Thursday, October 9, 2008

On Location: From 4,200 Believers to 81,608


MADISON, WISC - Like it or not, the partisan Wisconsin crowd witnessed what they did not want to believe. Terrelle Pryor is right here, right now.

Exactly one year and one day ago, Jeannette Jayhawks High School senior quarterback Terrelle Pryor scored three touchdowns (throw in an interception for good measure on the defensive side) in just about a quarter of action plowing toward a 54-0 shutout of Waynesburg Central. The attendance at the Jayhawks’ McKee Stadium? 4,200.

What a difference a year makes for Pryor. Fast-forward to Saturday night’s contest with Ohio State visiting Wisconsin, and the now-college freshman quarterback makes his first road game start against 11 hard-nosed Wisconsin defenders and 81,608 rabid fans, who submerged the entire stadium with Badger red and deafening cheers. As if the electric atmosphere wasn’t intimidating enough, Wisconsin seemed to have further stacked the contest in their favor thanks to some overwhelming statistical trends: Under Coach Brett Bielema, the Badgers were undefeated at home, holding the second longest home winning streak (16 games). They were also proving to be a miserable opponent to face after sunset, winning 21 of their last 22 night games, including their last 11. Finally, Wisconsin held an 18-1 record when going into the half with the lead under Bielema.

And then Pryor took the field. Almost as quick as Wisconsin deferred their winning coin toss, Pryor drove the Buckeyes to pay-dirt in a little over three minutes on a balanced blend of passing, quarterback keepers, and Beanie Wells rushing. Just like that, and perhaps just how it transpired against Waynesburg Central, the Pryor-led team scored quickly and easily.

But no one is ready to hand the Heisman Trophy to Pryor (yet) due to the growing pains he is still experiencing. Three subsequent drives stalled due to poor passing decisions, leading to one drive-killing interception and two drive-killing sacks. The Buckeyes’ offense seemed to stall in the middle quarters, leaving them trailing 10-7 at the half. Still, the young field general proved he is coachable and poised. The coaching staff almost certainly pushed Pryor to make safer reads as he started connecting mostly on short to medium comebacks, outs and digs. Despite the efficient play of Pryor, Ohio State found itself in an uncomfortable position – down 17-13 with 6:31 remaining in the game.

Game pressure can seize even the most veteran quarterbacks, let alone the Jeannette native freshman. For Ohio State at this point, the itemized pressure list seemed rather

long and discouraging: down in the fourth quarter? Check. A touchdown needed to win? Check. A lengthy majority of the field to cover (80 yards)? Check. First road start for quarterback, who is a freshman, in Madison? Check, etc. All was in place for a gutsy performance that would fall short for Pryor and company. And we could go home safely understanding that the young quarterback did all he could, given the overwhelming circumstances, but Wisconsin was just too tough. However, what we witnessed was barely explicable: a drive the length of the field kept alive by two third down conversions, two fumbles recovered and not lost, and one option keeper by Pryor who scampered left, drew a defender away from him on a pitch fake to Wells, and grazed the inside of the left pylon of the end zone, silencing and stunning 80,000+ hometown hopefuls. Just like he had done for the Jeannette Jayhawks so many times a year ago.

Fortunately for Ohio State, Pryor’s collegiate legacy started on the night of Oct 4, 2008 in Camp Randall Stadium. Unfortunately for Wisconsin and the rest of the Big Ten, Pryor’s legacy started on the night of October 4, 2008. Fortunately for football fans, it took only one year and one day for us to realize what 4,200 in little Jeannette, Pennsylvania already knew.