The Trojans head to the Horseshoe seeking a lucky seven against the Big-10 favorite Buckeyes. Who's the contender and who are the pretenders?
The consensus No. 3 USC Trojans (1-0) open the road portion of their 2009 schedule on Saturday, September 12, against the Big 10's Ohio State Buckeyes (1-0), ranked eighth in the AP poll and seventh in the USA Today coaches' poll, at 5 p.m. (PDT) in Ohio Stadium and in front of a national ESPN cable television audience. It is the 23rd meeting between the two schools, with USC holding a 12-9-1 edge against the Buckeyes in the storied series, which has included seven meetings in the Rose Bowl game. The Trojans have won the past six meetings, including last season's 35-3 annihilation at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. However, the Buckeyes have won four of the seven played in Columbus, though the Trojans came away with a thunderstorm-shortened 35-26 victory in their last trip to Ohio State in 1990. Overall, USC is 67-27-2 against Big 10 competition, including a nine-game winning streak. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes are 50-24-2 against Pac-10 opposition.
A week ago, the Trojans opened the 2009 campaign with a 56-3 drubbing of San Jose State. Matt Barkley became the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener for the Trojans, and his solid performance was aided by 342 rushing yards from the Trojans' stable of tailbacks. The USC defense limited the Spartans to just 121 total yards (nine yards rushing) and held SJSU scoreless in the final three quarters. Meanwhile, Ohio State survived a stronger-than-expected challenge from the Naval Academy, holding off the Midshipmen, 31-27. The Buckeyes held 20-7 and 29-14 advantages before sleepwalking through the fourth quarter. Only a two-point interception return by LB Brian Rolle, on a Navy two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game with two minutes left, kept the Buckeyes from facing a possible overtime upset.
Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his ninth season at USC (89-15) having led the Trojans to seven 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 ninth season at the helm in Columbus, holding an 84-19 mark at the school (219-76-2 overall including his 15 seasons at Youngstown State from 1986-2000). Tressel has guided the Buckeyes to six BCS bowl appearances, including three championship games. The 2002 Buckeyes upset Miami, 31-24, in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl to win the national championship.
The second of a much-ballyhooed home-and-home series between teams that have combined for three national titles, 13 BCS bowl appearances and five BCS title game appearances this decade, features a revenge aspect for the Buckeyes after their 2008 whipping at the hands of USC, as well as a quarterback storyline, with the young Barkley making his first road start in a 105,000-fan madhouse against sophomore Terrelle Pryor, who is garnering comparisons to former Texas all-everything QB Vince Young. At the same time, Ohio State's (and the Big 10's) recent record in showdown games against top teams - and its so-so effort against Navy - have helped install USC as a seven-point road favorite. Again, much like a season ago, the Buckeyes will have the disrespect angle to serve as motivation. But will that, plus the changes both teams have undergone, serve to make Ohio State at least 33 points better than they were against the Trojans a season ago?
Ohio State Offense While the 31-27 final score against Navy had to be disconcerting for Buckeye fans, one would imagine that offensive coordinator Jim Bollmann could not have been too peeved with the performance of the Ohio State offense. Running a pretty vanilla attack against the undersized Midshipmen, the Buckeyes totaled 363 yards of offense and came away with points on six different possessions. In fact, Ohio State's performance in taking a 20-7 halftime edge was fairly solid. Even considering the fact that the Buckeyes weren't exactly pushing the envelope in offensive design against Navy, likely in preparation to show a much more varied attack this weekend, Ohio State remains a run-oriented offensive team, focused on beating teams up on the ground and then taking advantage of success there to make hay with a generally low-risk passing attack that will look to stick you with the home-run ball if the opportunity presents itself.
The wildcard in this generalization is Pryor, a 6-foot-6 physical freak at quarterback. A powerful and fast runner whose passing acumen is improving with every game, the true sophomore played extensively and effectively against USC a season ago, backing up then-starter Todd Boeckman. The book on Pryor is to make him hurt you with his arm and contain his legs, but his improvement as a passer in the off-season was apparent in some of his throws against Navy. Look for the Buckeyes to feature Pryor in some option play settings early in an effort to get him rolling against USC's fast but somewhat inexperienced linebackers. Sophomore back-up Joe Bauserman played a series in the second quarter against Navy, leading the Buckeyes to a field goal before halftime. Tressel likes to have his second QB game ready, but it would be a surprise to see Bauserman get a series in such an important showdown.
