372 yards before injuring his nonthrowing hand. Junior Steven Sheffield drove the Red Raiders to touchdowns on their next two possessions, twice converting on fourth down for the score that gave Tech[up arrow] a 41--31 victory. Afterward, McNeill lobbied to have the interim tag removed.

When Marshall coach Mark Snyder resigned on Nov. 29, the Thundering Herd's defensive coordinator, Rick Minter, asked to be considered for the job. He was passed over in favor of West Virginia associate head coach John (Doc) Holliday, but Minter got a heartwarming consolation prize. He coached Marshall[down arrow] to a 21--17 victory over Ohio[down arrow] in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl and was carried to midfield on his players' shoulders.

On the Defensive

The Air Force[up arrow] successfully tested its missile defense system, intercepting Case Keenum of Houston[down arrow] six times (three by sophomore cornerback Anthony Wright) as the nation's No. 1 pass defense routed the No. 1 passing offense 47--20 in the Armed Forces Bowl.

With a 33--0 triumph over Arizona[up arrow] in the Holiday Bowl, Nebraska[up arrow] earned its first shutout in 46 bowl appearances and the first in the 32-year history of the traditionally high-scoring Holiday Bowl.

Ryan Mathews of Fresno State[down arrow] ran for 144 yards and two touchdowns in the New Mexico Bowl, but Wyoming[up arrow] stuffed the nation's leading rusher on three attempts from the one-yard line in the first overtime, then won 35--28 in the second extra period.

Oklahoma[up arrow] held Stanford[up arrow] to 89 yards and four first downs in the second half, rallying to a 31--27 victory in the Sun Bowl.

UCLA[up arrow] trailed Temple[up arrow] 21--20 when Bruins linebacker Akeem Ayers picked off Vaughn Charlton's pass at the Owls' two-yard line and scored the go-ahead touchdown in the EagleBank Bowl. UCLA won 30--21.

Gambling Men

After kicker Stefan Demos had been injured four plays earlier, Northwestern[down arrow] went for the win in overtime against Auburn[up arrow] in the Outback Bowl. Down 38--35 and facing a fourth and goal from the five, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald called for a fake field goal play named Heater, devised by the late Randy Walker (Fitzgerald's mentor). Receiver Zeke Markshausen took a "fumble-rooski" handoff, but Tigers cornerback Neiko Thorpe stopped Markshausen two yards short, extending to 61 years the Wildcats' drought without a bowl win. Said Fitzgerald of the failed trickery: "I'd do it again and twice on Sunday."

Nathan Enderle hit Max Komar for a 16-yard touchdown with four seconds remaining, then found Preston Davis for the winning two-point conversion as Idaho[up arrow] beat Bowling Green[down arrow] 43--42 in the Humanitarian Bowl. The Vandals' 66-yard, 28-second drive capped a wild final four minutes during which 22 points were scored.

Senior Moments

Criticized for his play in big games, Daryll Clark (above) passed for 216 and a touchdown and directed the game-winning drive for a field goal as Penn State[up arrow] slipped by LSU[down arrow] 19--17 in the Capital One Bowl.

C.J. Spiller accounted for 172 yards and a TD on 20 touches as Clemson[up arrow] beat Kentucky[down arrow] 21--13 in the Music City Bowl. Spiller was the only player in the country to score a touchdown in every game this season.

Southern Miss[up arrow] fell to Middle Tennessee State[up arrow] 42--32 in the New Orleans Bowl, but the Golden Eagles' Damion Fletcher became only the ninth player in Division I-A history to rush for 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons.

Playing in gusts of up to 55 mph, Max Hall threw for 192 yards and three TDs as BYU[down arrow] beat Oregon State[down arrow] 44--20 in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Streaking

Florida State[up arrow] rallied from a 14--3 deficit to beat West Virginia[down arrow] 33--21 in the Gator Bowl as retiring coach Bobby Bowden (right) clinched his 33rd consecutive winning season.

With its 37--27 Poinsettia Bowl victory over Cal[down arrow], Utah[up arrow] won its ninth straight bowl game. During the streak the Utes have beaten teams from the ACC, Big East, Pac-10 and SEC.

No program has appeared in the Insight Bowl more than Minnesota[up arrow], which has played in three of the last four. Unfortunately for the Gophers they are winless in those three trips to the desert, the latest a 14--13 loss to Iowa State[down arrow].

Extra Special

Already boasting the Ray Guy Award winner (punter Drew Butler) and a Lou Groza Award finalist (kicker Blair Walsh), Georgia[up arrow] rode its special teams to a 44--20 blowout of Texas A&M[up arrow] in the Independence Bowl. The Dawgs got an 81-yard kickoff return for a TD from Brandon Boykin and blocked a punt to set up another score. Georgia also blocked a field-goal attempt and benefited from a botched A&M punt snap that set up another touchdown.

Trailing North Carolina[up arrow] 17--16 with 1:55 left in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, Pittsburgh[up arrow] lined up for a 47-yard field goal—two yards longer than Dan Hutchins's career best. Then the Panthers successfully employed an old draw-'em-offsides trick. Holder Andrew Janocko raised his hands as if asking for the snap, and three Tar Heels jumped across the line. Four plays later Hutchins kicked a 33-yarder, his fourth field goal in the 19--17 victory.

Freshman Phenoms

Virginia Tech[up arrow] whipped Tennessee[up arrow] 37--14 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, thanks largely to redshirt freshman Ryan Williams, who set or tied ACC single-season records for rushing touchdowns (21), total touchdowns (22) and 100-yard rushing games (10).

Keyed by a pair of true freshmen, Rutgers[up arrow] rolled to a 45--24 victory over Central Florida[down arrow] in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Tom Savage threw for 294 yards and two touchdowns, one of them to Mohamed Sanu, who also rushed for a pair of TDs out of the Wildcat formation.

By the Numbers

33 | Carries for Andre Dixon of UConn[down arrow], a record for the Papajohns.com Bowl. Dixon, the game's MVP, ran for 126 yards and a TD as the Huskies cruised to a 20--7 victory over South Carolina[up arrow].

12 | Turnovers in the Cotton Bowl, including six by Oklahoma State[down arrow] in the fourth quarter alone, as Mississippi[down arrow] won the errorfest 21--7. For the second straight year Rebels running back Dexter McCluster earned the game's offensive MVP award, rushing for 184 yards and two touchdowns,

0 | Field goals made, on attempts from 39, 39 and 35 yards, by Ben Hartman of East Carolina[down arrow] in the final 63 seconds and overtime in the Liberty Bowl; and the number of third downs converted by the SEC's top scoring offense, Arkansas[up arrow], on 13 tries, which nevertheless won 20--17.

PHOTO

Photograph by ROBERT BECK

HOT AND HOTTER Hours after Pryor (2) put up 338 yards on New Year's Day, Tebow produced 533 and a Sugar rout in his goodbye to Meyer, whose coaching future was unclear.

PHOTO

BOB ROSATO

[See caption above]

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PATRICK GREEN/SOUTHCREEK GLOBAL

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JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES (CLARK)

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DOUG BENC/GETTY IMAGES (BOWDEN)

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ROBERT BECK

MEMENTO Herron finally got his hat, commemorating the Buckeyes' first bowl win in four seasons.