He may not be elegant, but as he showed against Miami, Terrelle Pryor knows how to direct No. 2 Ohio State. That's why he will be hard to beat for the Heisman
Welcome to Nick Siciliano's world. Upon entering his office after practice on Sept. 8, the Ohio State quarterbacks coach could not sit at his desk, it being occupied by Terrelle Pryor, who was winding down a conference call. Waiting for his star pupil to finish, the coach chatted with a visitor, who could not help noticing the raw excitement in Siciliano's voice as he discussed the breakthrough that he insists is just around the corner.
"It's going to happen any day now," he predicted. "And when it does, life is going to get a lot easier."
He was talking, of course, about the progress he and his wife Analisa's 2½-year-old quadruplets are making toward becoming potty trained. "We're not there yet," reported Siciliano, "but we're close."
The same might be said of Pryor, a third-year starter who has lately been playing on the threshold of greatness but has yet to cross over. The junior from Jeannette (Pa.) High was often breathtaking in No. 2 Ohio State's sometimes slipshod 36--24 win over 12th-ranked Miami on Saturday—though he also uncorked his share of misbegotten throws. In the face of a fearsome rush from a deep and talented Hurricanes front seven, Pryor completed just 12 of his 27 passes, for 233 yards and a touchdown. On the bright side he also rushed 20 times for 113 yards and another touchdown—about three quarters of those yards coming on pass plays that he turned into runs. As he put it last week, "My job is to move the chains, and however I move 'em, I move 'em. I'm getting in the end zone, and I'm gonna smile while I do it."
If that calls to mind a campaign poster, with a snappy slogan and a beaming candidate, so be it: Pryor's Heisman hopes this season will hinge on his ability to keep drives alive and get his offense in the end zone. Other quarterbacks will pile up many more passing yards, but Ohio State's self-described "gazelle" will amass more than his share of highlights with his arm and feet for a squad in serious contention for the national title. No candidate will have his fortunes so tightly linked to his team's. Should Pryor be effective (if not always elegant) and the Buckeyes roll, he's the man to beat. Think of his outing against the Hurricanes as his stump speech.
For the first time since 2007, Buckeye Nation found itself smiling after its annual, early-season nonconference epic. Back-to-back September losses to USC, coupled with three straight defeats in BCS bowls, had begun to erode Ohio State's self-esteem, feeding the perception that the team tends to come up small on the game's biggest stages. Saturday's win, coupled with last January's 26--17 Rose Bowl defeat of Oregon, officially reverses that trend.
"This team just took a great leap," senior linebacker Brian Rolle said after the game. Asked to recall his emotions when he was finally able to take a knee and run out the clock, Pryor replied, "Relief, man." With the game in hand, he threw his final pass of the day, launching the ball into the south stands. "Hopefully," he said, "a kid got it."
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel was willing to forgive Pryor's failure to complete even half his passes because he took such excellent care of the ball. While Pryor committed zero turnovers (for the second straight game), his Miami counterpart, Jacory Harris, had four throws picked off. Pryor and Harris spent the week texting each other; they've been friends since a teammate of Harris's introduced them after the 2008 U.S. Army All-American Bowl. In the Miami locker room after warmups, Harris was overheard informing 6'4", 250-pound defensive end Olivier Vernon, "My man [Pryor] is bigger than you are!"
In terms of height, yes, but the 6'6", 233-pound Pryor came up short numerous times in the red zone. The Buckeyes' first three interceptions gave Ohio State the ball at the Hurricanes' 25-, 19- and 27-yard lines. Despite those short fields the Buckeyes came away with only one touchdown and two Devin Barclay field goals. A former pro soccer player, Barclay walked on at Ohio State in 2008, three years after being released by the Columbus Crew. His five field goals on Saturday tied a school record and kept him so busy that he neglected to take on sufficient fluids. Barclay had a chance to break the record but pulled a 32-yard attempt wide left in the fourth quarter, in part because he was suffering from leg cramps.
"First time I've ever been in a game where the kicker cramped up," deadpanned Tressel.
It's good that the Vest can see the levity in mishaps by his special teams—he actually calls them "special units"—or he might have been reduced to tears in the first half. After Lamar Miller's 88-yard kickoff return gave the Hurricanes a 7--3 lead, Barclay was instructed, thereafter, to pooch-kick the ball to Miami's up backs. That adjustment did not prevent the Hurricanes' Travis Benjamin from taking a punt 79 yards to the house. After the game, when it was brought to Tressel's attention that the Buckeyes had never in their history surrendered both a kickoff return and a punt return for touchdowns in the same game, he replied with more asperity than usual, "I'll put that in my memoirs."
Chimdi Chekwa's first thought, after Miller's kickoff return gave the Hurricanes the 7--3 lead, was This is gonna be a fight.
Miami coach Randy Shannon made the point all week that this was not a revenge game—at least not for the current Hurricanes, none of whom played for the national championship in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, which Miami lost in double overtime after a controversial interference call that kept Ohio State alive. Tressel also didn't use that game as a motivational tool; he left that to honorary captain Cie Grant, a linebacker from that national title team who spoke to the squad after their pregame meal. "He said, 'This isn't about [the Fiesta Bowl],'" recalls center Mike Brewster, "'but every guy that did play in the game, and every guy that's played before us, was in our corner today.'"