What might hold back Pryor's development as a passer? A generally green group of wide receivers, looking to replace the departed leaders of last season's group - Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline. Junior Dane Sanzenbacher, an excellent possession receiver, appears to have become Pryor's go-to guy, especially in key situations. Time and again against Navy, when faced with a third down or other key play, Pryor targeted Sanzenbacher, who still ended up with just two grabs in the game. Senior Ray Small was expected to lead at the other spot, but an illness took him out of the Navy game, and he'd lost the starting job to rising sophomore DeVier Posey in camp anyway. Small appears to be back and available this week. True frosh Duron Carter, son of Buckeye and Minnesota Viking legend Cris Carter, showed up well in his debut a week ago. Junior Taurian Washington is also in the mix, ahead of Small. At tight end, senior Jake Ballard is a John Mackey Award watch-lister, and caught three balls last week.
The Buckeyes have a two-man attack in the backfield, with sophomore Dan Herron leading the way, and junior Brandon Saine a capable reserve. This duo saw extensive time in the USC game a season ago thanks to an injury to Beanie Wells, now the Arizona Cardinals' starting running back. The speedy Herron gained 51 yards in 11 carries, and his nickname - Boom - attests to the fact that he isn't afraid of contact. The more sizeable Saine averaged nearly six yards in his nine carries against. Navy. The Bucks are young at fullback, with freshmen Zach Boren and Adam Homan sharing duties in a strictly blocking role.
Up front, the Buckeyes are also a little green, as they try to replace three long-time starters in Alex Boone, Steve Rehring and Ben Person. The returnees are senior Jim Cordle (a center this time a year ago) at RT, and junior Bryant Browning, who has shifted from RT to RG. However, among the newcomers to the starting group, there are big expectations. Junior LG Justin Boren and sophomore C Mike Brewster each received preseason honors from various media outlets. Junior Andrew Miller rounds out the group at LT.
Ohio State Defense Co-defensive coordinators Jim Heacock and Luke Fickell definitely have something in common with their peers at USC: trying to replace an historic set of playmakers at linebacker and other key players on the line and in the secondary. Running out of a 4-3 set, the Buckeyes still have plenty of playmakers. However, the Ohio State staff has to be concerned after the Buckeyes allowed a pair of 15-play touchdown drives against Navy (80 and 99 yards), as well as allowing an 85-yard touchdown pass to the run-heavy Midshipmen.
The Buckeyes boast much of their experience up front on defense. Juniors Cameron Heyward and Thaddeus Gibson and senior Lawrence Wilson, are a solid - bordering on fearsome - group of pass rushers at the end spots. In the middle, the Buckeyes lost an anchor with the graduation of Nader Abdallah, but junior Dexter Larimore, who saw plenty of time in 2008, is an excellent replacement. Senior Doug Worthington is rangy for a defensive tackle, while senior Todd Denlinger is a solid run stuffer.
The Buckeyes losses at linebacker mirror USC's, in that James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman were two of the Buckeyes' all-time best at the position. Only junior Ross Homan returns as a starter on the weak side, and he is expected to provide stability. Junior middle linebacker Rolle had a breakout game in his first effort replacing Laurinaitis against Navy, adding nine tackles to his key two-point play. On the strong side, senior Austin Spitler and sophomore Etienne Sabino are nowhere near the athlete that Freeman is, but both should be serviceable within the Buckeyes' scheme.
In the secondary, the Buckeyes lost another All-American in Malcolm Jenkins, the speedy, sizeable corner. Junior Chimdi Chekwa is Ohio State's top returning corner, and could grow into a shutdown player at the position. Senior Andre Amos and junior Devon Torrence are options at the opposite corner, with Torrence appearing often in nickel situations. A shake-up has occurred this week at safety, as once-starting free safety Anderson Russell, a senior, has lost his job after allowing both of Navy's touchdown passes a week ago (and playing a major role in Texas' January victory over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl). With Russell now looking at reserve or even nickel duty, senior Kurt Coleman, who was Ohio State's defensive player of the week against Navy, will shift to free safety, allowing junior Jermale Hines, a skilled blitzer and run-support DB, to slide into the lineup at strong safety.
Ohio State Special Teams A former kickoff specialist, senior Aaron Pettrey enjoyed a great debut in his first game as a full-time starter, nailing all three field goal attempts against Navy, including a 52-yarder. Senior Jon Thoma is a new starter at punter, and averaged nearly 45 yards in two boots against Navy. Herron and Saine handle the kick return duties, while Small and Sanzenbacher are expected to handle punt returns.
USC Offensive Gameplan For a debut, the San Jose State game wasn't bad for Barkley, offensive coordinator John Morton and playcaller Jeremy Bates. Of course, there were four or five guys whose job includes starting the play standing behind the quarterback who may have had a big role in that. With 342 rushing yards, each of USC's five leading running backs could point to play that ranged from solid to spectacular.
