Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State players insisted their eyes were locked on the players in front of them, not on the bigger, stronger and faster men 2,000 miles away.
They insisted the energy level was high, even higher than it had been before the season opener against Youngstown State. Ohio U wouldn't be a trap game. Letdowns happen in sports all the time, but not to this team, not to these seniors, not to this coaching staff.
"Everybody was ready to play," cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said.
Ohio State emerged with a "W" on Saturday, the 800th in team history, but for the most part, the game had all the ingredients of that L-word.
"It kind of looked like everyone predicted you might look like in between your opener and your big 'national stage game,' which is disappointing because we really needed to make progress," Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel said.
Ohio State made some progress in a 26-14 victory. The defense forced four of Ohio's five turnovers, quieting the takeaway talk. Wideout Ray Small emerged as a big-play threat, and defensive end Lawrence Wilson caused havoc in the backfield.
But the Buckeyes should have accomplished so much more. Taking the field a week before a mega matchup at top-ranked USC, Ohio State had a lengthy to-do list. Most of the items were never crossed out.
"We didn't get better this week," center Jim Cordle said. "We were supposed to."
Added running back Maurice Wells: "We really didn't expect the game to go how it did. It wasn't pretty. We're going to have to make a lot of improvements next week if we want to get a win out there."
This game provided a unique opportunity, particularly on offense. Playing without their best player, running back Chris "Beanie" Wells, the Buckeyes had the opportunity to experiment with different plays and personnel groups.
But when their bread-and-butter schemes didn't produce a comfortable early lead, the script changed. Creativity was tabled to next week.
Perhaps the team's biggest regret involved freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor, whose last chance to go through a game before USC was cut short.
Pryor took just three snaps when the game was in doubt, relieving starter Todd Boeckman late in the first quarter. But after misfiring on two passes -- raising questions about his arm and decision-making skills -- Pryor departed and didn't return until the 3:06 mark of the fourth quarter.
Trailing for most of the game, Ohio State opted not to gamble with its prized freshman.
If Saturday's conversation between Tressel and offensive coordinator Jim Bollman is any indication, don't expect to see Pryor in crunch time against USC. Tressel wanted to use the freshman with Ohio State up 19-14 in the fourth quarter. Bollman wasn't so sure.
"I said to coach Bolls, 'Why don't we have Terrelle see if he could take this,'" Tressel said. "And coach Bolls says, 'You sure you want to put him under pressure like that?' And I said, 'When would you like his first pressure to be?'"
Pryor generated the loudest roar of the afternoon when he broke off a 23-yard run with two minutes remaining. But the Buckeyes didn't learn anything new about their talented freshman.
"If Terrelle goes out there, ignites the offense a little bit and makes some plays out there, I'm all for it," Boeckman said. "We needed to get going today. We needed someone to have spark."
Ohio deserves plenty of credit for the Buckeye blues. The Bobcats defenders clogged the middle and put pressure on Boeckman and the running backs.
Despite losing starting quarterback Theo Scott to a left shoulder injury in the first quarter, Ohio maintained its poise behind junior Boo Jackson, who became the latest mobile quarterback to give Ohio State problems. Jackson tossed three interceptions in the loss, but he scrambled for 55 yards and kept several drives alive with third-down heroics.
The Bobcats converted 9 of 17 third-down opportunities, a ratio that must improve for Ohio State to have any chance of beating USC.
"There were a lot of third-and-longs where they scrambled and picked them up," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "You've got to get off the field. It's frustrating."
The tackling will need to tighten up next week, but the Buckeyes defense only gave up one touchdown and can draw confidence from forcing turnovers. The real concerns are on offense.
Boeckman struggled to find a rhythm until late in the third quarter, and a miscommunication with Cordle led to a fumbled snap and an Ohio touchdown, which put the Bobcats up 14-6 and sent panic through The Shoe.
"I gave Jimmy the signal and then I looked up a little bit and he snapped it," Boeckman said. "I kind of wasn't ready for it, and it also was a little high."
Boeckman and Cordle can't afford similar miscues at USC, when crowd noise will be a much bigger factor.
Maurice Wells was asked to speculate on how Trojans players viewed the Buckeyes' performance Saturday.
"They're probably thinking it's going to be a slam-dunk win next week," he said.
The same thoughts might have hurt Ohio State on Saturday. It certainly looked that way.