"We need to have that guy here every week," proclaimed Pryor. "He fired us up!"
While Pryor made no apologies for his periodic struggles, saying Miami's players are "on scholarship, too," he did take care to credit Ohio State's defense for bailing out the offense. No player deserved more recognition than Chekwa, the shutdown corner who had two interceptions of Harris. The fastest Buckeye—Chekwa ran a leg on Ohio State's Big Ten champion 4 √ó 100 relay last spring—he is also an accounting major who was named to the conference's all-academic team. He is one of six children of Charles and Eunice Chekwa, who fled civil war in Nigeria 35 years ago. Charles and Eunice are teachers who have five college degrees between them.
The Hurricanes' last best hope was snuffed out by Harris's fourth interception, thrown directly to defensive tackle Cameron Heyward, who had dropped into coverage on a zone blitz. The 6'5", 288-pound son of former NFL running back Craig (Ironhead) Heyward flashed a bit of the old man's foot speed ... for the first 15 or so yards of his 80-yard return, after which his deceleration was rapid and comical.
"He was tired for the next 15 minutes," said Tressel.
"I'm still tired," rejoined Heyward, a half hour after the game ended. "You don't realize how long the field is... ."
Pryor cashed in that turnover two plays later. Rolling right on a sprint-out pass, his receivers were well-covered. "I was like, 'Man, this isn't looking good,'" he says. So he made a play that only one person in the Horseshoe—and few in the country—could have made, reversing his field, then outsprinting Miami's backside defenders 13 yards to the end zone.
So while Harris must now pack his bags and take his leave from Heisman Island, Pryor remains. He isn't about to start throwing for 300 yards and five touchdowns per game, a la Stanford's Andrew Luck and Arkansas's Ryan Mallett, but he'll make up for that with Tebowesque rushing totals. As Siciliano said before the Miami game, "He hasn't even started to run yet. He hasn't unleashed the horsepower." Nor will it hurt Pryor's candidacy that the Buckeyes now wade into the soft underbelly of their schedule—Ohio, Eastern Illinois, Illinois and Indiana—before their next stiff challenge, an Oct. 16 night game at Wisconsin.
While he remains prone to what he calls the occasional "brain fart" (his loss of four yards on an ill-advised, second-quarter scramble, for instance), Pryor can be counted on to quickly redeem those mistakes (his perfectly feathered, 19-yard pass to Dane Sanzenbacher on third-and-14 over the outstretched arms of cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke on the very next play). He won't wow voters with his downfield passing, but his unique blend of talents—the guy is a threat to score, by air or by land, every time he touches the ball—makes him, arguably, the most exciting player in the nation. Which should count for something.
Asked to evaluate his progress, Pryor instead uttered a quote he attributed to Drew Brees: "If I can keep getting one percent better, one percent better, one percent better [every day], we're gonna have success."
His improvement since last Oct. 17 has been far more dramatic than that. On that day he fumbled twice and threw two interceptions in a 26--18 loss to Purdue. Back then, Pryor believes he "started thinking too much," sometimes suffering paralysis by analysis. He was also conflicted at times: "I think I felt like, if I ran the ball, people would say I couldn't throw."
Tressel settled him down by taking the ball out of his hands for a spell late last season, emphasizing the run. Gradually, Pryor's confidence returned. In Ohio State's last eight games, all wins—punctuated by his selection as Rose Bowl offensive MVP—he has thrown just three picks. "The past three or four games, I haven't been nervous," Pryor says. "I've studied and studied so much that when we play a team, it's like we've been playing them four or five weeks in a row.
"Everything has slowed down," he says, "like in The Matrix."
"The more success he has," says Siciliano, "the more relaxed he becomes, and the more success he has."
No one is pretending that Pryor is a finished product. He missed several open receivers on Saturday, and, by his own admission, made a few strange decisions. But when he was good, he was very, very good. His second-quarter, 18-yard scoring pass to Brandon Saine—a beautiful throw in its own right—was set up by the prettiest pass of the day, a 62-yard rainbow to a well-covered DeVier Posey, who agreed after the game that, no, his quarterback had not yet "arrived." In mid-September, who has?
"There's room for him to get better," said Posey. "And that's scary."
Now on SI.com
To see where Terrelle Pryor ranks on Cory McCartney's Heisman Watch, go to SI.com/cfb
Pryor, says Siciliano, "hasn't started to run yet. He hasn't unleashed the horsepower."
Photograph by AL TIELEMANS
IN A RUSH Pryor compensated for some errant plays in the passing game with his legs—113 yards and one touchdown on 20 carries.
[See caption above]
Photograph by AL TIELEMANS
RED FLAG Sanzenbacher (12) and the Ohio State offense struggled in the red zone, failing to convert two interceptions into touchdowns.
Photograph by AL TIELEMANS
CANE SCRUTINY While his buddy didn't turn the ball over for the Buckeyes, Harris threw four picks and did immeasurable damage to his own Heisman hopes.