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September 15, 2008

Dienhart: Ohio State looking for answers

MORE: What We Learned | Dienhart's Weekly Awards | Bowden: Tressel made right decision

LOS ANGELES Look at Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. He's flustered. He's flabbergasted. He's flummoxed and a little flushed as he tries to explain away another big-game belly flop by his Buckeyes.

"We played a great team," Tressel said Saturday night after his team was whipped 35-3 by USC. "When you commit turnovers and have penalties to stop drives, it makes it hard to win. A good team like USC makes it hard for you to climb back in. And when you throw a pick-six the other way, things like that make it hard."

Please don't say you were shocked by USC's rout. And to think the game started fairly well for the Buckeyes, who took a 3-0 first-quarter lead. Then, Tressel and Ohio State were buried in an avalanche of 35 consecutive Trojans points that cemented the notion that the Buckeyes aren't prime-time players against prime-beef foes.

Youngstown State? Minnesota? Purdue? Indiana? Ohio State rules.

Florida? LSU? USC? Ohio State reeks.

The Buckeyes probably can forget about playing in the BCS Championship Game for a third season in a row. The 2006 season gave us "Arizona Chainsaw Massacre," a 41-14 slashing by Florida in Phoenix. The 2007 season gave us "Nightmare on Bourbon Street," a 38-24 mutilation by LSU in New Orleans.

USC's thrashing of the Buckeyes only reaffirmed what we already knew: The Buckeyes are an overrated product from the badly bloated Big Ten.

"I don't want to remember any of the plays," Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor said. "I just want to move forward."

Can you blame him for wanting to forget?

Was this a must-win for Ohio State? Probably not. Still, this program needs a pick-me-up because, honestly, winning another Big Ten title won't impress anyone other than Tressel's wife and paperboy. The Buckeyes have been there and done that, winning at least a share of the past three. But being the king of Lilliput only gets a program so far.

Another victory over Michigan? Yawn. Ohio State has dominated this series, winning six of the past seven meetings. And this season's "showdown" in Columbus may be little more than a glorified scrimmage, given the struggles the Wolverines are enduring as the program adapts to Rich Rodriguez.

But even claiming another Big Ten title may not be easy. The defense won't be an issue the rest of the season. Yes, the Buckeyes were tattered and torn by USC on Saturday night, getting punched for 348 yards. But this still is a good defense that returned nine starters from a unit that ranked No. 1 in the nation in 2007. There's linebacker James Laurinaitis, cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and end Lawrence Wilson. Plus, there doesn't appear to be a Big Ten offense that's cut from the same cloth as USC's ferocious attack. Bottom line: Ohio State still has a salty defense.

The concerns swing to the offense, which managed just 207 yards against the Trojans. The second half was atrocious: 30 yards, with minus-2 rushing. No doubt, Ohio State likely won't face a defense of this ilk the rest of the season. Still, the question: Is this attack good enough even to win the Big Ten?

A ballyhooed line was battered by a physical Trojans defensive line that controlled the game. Tackle Alex Boone struggled against USC's athletic ends and Ohio State yielded five sacks. If they weren't being sacked, Todd Boeckman and Pryor felt pressure that played a big part in Boeckman's two interceptions and lost fumble.

Receivers Brian Hartline and Brian Robiskie are serviceable options who can move the chains. All should be well at this position.

As for the ground game, the Beanie watch continues: When will he return? Chris Wells missed the past two games with a right big toe injury. Dan Herron had his moments at USC, leading the team with 11 carries for 51 yards. But Brandon Saine and Maurice Wells weren't factors against the Trojans or in a middling win over Ohio the week before, for that matter. The Heisman for Wells? Forget it. But Ohio State needs him back. Now.

Quarterback is the position that holds the key to the Buckeyes' ability to rebound from this fiasco. The passing numbers from the USC game don't look bad. Boeckman was 14 of 21 for 84 yards; Pryor was 7-for-9 for 52 yards. But that adds up to just 136 yards passing. And there were zero big plays, as the longest pass went for 16 yards.

It was apparent to everyone in the stands that Pryor is a superior athlete. His athletic ability must be accounted for by defenses on every play. Pryor still is learning the nuances of the zone-read play and remains a work in progress, though he has shown a strong arm and a knack to throw with touch. He's going to be as good as advertised.

Boeckman? He's a serviceable game manager at best. Saturday night, it was the same old "big-game" Boeckman, who is 3-2 vs. ranked teams.

Boeckman fumbled.

Boeckman got sacked four times.

Boeckman threw two picks.

Boeckman was bad.

Could Pryor start Saturday when Troy visits Ohio State?

"You always compete for playing time," Tressel said. "I don't know about starting spots. But we will evaluate everything, how we execute and what we should do as we go forward."

What does Ohio State have to lose in starting Pryor? The Buckeyes' BCS title hopes are gone. And, again, winning the Big Ten will impress only Scarlet and Gray Kool-Aid chuggers. Yes, Boeckman is a senior. But this isn't about appeasing any one player and or rewarding loyalty. This is about repairing the image and pride of a tattered and battered program. This is about the future. And that future rests in the wondrous abilities of Pryor.

"Whatever (Coach) Tressel says," Pryor said in the aftermath of the loss. "Whatever he tells us to do."

MORE: What We Learned | Dienhart's Weekly Awards | Bowden: Tressel made right decision

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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