Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- If Jim Tressel could script the perfect football game, Saturday night's clash against USC would have been pretty close. Except for the final score, of course.
Tressel's hallmarks will always be field position, special teams, stout defense and just enough offense. His best Ohio State teams have reflected his rock-ribbed values, winning games not with flash or flavor, but smarts and toughness.
After numerous big-game stumbles, Ohio State was so close to making The Vest look like a genius again.
"This was definitely an Ohio State game," Buckeyes sophomore wide receiver DeVier Posey said. "It really wasn't like that Pac-10, throwing the ball, all that fancy, NFL style of play. It was just a hard-nosed, hard-fought battle to the end."
Ohio State's latest big-stage stumble didn't follow the pattern that turned off so many observers to its program and its brand of football. This wasn't Florida or LSU or even USC of last year. Instead, it resembled the loss to Vince Young's Texas team in 2005, the loss to Penn State last fall and the loss to Texas in the 2009 Fiesta Bowl.
So what's worse? Getting blown out or being beaten at your own game?
"Holding them to 18 should be enough," Tressel lamented, "but it wasn't."
Rather than exalting punter Jon Thoma (4 punts inside the 20) or a ferocious defensive front or Ohio State's huge field-position edge, Tressel had to answer questions about several of his own decisions. They weren't surprising choices at all, given his history, but they might have cost the Buckeyes.
At the start of the second quarter, Ohio State faced fourth-and-goal from the USC 2-yard line with the game tied at 7-7. Rather than going for the touchdown, Tressel opted for an 18-yard field goal.
"If it was fourth-and-1, we may have gone for it," he said. "I think your percent chance of making fourth-and-2 probably doesn't weigh as well as getting your three points."
The more questionable move came with Ohio State up 15-10 midway through the fourth quarter. A Terrelle Pryor sack pushed the ball back to the USC 36-yard line for fourth down.
Buckeyes kicker Aaron Pettrey was 4-for-4 in field goals on the season and had converted five attempts of longer than 50 yards in his career. But he didn't get a chance for a 53-yard try as Ohio State opted to punt.
"We did talk about it and we came to the decision that if we didn't make [the field goal] we would have been giving our defense, who had been out there a little bit ... tougher field position to handle," Tressel said.
Tressel made the predictable choices, in many cases the smart ones, but he left some wondering whether he played not to lose against a USC team that always knows how to win. Then again, if Pryor and the Buckeyes offense had done just a little bit more, they would have walked out as winners.
"It comes down to me; I take the whole blame for it," said Pryor, who completed just 11 of 25 passes with no touchdowns and an interception that led to USC's first score. "We had 'em on the ropes. ... We had to punch it in offensively. We didn't help the defense enough, and that's going to happen.
"But we needed this win."
Pryor hit two big pass plays early but never seemed to find a rhythm, continuing a pattern that held true for much of last season. Ohio State had four possessions start in USC territory and got only two field goals out of them.
"We should have beat them by two or three touchdowns, easy," Pryor said. "The ball is floating the wrong way, like I keep saying. We needed this win, and it just hurts right now."
Ohio State proved it can hang with a favored USC team, just as it proved it could hang with Texas in the Fiesta Bowl. But close might not be good enough for a Buckeyes team that has dropped six straight to top 5 opponents and for a beleaguered Big Ten that continues to put its reputation on the shoulders of the Scarlet and Gray.
The Buckeyes gave a tutorial in Tressel ball Saturday night. They just didn't earn a passing grade.
"We felt like whatever was said, "College GameDay," everything, [USC] had to come in Ohio Stadium and play against us," Posey said. "We wanted to battle, we wanted to win, we came up short, but it's alright. We'll bounce back."