Any way you slice it, it all added up to another Ohio State loss in the national spotlight. This time, the Buckeyes found themselves tantalizingly close to the visiting USC Trojans before allowing a touchdown with little more than a minute to play.
Final score: USC 18, OSU 15. But just as easily as the Trojans carved up the Buckeyes on two scoring drives to close each half, the home team could have come out of the contest with a victory.
The Buckeyes twice settled for field goals after drives bogged down inside the USC 10-yard line. They allowed the Trojans to mount a lightning-quick scoring drive at the end of the first half when Carroll seemed content to head into the locker room trailing by a field goal.
But for the second consecutive game, a decision by OSU's head coach regarding a potential field goal in the final quarter came back to haunt the Buckeyes – only this time they could not recover from it.
Clinging to a 15-10 lead with about 10 minutes remaining, OSU had the ball first-and-10 at the USC 35-yard line. One rush up the middle, an incompletion and a sack set the ball at the 36 and senior kicker Aaron Pettrey was warming up on the sidelines.
Rather than go for the 53-yard kick to put his team ahead by eight points, Tressel elected to take a delay-of-game penalty and punt the ball away with a little less than eight minutes remaining.
Any OSU fan who was watching when Texas came to Ohio Stadium in 2005 knew what would come next. The Trojans put together a 14-play, 86-yard drive culminating in a 2-yard touchdown run with 1:05 left in the game.
Looking back, Tressel said he didn't want to put his defense against the wall should Pettrey – who has four field goals of 50-plus yards to his credit – not convert the field goal.
"We just felt that we might be better served if we punted them down deep and put a little bit of pressure on them," Tressel said.
One week prior against Navy, Tressel opted not to kick a field goal with his team ahead by eight points in the fourth quarter and instead went for it on fourth-and-2 only to see his team come up short.
The Midshipmen would go on to score and had an opportunity to tie the game until a Brian Rolle interception quelled any thoughts of upset.
To that point against USC, the OSU defense had kept the Trojan offense largely in check. The Buckeyes even used a first-down sack and ensuing false start penalty to push the visitors back to a second-and-19 play from the USC 5-yard line, but it was then that running back Joe McKnight finally asserted himself.
McKnight accumulated 32 of his 60 rushing yards on the night on the final drive and added a 21-yard reception for good measure.
"He's a playmaker," OSU senior linebacker Austin Spitler said of McKnight. "We thought we did a great job throughout the game of putting pressure on him and bringing him down. We just didn't get it done in the end. That's what it comes down to."
In getting to that point, the Buckeyes had not done themselves many favors. In addition to the two field goals that came from the shadow of the goal line, a Terrelle Pryor interception on the first series of the game resulted in a 2-yard scoring drive for the Trojans.
Until the bitter end, it almost looked like a return to "Tresselball," the conservative approach to games that helped the Buckeyes to the 2002 national championship game. USC's average starting field position was its own 28-yard line, whereas the Buckeyes started each possession on average at their own 38.
Leading the way was punter Jon Thoma, who put four of his six punts inside the 20-yard line and averaged 38.7 yards per kick with a long of 46 yards.
"They were great with the special teams," Carroll said. "They put us in tough field position for most of the night and it took us a couple of plays to get us going defensively."
OSU junior defensive end Thaddeus Gibson said he felt the Buckeyes might have already been thinking about heading into the locker room for halftime when the Trojans took over with 48 seconds left on their own 20-yard line. On that play, running back Stafon Johnson broke free for a 29-yard pickup and igniting some fire in the Trojan offense.
The Buckeyes stiffened when USC got the ball down to the 3-yard line with eight seconds remaining and forced a field goal that knotted the score at 10. However, that was a three-pointer that would loom larger as the game went on.
"All of a sudden you pop a 29-yard run and you get a little momentum and now you're thinking points," Tressel said. "In a ball game like this one, any momentum you can get and any points you can get is huge."
At the end of the night, it all added up to another frustrating defeat for the Buckeyes with a national audience looking in.
"I'm really just physically drained and I know this whole team is just physically drained," senior cornerback Kurt Coleman said. "It's just tough, man. I don't know. It's just tough."