COLUMBUS — When No. 12 Miami plays at second-ranked Ohio State on Saturday, all the attention will be drawn to the teams’ Heisman hopefuls, quarterbacks Jacory Harris and Terrelle Pryor.
Yet the linchpins of the game might just be the comparatively unknown guys who labor on the defensive lines.
“We always talk about if we can get after them up front, if we can get pressure on the quarterback and stop the run game, it’s going to make the game 20 times easier,” said Dexter Larimore, a starting defensive tackle for the Buckeyes.
Miami cornerback Brandon Harris puts the onus on the ’Canes’ front wall to put the clamps on not just Pryor, but also his running mates in the backfield.
“The D-line is the strength of our defense,” Harris said. “We’re depending on them this week to put a lot of pressure on Pryor, but also to keep that running game slowed down. They have a great group of backs, so we want to control the running game and hopefully the D-line will get to Pryor a little bit.”
No one disputes the talent of Harris, the Hurricanes’ strong-armed passer, or Pryor, the Buckeyes’ star who can beat you with his legs or arm. But both players will be marked men by the opposing defense — and both have occasionally faltered in the heat of a big game.
“This is a game of pressure,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said.
Harris and Pryor have known each other for years and exchange texts. The juniors have each played in 26 career games and have similar numbers in total yardage and touchdowns created.
Both have had highs and lows in their progression since taking over as starters as freshmen.
A year ago, Harris was sacked three times, losing 28 yards, and was harassed into a miserable passing day (9 for 25 with one interception) in a 31-7 loss at Virginia Tech. In a defeat to North Carolina a few weeks later, he tossed four interceptions while trying to rally the ’Canes from a big first-half deficit. And in an awful performance by the whole team in a 20-14 setback to Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl, Harris was largely ineffective while being sacked five times.
Ohio State is paying particular attention to what its fellow Big Ten member did to subdue Harris.
“Using the Wisconsin film?” Tressel repeated. “That was the last time they played in a big game like this and we use it a bunch.”
The Badgers played keep away with mammoth running back John Clay (121 yards rushing), throttled Miami’s running attack (holding it to 61 yards on 23 attempts) and then teed off on Harris at every opportunity.
Harris prefers to throw the ball and isn’t afraid to go long. That’s not necessarily the case for Pryor, who loves to break containment and scramble for yards instead of going over the top.
“Jacory Harris is a guy who you can tell he really wants to throw the ball and really wants to throw it deep,” Ohio State cornerback Chimdi Chekwa said. “Sometimes last year that cost them a few times. But he’s a great quarterback, a guy who can make the throws you might not think he can. It’s going to be a real big challenge for us.”
Ohio State’s Paul Haynes, who coaches the safeties, said the key to stopping Harris is up front where ends Nathan Williams and Cameron Heyward and tackles Larimore and John Simon hold down the fort.
“A good pass rush is important,” he said. “You have to keep pressure on him to keep him off balance.”
Pryor’s two worst games a year ago were losses to Southern California and Purdue. Against the Trojans, he was just 11 of 25 passing for 177 yards with an interception and no touchdowns. In the stunning loss at 13-point underdog Purdue, Pryor threw two interceptions and was almost a non-factor.
His ability to run — Pryor said this week that one of his major goals this season is to rush for 1,000 yards — is a big concern for the Hurricanes.
“We’ve got to stay in our lanes,” said defensive tackle Marcus Forston, who will be chasing Pryor along with linemates Allen Bailey, Josh Holmes, Micanor Regis and Olivier Vernon. “A quarterback like that, you have to trust the defensive end, (and) the defensive ends have to trust the defensive tackle. Have to.”
Pryor is expecting Miami to provide plenty of heat.
“Whatever they are going to bring, I’ll be ready because we practice daily against the best defense in the country,” he said. “They bring all the kinds of blitzes you could possibly imagine, so if our offensive line can stay with them we can at least slow down the ’Canes. They’re really good up front, speedy and strong. But if they come after me, then so be it.”