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September 11, 2008

Game 2: Beating Down Brutus?

A top-5 showdown figures to shake, rattle and roll the venerable Coliseum on Saturday night. But can the Trojans force the Buckeyes into submission in college football's biggest regular season game in 2008?

The No. 1-ranked USC Trojans open their 2008 home schedule this Saturday, September 13, against the No. 5 Ohio State Buckeyes of the Big 10 Conference at 5 p.m. (PDT) in the sold-out Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national ABC television audience. It is the 22nd meeting between the two schools (but first since 1990), with USC holding an 11-9-1 edge against the Buckeyes in a storied series. The Trojans have won the past five meetings, dating to the 1975 Rose Bowl.

USC holds a 4-3 edge on Ohio State in Rose Bowl games and is 4-2-1 against the Buckeyes in the Coliseum. Overall, USC is 65-27-2 against Big 10 competition, including a seven-game winning streak. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes are 50-23-2 against Pac-10 opposition.

The Trojans enjoyed a bye last weekend after opening the season with a crushing 52-7 victory at Virginia. Mark Sanchez's first appearance as a full-time starter was impressive as he threw for 338 yards and three touchdowns, while the Trojan defense limited the Cavaliers to just 187 total yards (32 rushing). Meanwhile, Ohio State survived a stronger-than-expected challenge from Ohio University a week ago, holding off the Bobcats, 26-14. While Ohio State looked sluggish on offense, holding out stud running back Chris Wells - who injured his foot in the Buckeyes' season-opening 43-0 win over Youngstown State, and looking ahead to this weekend's much-hyped match-up were likely to blame. Wells is expected back at 100 percent this weekend and so is Ohio State's focus.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his eighth season at USC (77-14) having led the Trojans to six consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Ohio State headman Jim Tressel is also in his eighth season at the helm in Columbus, holding a 75-16 mark at the school (210-73-2 overall including his 15 seasons at Youngstown State from 1986-2000). Tressel has guided the Buckeyes to consecutive BCS championship game appearances, losing to Florida and LSU following the past two seasons. Also under Tressel, the 2002 Buckeyes upset Miami, 31-24, in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl to win the national championship. That was Ohio State's last appearance against a No. 1-ranked opponent.

The Trojans' 2008 home opener is the biggest (and most hyped) game played in the Coliseum since a pair of 1-2 match-ups in the 1980s (1981 vs. Oklahoma and 1988 vs. Notre Dame). USC has won its past 10 home openers, but it hasn't faced an opponent as talented or as motivated as the Buckeyes during that stretch.

While USC hopes to build on its impressive cross-country win in the opener, Ohio State has been installed as a double-digit underdog in a game that many prognosticators were picking them to win just a couple weeks ago. Combine that disrespect with the fact that the Buckeyes have been hammered in the past two BCS title games, and you can be sure Ohio State will arrive with a pretty big chip on its shoulder come Saturday.

Ohio State Offense
Offensive coordinator Jim Bollmann could not have been too thrilled with his group after last week's lackadaisical effort against Ohio. Just 272 yards of total offense against a team many Mid-American Conference (MAC) observers would grudgingly call ninth best in the conference is not impressive, even considering the loss of Beanie Wells. Much like in the days of yore, the Buckeyes remain a smash-mouth offensive team, focused on beating you up with their running attack and a patient, low-risk passing attack that will look to stick you with the home-run ball if the opportunity presents itself.

With a massive and experienced offensive line, a strong set of running backs and receivers and an experienced game manager in senior quarterback Todd Boeckman, more is expected from the Ohio State offense than what it showed last week. Boeckman, completed 64.5 percent of his passes a year ago when he was first-team All-Big-10, tossing 28 TDs and 14 interceptions. He's expected to manage the game and utilize his receivers and tight ends to control the clock.

It's a high-percentage passing attack - Boeckman's completed two-thirds of his passes in two games in 2008 - that does like to throw the deep ball once it's lulled you to sleep with runs and short passes. Boeckman has shown the proclivity to throw interceptions in the past against speedy, aggressive defenses. The wildcard here is true freshman sensation Terrelle Pryor, touted as a run/pass threat who is more of a straight-out runner so far in his short Buckeye career.

While Pryor had a couple of impressive runs against Youngstown State, Tressel used him sparingly in a tighter game against Ohio. Expect to see Pryor in and out of the game early as a change-up, but if the game stays tight throughout, Pryor's opportunities may shrink thanks to Tressel's close-to-the-vest M.O.

