New year, same, old result.
Freshman quarterback Matt Barkley led USC on an 86-yard touchdown drive in the closing minutes to beat Ohio State, 18-15, the Bucks’ sixth consecutive loss when playing a team ranked among the top five.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to play in some big games, in some great games against some very good teams and our kids have played extremely hard,” OSU coach Jim Tressel said. “The last couple, we haven’t gotten it done, but we’ve been in a couple tough ones in a row.”
Linebacker Chris Galippo’s interception on OSU’s opening drive evoked memories from last season’s 35-3 blowout, sucking the air out of a stadium packed with a Horseshoe record 106,033 scarlet-clad fans.
Still, the Buckeyes would not be deterred. Swarming defense and sound tackling provided OSU with a 15-10 lead halfway through the fourth quarter.
The Trojans set out on their final drive from their own 14-yard line, but a sack and a false start penalty pushed the ball back to the five. Even so, Barkley and running back Joe McKnight made the necessary plays to lead USC down the field.
“You really have got to believe you’re going to score in that situation,” said Barkley, who played in his first career road game. “I knew we were going to score. It’s important that you really just go with that mindset.”
Southern Cal converted twice on third down situations and once on fourth down to extend the drive. After 14 plays and more than six minutes ran off the clock, running back Stafon Johnson capped the series with a two-yard score. USC added a two-point conversion with a short pass to McKnight to make it an 18-15 advantage.
“It’s a tough loss again,” senior linebacker Austin Spitler said. “Put on the big stage, we want to go out there and get the victory. We were feeling good and the last drive comes along and they just pounded it down our throats.”
OSU got one final opportunity with one minute remaining, but without any timeouts, nothing was accomplished.
Barkley’s composure on the final drive proved the difference in an evenly matched contest, McKnight said.
“He stayed cool, calm and collected,” he said. “He called the plays and didn’t make mistakes. He showed he’s not an 18-year-old anymore. He stepped up and made plays.”
Neither quarterback looked comfortable in the pocket- at least, not until Barkley during USC’s winning series. Pryor finished 11-25 for 177 yards and an interception, while Barkley totaled 195 yards on 15-31 passing.
“Those two young quarterbacks played against two good defenses [which] brought a lot of pressure and I’m sure that both will learn a lot from that experience,” Tressel said.
USC gift wrapped the Buckeyes’ lead in the third quarter. On fourth down, a long snap sailed over punter Billy O’Malley’s head and through the back of the end zone, resulting in a safety and a 12-10 OSU edge.
The Bucks would tack on a field goal on the following drive, and would hold the 15-10 lead until the Trojans struck with one minute left.
Tressel’s defense limited USC to just 40 total yards on 15 plays in the third quarter, shutting down an offense that torched San Jose State for 56 points a week ago.
But even when the Buckeye defense held its ground, the offense couldn’t muster enough to extend the marginal lead.
“We needed to put more points on the board,” Tressel said. “Holding them to 18 should be enough, but it wasn’t.”
The offense failed to take advantage of favorable field position throughout the game, running back Brandon Saine said.
“We had a lot of opportunities and didn’t capitalize,” he said. “The defense kept giving us chances. We tried our best but could not convert.”
Red zone struggles have been a nagging issue for the OSU offense of late. Too often, the Buckeyes come away with a field goal in place of a potential touchdown, running back Dan “Boom” Herron said. In three red zone trips Saturday, they crossed the goal line just once.
“It is all about execution,” he said. “We have to execute better in big games and limit our mistakes. We had it inside the 10-yard line twice tonight and came away with field goals. You have to convert those into touchdowns if you want to win.”
Still, Ohio State was in position for an upset until USC’s final drive. McKnight ran for more than 100 yards in last year’s victory over the Bucks, and finally found his groove again as the game wound down.
The junior tailback accounted for 31 of his 60 rushing yards and 21 of his 45 receiving yards on the decisive drive.
“We knew from the get-go they were going to try to get the ball into McKnight’s hands,” Spitler said. “We thought we did a great job throughout the game of putting pressure on him and bringing him down. He’s a hard guy to bring down. We just didn’t get it done in the end, that’s what it comes down to.”