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Posted: Sunday September 13, 2009 11:22PM; Updated: Monday September 14, 2009 9:14PM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >

Michigan's rapid improvement calls Pryor's college choice into question

Story Highlights

While Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor struggles, Michigan's Tate Forcier is shining

One can't help but wonder how Pryor would have fared in Michigan's offense

Jarrett Brown, Pat White's understudy at West Virginia, is seizing his opportunity

With freshman quarterback Tate Forcier (left), Michigan might be rapidly gaining ground on Terrelle Pryor and Ohio State.
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Two years ago this winter, archrivals Ohio State and Michigan waged an offseason battle as intense as any of their annual late-November showdowns. Fans from both sides sweated the decision of a gifted high school quarterback who, if he chose the Wolverines, figured to give newly hired coach Rich Rodriguez a perfect weapon for his spread-option offense, and who, if he chose the Buckeyes, might doom Michigan to three more dire years in the recently titled rivalry.

Rodriguez wound up landing his dream quarterback all right -- but it wasn't Terrelle Pryor. In just his second career start, true freshman Tate Forcier could not have looked more poised and potent in leading the Wolverines to a dramatic last-second win over Notre Dame. He finished the day 23-of-33 for 240 yards, two touchdowns and an interception while running for 70 yards and a score.

Later that night, Ohio State's Pryor slogged his way to an erratic 11-of-25, 177-yard performance in a heartbreaking last-second loss to USC. In just his second start, Forcier did what the Buckeyes' mega-recruit has yet to do through 12: deliver a breakthrough performance.

Granted, it's far too early to render any definitive judgments on Pryor (Vince Young, the player to whom Pryor is most commonly compared, didn't truly blossom until midway through his redshirt sophomore season), and granted, he faced a much tougher defense Saturday than Forcier. Still, if I'm an Ohio State fan, I'd be concerned about two things right now: the fact that Pryor, for all his obvious physical gifts, still looks largely uncomfortable running the Buckeyes' offense, and the fact that the archrival Wolverines now have their own prodigy who seems totally at ease.

Against the Irish, the 6-foot, 180-ish-pound Forcier looked like he'd been running Rodriguez's offense for years, often hitting receivers at the exact moment they broke open (see his game-winning touchdown throw to Greg Matthews). In addition, the deceivingly deft runner duped the entire Notre Dame defense early in the fourth quarter when, on fourth-and-3, he faked a handoff, ran three steps to the right, stopped, turned up field and dashed 31 yards to the end zone.

"He's kind of a unique individual," Rodriguez said of Forcier. "Everything around him may be going crazy, and yet he's still calm in the middle of the storm. Some guys have that quality and he's one of them."

Pryor -- the oft-chronicled fastest Buckeye -- showed some moves of his own early on against USC, but more often than not he looked hesitant. His few attempts at option plays were so slow to develop that the Trojans inevitably snuffed them out. (A botched option pitch on first-and-goal at the 10 late in the third quarter caused a seven-yard loss.) And while nearly every time the 6-foot-6 behemoth rolls out it looks like something big is about to happen, time and again against USC he misfired at open receivers.

Afterward, a disappointed Pryor unnecessarily took blame for the loss before adding: "We should have beat [the Trojans] by two or three touchdowns, easy."

Comments like those -- not to mention his bizarre statement last week about Michael Vick -- should remind us that Pryor is still a young man with considerable room for maturation. His coach, Jim Tressel, cautioned as much last week, saying, "He's still not a wily veteran by any means."

Youth, however, did not hinder Forcier from delivering one of the most clutch performances we've seen so far this season. Perhaps the Michigan quarterback is simply preternaturally developed.

Or, perhaps Pryor simply chose the wrong school.

On the surface, it seems like Tressel and his staff have properly adjusted their offense to fit Pryor's talents. They line him up in the shotgun. They call a fair share of options, quarterback draws and rollouts. In execution, however, it's still very much a work in progress. Mind you, that's not all on Pryor -- the offensive line and receivers weren't always in sync against USC, either.

But then look at Michigan and just how radically its offense has improved in such a short time. Seeing how smoothly the Wolverines operate under Forcier, and knowing what Rodriguez did with Pat White at West Virginia, one can't help but wonder whether Pryor would be more developed at this point if he'd gone to play for the spread guru.

Of course, all that's moot now. Both teams have their quarterbacks of the present and future. What's scary is that Michigan's offense is only beginning to scratch the surface. Imagine the possibilities should Rodriguez bring in an explosive tailback to complement Forcier or find more ways to utilize speedster Denard Robinson.

Ohio State still has a superior defense to the Wolverines'. The Buckeyes did still come within 1:05 of beating the No. 3 team in the country thanks almost entirely to a reloaded D led by budding star linebacker Brian Rolle.

But Rodriguez was hired to bring balance back to a rivalry that Tressel has thus far owned, winning seven of eight meetings. Two weeks ago, when Michigan was still an unknown commodity coming off a 3-9 debacle, the possibility remained unimaginable. But with Forcier on the fast track and Pryor seemingly stuck in neutral, the Wolverines' day may come sooner than anticipated.

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