Senior Brian Robiskie headlines a solid group of receivers for Boeckman and Pryor to connect with. At 6'3", Robiskie is a sizeable target and a favorite deep threat. He, like much of the Buckeye passing attack, is off to a slow start in 2008, but he averaged 17 yards per catch a year ago and scored 11 of his 17 career touchdowns. On the other side, junior Brian Hartline is another solid target, who averages 14 yards per catch in his career.

Fellow junior Ray Small (the Buckeyes' resident expert on "class"), who has been in and out of Tressel's doghouse since arriving in Columbus, is a flashy talent who leads Ohio State with eight grabs on the young season. Smallish sophomore Dane Sanzenbacher has performed well as the fourth wideout. At tight end, fifth-year senior Rory Nicol and junior Jake Ballard split time. Both are imposing blockers, but have combined for just three catches so far in 2008.

While the Buckeyes did end up rushing for 162 yards in Beanie Wells' absence last week, his return would transform Ohio State's attack. The bulky yet fast junior rushed for 1,609 yards and 15 TDs a year ago. And he was off to a quick start in 2008, with 13 carries for 111 yards in the opener before going down with a foot injury. He's expected to be back at near 100 percent Saturday.

In his stead, shifty senior Maurice Wells (no relation), sophomore Brandon Saine and redshirt freshman Dan Herron are all solid options. Saine, who ran a 10.38 in the 100-meters as a senior in high school, has been held back by a hamstring injury. However, none of OSU's backs carry the "it" factor of Beanie Wells, who is a true difference-maker for the Buckeye attack. Without him, it would be a very rough go for Ohio State.

Again, up front, the Buckeyes are loaded with experience and talent. Led by senior left tackle Alex Boone, an Outland Trophy watch-lister, Ohio State's front five average 6'5" and 316 lbs. - a very traditional, and massive, Big-10 line. Fellow seniors Steve Rehring and Ben Person start at the guard spots, while junior Jim Cordle handles the center duties. The greenest of the group is sophomore right tackle Bryant Browning - but he also may have the greatest upside of the group.

Ohio State Defense
Co-defensive coordinators Jim Heacock and Luke Fickell may have even more returning talent than the Buckeye offense. Running out of a 4-3 set, and featuring a bevy of stars in the back seven, the Buckeye defensive personnel almost mirrors USC's stellar defense. Through two games, the Buckeyes have forced six turnovers and forced 12 three-and-out possessions, something they did nearly 50 percent of the time in 2007. The leaders include All-America and Butkus Award-winning middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, senior strong-side linebacker Marcus Freeman and senior cornerback Malcolm Jenkins.

Up front, Ohio State had to replace star defensive end Vernon Gholston, who set a Buckeye record with 14 sacks in 2007. However, returning starter Cameron Heyward is joined by now-healthy junior Lawrence Wilson, a major sack threat in his own right, who missed 2007 after breaking his leg in the season opener.

In the middle, senior Nader Abdallah and junior Todd Denlinger are solid run stuffers. Tressel's staff wanted to see them get a better push on the pass rush in 2008, however. Sophomore Dexter Larimore, who's been in the rotation the first two games, has provided a little better pass-rush option in that area thus far.

In Laurinaitis and Freeman, the Buckeyes feature the best linebacker duo this side of Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing. The pair has combined for 455 tackles, 30 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks and 10 interceptions in their Buckeye careers (40 games for Laurinaitis and 41 for Freeman). On the weak side, sophomore Ross Homan is in his first year as a starter, but has played well, notching 10 tackles in two games. Sophomore Tyler Moeller has also seen some time behind Freeman, and has picked up seven stops.

In the secondary, second-team All-America Jenkins has great size and speed at corner He has nine career interceptions and forces many teams to look away from whatever side he lines up on. Donald Washington returns to the Buckeye lineup this week after a two-game suspension. He's a returning starter, but is likely to split time with sophomore Chimdi Chekwa, who has played well in his stead. Senior Shaun Lane is another option at corner. Juniors Kurt Coleman (strong safety) and Anderson Russell (free safety) are more-than-serviceable returning starters in the middle of the secondary. Sophomore Jermale Hines has also seen time.

Ohio State Special Teams
More experience is available on special teams, as senior kicker Ryan Pretorius, junior kickoff specialist Aaron Pettrey and senior punter A.J. Trapasso all return. Pretorius is six-of-seven on field goals so far in 2008, while Pettrey nailed a 54-yard attempt against Youngstown State. Trapasso has averaged 40 yards per boot so far. Small is the leading punt returner, and he had a 69-yard TD against Ohio. Reserve running backs Herron, Saine and Maurice Wells are handling the kick return duties, but Ohio State has struggled to improve what was one of their few problem areas a year ago.

