Ohio State quarterback Art Schlichter dropped back to pass, rolled slightly to his right and threw over the middle. But before the ball could reach his intended receiver, Gary Williams, USC's Ronnie Lott cut in front of him and tipped the ball away.

It landed at the 33-yard line as most in the crowd of 105,526 in the Rose Bowl screamed for joy.

Schlichter stood stock still for a moment, then glanced toward the scoreboard. On fourth and 10 from the Ohio State 20 with 1:18 left in the game, he had thrown an incomplete pass. With Southern Cal leading, 17-16, that meant the dream of a national championship was gone.

An hour later, Schlichter would sum up his feelings by saying: "It's one of the biggest disappointments of my life. We were two points away from a national championship. It hurts a lot."

As Schlichter, brilliant with 11 completions in 21 passing attempts for 297 yards, came to the sideline none of his teammates approached him. He walked to the bench, sat down and slammed his helmet onto the concrete.

"We knew before the game that Schlichter was a big-play man," victorious Coach John Robinson said. "People have said we have problems with our secondary. We did today. That problem was No. 10."

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Schlichter glanced at the darkening sky and walked over to stand next to his best friend, wide receiver Doug Donley. For a split second he put his head on Donley's shoulder. Then, as the gun went off, he walked to the locker room oblivious to those stopping to tell him he had played a great game.

It was almost an hour after the game before Schlichter appeared in the hallway outside the OSU locker room, from which the press was barred. Accosted by reporters, he hesitated. "I'm not sure I'm allowed to talk," he said, mindful of Coach Earl Bruce's myriad of authoritarian rules. tFinally, he did talk.

"We thought we were capable of throwing deep on them," he said of his team's game plan. "The second half they played a lot more zone than man-to-man. I made some mistakes."

Not many. Twice in the first half he hit split end Gary Williams deep, behind the USC secondary, taking advantage of double coverage on Donley.

The first time Williams was dragged down on the two-yard line and the Buckeyes were stopped four times by the Trojans, coming away without any points. The second time, with 21 seconds left in the first half, Williams went all the way for a 10-10 tie.

"Unbelievable tough quarterback," said Trojan defensive back Ronnie Lott. "He gives you these play-action fakes, he can run the option and he never seems to be off-target. He was some kind of super today."

The compliments reigning down around him seemed to have little effect on Schlichter, who has started all 24 games the Buckeyes have played since he arrived as a freshman one year ago.

"I didn't play well enough for us to win, so I didn't play well enough and that's not very good," Schlichter said. "I'm proud of everyone on this team. We proved we could compete with USC. We proved a lot of things to a lot of people this year when we weren't picked to do very much.

"But I've always said my goal is to win a national championship. We had the opportunity today and we didn't make it."

Schlichter looked at the swarm of reporters, a pleading look in his eyes as if to say, "Please leave me alone." His eyes were misty and as the questions continued his voice choked slightly. But he answered all the questions, often pausing to take a deep breath before answering.

"What can you learn from a game like this?" he said in response to a question. "All you can learn is that you were two points short. You can't learn very much.

"But," he added quickly, "just because we came up short this time, don't count us out. We'll be back."

Earlier, Bruce had lauded his quarterback simply: "He played as well as we could have asked him to," the coach said. "He typified out team in a lot of ways this year. He played his heart out all season and today."

But that wasn't enough, "I'll think about this game a long time," Schlichter said. "But I think anyone who saw it will, too. They won't forget Ohio State." Or Art Schlichter.