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Buckeyes down but not out after close loss to USC

COLUMBUS — Yes, Ohio State lost yet another marquee top-10 matchup. Yes, Saturday night’s 18-15 setback to No. 3 Southern California didn’t do much to quiet the critics.

But, for a change, there was some consolation for the Buckeyes and their faithful that at least their team went toe-to-toe with the Trojans.

Ohio State was not just pleased the game came down to a late drive, but upset that it didn’t win. For a team with such a fragile self-image, that’s a major step.

‘‘We should have beat ’em. Point blank, we should have beat them,’’ Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor said in the wee hours of the morning, reflecting on the game. ‘‘We should have beat them by two or three touchdowns, easy, man. The ball just fell the wrong way.’’

The loss was the Buckeyes’ sixth in a row to a top-10 team.

Still, this was nothing like the 35-3 bludgeoning USC administered to the Buckeyes a year ago at the Coliseum. It was nothing like those painful, lopsided and embarrassing losses to Florida and LSU in the national title games after the 2006 and 2007 seasons.

This time, the No. 11 Buckeyes led most of the game. They were on top 15-10 until a dramatic, memorable and clutch drive that — had it taken place in Cleveland — might perpetually be known as ‘‘The Drive’’ or ‘‘The Comeback.’’

The Trojans faced second and 19 at their own 5, and third and 8 at their own 16, before keeping the march alive on an 11-yard run by Joe McKnight and freshman quarterback Matt Barkley’s 21-yard completion to McKnight.

They still needed to convert third and 9 at the Ohio State 36, fourth and 1 at the 28, and third and 1 at the 6 before Stafon Jackson raced around right end for a 2-yard touchdown run with 1:05 glowing on the new scoreboards at Ohio Stadium.

A raucous, scarlet-clad crowd of 106,033 — the largest ever at the old gray hulk on the banks of the Olentangy River — was silent at the end, but it sure wasn’t up until then. They roared and hollered, sang and chanted, booed and cheered for 3 hours, 14 minutes.

Asked why Ohio State always seems to come up short in high-profile games, safety Kurt Coleman hesitated for several seconds. Then, ever so slowly, he muttered, ‘‘I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that.’’

If anything, the defeat might have been one small step toward regaining some respect from fans and poll voters across the country. The Buckeyes dropped just three spots in the Associated Press Top 25and are ranked ahead of the other four one-loss teams in the rankings.

The Buckeyes had no problem looking in the mirror.

‘‘We can look back and say that we’re not so bad,’’ linebacker Brian Rolle said. ‘‘You hear a lot of talk about ’Ohio State this’ and ’They don’t stand a chance.’ But as you can see on the scoreboard, we weren’t too far behind.’’

Maybe in losing, and losing close, they might not be an afterthought among the best college teams in the land.

‘‘It does help in the sense that we hung in there throughout the game,’’ linebacker Austin Spitler said. ‘‘I thought we had them. Again, it hurts though. We didn’t get it done. That’s what it comes down to.’’

Rather than beat themselves up, though, the Buckeyes seemed pleased that they had proven so many doubters wrong, that they had not only hung with but led a star-stocked USC team that many believe will play for the national title in January.

‘‘USC’s a good team, but I’m not going to say they’re any better than us,’’ defensive lineman Cameron Heyward said. ‘‘We’ve just got to learn from our mistakes and just keep playing.’’

Next comes a game against high-scoring Toledo, then the Big Ten beckons with Illinois.

Pryor said the loss didn’t cast a pall on the year. Not even close.

‘‘We needed this win. It hurts right now, but we’ve got a long season to go,’’ he said. ‘‘We’re going to fight and we’ll be back in it. We’ve got a good chance.’’