USC Offensive Gameplan
After an unexpected breakout performance in the season opener against Virginia, what should fans expect of the Trojans' reinvigorated offense against a much stiffer test from the Buckeyes? Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian highlighted the Trojans large cast of playmakers in week one, with Sanchez finding eight different receivers (10 Trojans caught passes overall) and five of USC's tailbacks finding the end zone. Expect the Trojans to, again, try to involve all of their skill players in the game plan.

However, with Sanchez likely to face a much more stout pass rush and solid cornerbacks against Ohio State, it's interesting to note that where USC may test the Buckeye defense the most is in their linebacker corps. Ohio State will definitely push to get a pass rush on Sanchez, but the Buckeyes have notched just three sacks so far in 2008. Expect them to look for different ways to harass Sanchez with blitzing - something Virginia didn't (or wasn't able to) do - and force him into early mistakes.

However, both Florida and LSU, in the past two BCS title games, have used the speed of their skill players to put the Ohio State linebackers (and safeties, for that matter) into space, where the physicality of Laurinaitis and Freeman is less of a concern, and their ability to slow down speedy playmakers has been questionable. Even Illinois had success in this department in its upset of Ohio State last November, though it was the running ability of Illini QB Juice Williams that helped keep the Buckeyes off balance.

I suspect that USC will use a lot of one-back, three-to-four wide looks in this game, with Sanchez expected to get rid of the ball quickly. At the same time, these sets would also allow USC's bevy of tailbacks - especially C.J. Gable, Joe McKnight and Stafon Johnson - room to operate on the edges and in misdirection.

USC Defensive Gameplan
On the other side of the ball, it's truly difficult to find a way for Ohio State's offense to successfully attack the USC defense, especially if Beanie Wells is not at top speed. The Trojan defense has repeatedly shown its strength against offenses similar in style and talent to Ohio State's offense. While the Buckeyes have unquestionable talent and weapons at skill positions, they do not present the scheme or speed to press USC's defense consistently.

This could change if Tressel utilizes Pryor extensively and he doesn't perform like a true freshman in his third game. An unexpected performance by Pryor with his legs could open up the USC defense to struggles against the Buckeyes' traditional power running attack, as well as some success with downfield passing. Failing that, if Ohio State lines up and tries to impose their will on the USC defense, I don't see them having a lot of success. USC's scheme is designed to take away the run first, and teams that have had success running the ball on the Trojans have had much more creative schemes than the Buckeyes' traditional offense.

The Trojan defensive line will have to be a force in this game - and they can't do it by getting into a wrestling match with the Buckeyes' big line. Ohio State wants to be physical up front, but Fili Moala, Averell Spicer and company would be best served using their quickness to play gaps rather than trying to overpower the Buckeye line. If they are successful, it will make life easier for Maualuga, Cushing and Co. Expect Boeckman to face blitz packages similar to what USC ran against Michigan and Illinois in recent Rose Bowl triumphs. Clay Matthews could have another big day in his LB/DE role.

The Pick
It's the biggest game in the Coliseum in 20 years. Tickets are running up to $5,000 a pop from some brokers and Web sites. The atmosphere on campus and in Exposition Park will be electric leading up to kickoff. And it is all deserved - the Trojans and Buckeyes have combined for three national championships and five BCS title game appearances this decade. Each school has won 35 of its past 40 games. And the tradition of the rivalry, dating back to those Rose Bowl match-ups in days of yore, is unimpeachable.

Will the game live up to the hype and expectations? Well, that will be decided by two things: the size of the chip on Ohio State's shoulder, and how many mistakes USC makes. While many, including Las Vegas' line-setters, are expecting a Trojan trouncing, Ohio State has heard the doubters for going on two years now. Their shellacking at the hands of Florida in January 2007, and their whipping by LSU nine months ago (in a game that Ohio State actually performed better in than a year before) have left the Bucks open to criticism from every corner of the football world. This is their latest opportunity to put that criticism to lie and make a major statement on the biggest regular season stage of 2008.

On the other hand, it's hard to get away from the idea that USC's scheme and athleticism on both sides of the ball will eventually be too much for the Buckeyes to overcome on Saturday night. While the Trojan offense's performance in the opener at Virginia was eye opening, they will have their hands more than full with the powerful and experienced Ohio State defense. But, unless that Buckeye defense can force an outsized number of USC turnovers that lead to Ohio State points, I don't see a way that Tressel's team can put up more than 14-17 points against the Trojan defense.

In the end, it says here that, while the gunslinger in Sanchez may result in a couple of errors during the course of the game, the Trojan defense will bottle up Boeckman and Beanie - and eventually, USC's offensive weapons will hit Ohio State where it hurts.

USC 27, Ohio State 14

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for eight years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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