In particular for Buckeye fans, watching Joe McKnight use both power and speed to notch 145 yards in just 14 carries must have brought back some bad memories of his fantastic performance against Ohio State last September (12 carries, 105 yards). The steady play of Stafon Johnson, who is expert at slithering through the small holes found near the goal line, was expected. What was not expected, at least by those who haven't been around USC's practice field in recent years, was always-bruising Allen Bradford's breakaway speed on a 43-yard TD run.
With such support and a simplistic passing attack that allowed Barkley to get outside the pocket for a series of safe throws, it's no surprise that the true freshman put up extremely solid numbers, including his first TD pass as a Trojan (to tight end Rhett Ellison). This week, while I don't expect quite such a vanilla attack from Morton and Bates, expect them to again try to minimize the opportunity for Barkley to make mistakes and force passes into coverage. That means once again relying on the run - and on receivers being in position to make big yards after the catch.
The offensive line, which San Jose State coach Dick Tomey called the best he's ever coached against, gets a major boost with the return of, perhaps, its best player. Junior C Kristofer O'Dowd is expected to return to the lineup, shifting Jeff Byers back to left guard. With its line intact, USC will likely try to showcase McKnight early on, both in the running and passing attack. Fullback Stanley Havili who had a big game against the Buckeyes a season ago, is also likely to play a major role. Speed is a major advantage for USC on both sides of the ball. If USC is effective doing the simple stuff early, then Barkley might finally see some opportunities to show off his big right arm if and when the Buckeye defense is sufficiently softened.
USC Defensive Gameplan Yes, it was only San Jose State, but nine yards rushing allowed and 121 total yards allowed definitely answered the first set of questions facing a young USC defense. The Trojans swarmed the Spartans all day, totaling an astounding 16 tackles for loss, including five sacks. USC's new crew of linebackers and its no-name defensive line (seriously, outside of the true diehards, who knows anyone beside Everson Griffen in this group?) showed it was definitely up to the task. At linebacker, Chris Galippo, Malcolm Smith, Michael Morgan and true freshman reserve Jarvis Jones combined for 22 tackles on the day. And USC's defensive linemen notched eight tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
However, going up against the Ohio State offensive front and a player of Pryor's capability is a whole different ball of wax for the Trojans. While many armchair quarterbacks out there are talking about USC assigning a player to "spy" Pryor - namely safety Taylor Mays - it would be a mistake to begin the game in such a fashion, especially with a player of Mays' capabilities. Again, the Trojans have a speed and quickness advantage in the trenches and at linebacker against the Buckeye line, and should be able to use this to slow down the Buckeyes' rushing attack. Only if Pryor begins to single-handedly set fire to the USC defense do I believe Carroll would consider putting a spy on him.
Even though Pryor has improved as a thrower, USC wants to take away the Ohio State rushing attack first and foremost. If the Trojans can handle Herron, Saine and - most importantly - Pryor on the ground, that would leave Ohio State with the option of trying to exploit USC's stellar secondary with a group of receivers who are either very young (Carter, Posey), inconsistent (Small) or one-dimensional (Sanzenbacher). It seems to me USC would be willing to gamble their secondary against the Buckeyes' receivers all day if the game comes down to it.
The Pick It figures that Ohio State will take the energy produced by its fans and motivation provided by 2008's loss to the Trojans and come out flying to begin this game. In fact, how this game may start may more resemble a big-time basketball game, wherein the road team is the better team, but knows it will be facing a tough environment and an emotionally charged home squad (think Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and Sacramento). The task for the road team is to survive the initial emotional onslaught, remain competitive in the game and use the final three quarters to impose its will.
USC players and fans have seen this scenario before. I think back most often to the 2005 game at Oregon, where the fast-paced Ducks came out on fire, but managed only a 13-0 lead thanks to solid USC defense keeping them out of the end zone twice and forcing field goals. When USC scored 10 points in the final five minutes of the first half, the Ducks looked exhausted from the emotional letdown - and USC scored 35 unanswered second-half points.
This Saturday, the Trojans will face a similar circumstance. The key is the Trojan defense keeping the Buckeyes out of the end zone (something Navy was successful with, except when Midshipmen turnovers provided Ohio State excellent field position). USC cannot afford two first quarter fumbles (as it had against San Jose State) or Barkley panicking into a couple interceptions. As long as the Trojans keep a handle on the ball - and can contain Pryor - USC's speed, depth and talent advantages should lead to a dominant second half and a going-away victory.
USC 28, Ohio State 16
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for nine 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.