Ohio State finds identity in final act

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Handshakes had been exchanged, the post-game prayer had been recited at midfield and Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel was ready to get out of the cold.

His players had other ideas.

As Tressel began to move toward the locker room, the Buckeyes took off running toward a large contingent of their fans in the southeast corner of Memorial Stadium.

"They've got a flair for the dramatic," a smiling Tressel said, before joining the players.

Tressel doesn't mind this kind of drama: singing Carmen Ohio, slapping hands with supporters, acknowledging signs in the stands. OK, he might not have liked Terrelle Pryor taunting Illinois fans after Saturday's 30-20 win, but, as Pryor explained, it's all in fun.

If this is as dramatic as it gets for the Buckeyes, they'll be thrilled. They've been through plenty of plot twists this season, and they're hoping the script stays the same the rest of the way.

"Thank God, it feels a little more calm now," wide receiver Brian Hartline said. "Unfortunately, it's the end of the season. It will be talked about, did we waste time dealing with that kind of stuff? Maybe, but the facts are the facts and this is where we're sitting."

Some surely watched Chris "Beanie" Wells and Pryor lead Ohio State to victory Saturday and wondered what might have been. Wells' foot injury and Pryor's earlier-than-expect ascent to the starting quarterback spot dominated the spotlight during the first half of the season.

Each week brought questions about health and leadership, about expectations and direction. Despite so many familiar faces, Ohio State seemed unsure of itself, never more so than in a 35-3 loss at USC.

Those questions are beginning to fade.

The 11th-ranked Buckeyes sit at 9-2, not where they had hoped to be following consecutive trips to the national title game. But they still can clinch a share of the Big Ten title by beating Michigan next week.

If Michigan State upsets Penn State in Happy Valley, Ohio State will go to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1997. Even if Penn State prevails, the Buckeyes find themselves in decent shape for a BCS at-large bid.

Though the postseason picture remains a bit fuzzy, it's becoming clear the Buckeyes aren't the same team that stepped onto the field Sept. 13 at the L.A. Coliseum.

"We're a better team," Hartline said. "There's less drama, more focus and just a better feeling of who we are."

The Pryor-Wells backfield has galvanized the offense the last two weeks, and Ohio State racked up 549 rushing yards in road wins against Northwestern and Illinois. Cornerback Malcolm Jenkins has been spectacular in Big Ten play, both on defense and on special teams, and other defenders (James Laurinaitis, Thaddeus Gibson, Kurt Coleman) are stepping up each week.

"We found our identity," Gibson said. "A lot of things can happen throughout the year. Whether it was earlier or later, we found it, and we're ready to roll."

Added Jenkins: "As a team, you want to continue to better and better and then peak at your last game."

Has Ohio State reached its peak?

"Close to it," Wells said. "Not completely, but close to it."

Saturday's win was partially about payback for Ohio State after it fell to Illinois last year in Columbus. Pryor wasn't part of that game, but he paid close attention to a video shown at the team meeting Friday night, which ended with shots of Illinois celebrating on the Ohio State logo at midfield.

As he ran off the field Saturday, the fail-safe freshman jawed a bit with Illinois fans, one of whom chucked a small object at him.

"I was taunting them, I don't blame them," Pryor said. "As long as it's not a brick or something. ... It's all fun. If I saw them on the street, they'd be trying to shake my hand. 'Where's Beanie? Can I get your autograph?'

"It's all fun and games, really."

After a stormy September, it certainly beats the alternative.

"We've got the passing game together, we've got the running game, the linemen are starting to key in and playing a lot harder," Pryor said. "We're starting to come together and bond together. It's just going to be good. [Tressel] says all the time November is the biggest month.

"You could lose early, but it's what you do at the end."