September 12, 2008

One heavyweight will fall from title track in L.A.

MORE: Five to watch | 'Games of the Century'

T. Boone Pickens has accumulated uncommon wealth. But imagine if he were viewed as too risky to get a loan.

That's the kind of situation facing Ohio State. The Buckeyes can't seem to get any credit, either.

Over the past two seasons, Ohio State has won 88 percent of its games, more than any other team from a "Big Six" conference. Yet because of back-to-back losses in national championship games, the Buckeyes seem to be viewed nationally as overrated and undeserving of status among the elite. As a result, the Big Ten often is dismissed as a stable full of plodders unable to keep up with thoroughbreds.

"I don't want to say they're slow," USC defensive end Kyle Moore said of the Buckeyes earlier this week. "I just think it's the speed of the game between the Big Ten and the Pac-10."

So, despite all their recent success, the Buckeyes have something to prove and honor to uphold when they take on top-ranked USC on Saturday.

"We think every time we play a team from another conference in a bowl game or in an independent game, we're always carrying the banner for our league," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "Every time you play, you represent your conference and your school. Anybody feels that way, especially with all the notice this game has."

The talent that will be on the field at the L.A. Coliseum cannot go unnoticed. Both teams are expected to win their conference championships, and both feature Heisman Trophy candidates. According to various sources that compile mock 2009 NFL drafts, almost a dozen potential first-round picks will be playing.

This week's spotlight has been brightest on Ohio State running back Chris Wells, who rushed for 1,609 yards last season. He hurt his foot in a season-opening win over Youngstown State, did not play last week against Ohio and the Buckeyes learned Friday afternoon he will not play against USC.

Still, the biggest reason this matchup has drawn so much attention are its national implications. One of these teams has been involved in five of the past six BCS Championship Games. USC won the title over Oklahoma in 2004 and was upset by Texas in the title game in 2005. Ohio State upset Miami in 2002, was victim of a blowout by Florida in 2006 and fell to LSU last season.

SIMILAR SITUATIONS
In 2001, Ohio State hired Jim Tressel and USC hired Pete Carroll. Since then, the two programs have been eerily close in production:
USCOhio State
Overall record77-1478-16
Conference record49-1145-11
Conference titles64
Bowl record5-24-4
Heisman winners31
National titles22
AP top-5 finishes65
First-round picks1111
Whoever prevails Saturday has the inside track at reaching this season's championship game.

"It's early in the season and there's a long way to go, but I think both teams know everything is on the line for both of us," Ohio State wide receiver Brian Robiskie said.

But USC coach Pete Carroll says that's looking way too far ahead.

"I think we understand it doesn't serve us well to get involved in all that stuff at this point," Carroll said. "It doesn't mean anything at this point. You don't get awarded a national championship or position for bowl games at this point."

Maybe not. But Ohio State still feels as if it has a point to make.

"It's extremely important because nobody believes in us except ourselves," Buckeyes defensive end Lawrence Wilson said. "Nobody outside our locker room thinks we have a chance, so it's definitely big for us to show what we have."

  • USC RUN OFFENSE VS. OHIO STATE RUN DEFENSE
  • Talent and depth is in abundant supply at USC, which had five running backs score touchdowns in its season-opening victory over Virginia. Stafon Johnson, Joe McKnight and C.J. Gable have different styles, but are all productive. None had more than nine carries against Virginia, so there is always a fresh back. The Trojans rolled up 218 yards while averaging 5.3 yards per rush in the season-opener. Still, this is just the second game and USC has four new starters on the offensive line, which likely means the yardage won't come as easy against Ohio State. The Buckeyes have nine starters back from last season's defensive unit that was third in the nation against the run. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis is an All-American. The Buckeyes allowed 145 rushing yards to Ohio last week, and that's cause for concern.
    EDGE: Ohio State

  • USC PASS OFFENSE VS. OHIO STATE PASS DEFENSE
  • Trojans QB Mark Sanchez flourished in the season opener, with 338 yards and three touchdowns. Ten players caught passes against Virginia, but the Trojans still are waiting for someone to emerge a legit go-to receiver. Perhaps it will be Damian Williams, a sophomore transfer from Arkansas who had seven catches. Vidal Hazelton and Patrick Turner are big-play threats. Ohio State All-American cornerback Malcolm Jenkins can neutralize anybody, though. He grabbed one of the four interceptions the Buckeyes snatched against Ohio last week. Ohio State needs to mount a consistent pass rush. Can USC's rebuilt line protect Sanchez?
    EDGE: Even

  • OHIO STATE RUN OFFENSE VS. USC RUN DEFENSE
  • The Buckeyes almost certainly will struggle. Without Chris Wells, the running game will be a committee effort with Dan Herron, Brandon Saine and Maurice Wells sharing carries. Ohio State has an experienced line, though it didn't perform well last week against Ohio. Running against USC was usually futile last season, and the Trojans project to be just as nasty this year - although LBs Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing have been slowed by nagging injuries. Virginia managed just 32 rushing yards and rarely tried to run inside.
    EDGE: USC

  • OHIO STATE PASS OFFENSE VS. USC PASS DEFENSE
  • QB Todd Boeckman is steady, and wide receivers Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline are reliable, though neither has elite speed. Ray Small and freshman DeVier Posey are deep threats. USC had a strong pass defense in 2007. FS Taylor Mays has All-American ability and end Everson Griffen can bring pressure. If USC can force Boeckman to have to win it with his arm, the Trojans will be in good shape.
    EDGE: USC

  • USC SPECIAL TEAMS VS. OHIO STATE SPECIAL TEAMS
  • Two years ago, the Buckeyes were saying Small had the big-play ability to rival that of Ted Ginn Jr. He never showed it well, not until last week when broke away for a 69-yard punt return touchdown to clinch the victory over Ohio. Kicker Ryan Pretorius has 50-yard range and already has gone 6-for-7 on field-goal attempts. Senior punter A.J. Trapasso's career average is more than 40 yards per kick. USC's McKnight is a big-time punt returner. Kicker David Buehler is coming off a solid '07 season in which he converted 16 of 19 field-goal attempts. He converted his only attempt against Virginia. Punter Greg Woidneck is adequate, nothing more. Both teams should be solid in punt coverage, though questions remain about Ohio State's kick-coverage unit. The Buckeyes struggled in that area last season.
    EDGE: Ohio State

  • USC COACHING STAFF VS. OHIO STATE COACHING STAFF
  • USC's Pete Carroll has the highest winning percentage (84 percent) among active coaches with at least five years on the job. He has won one national championship outright and has shared another. USC has posted at least 11 victories in six consecutive seasons with Carroll. Ohio State's Jim Tressel has had similar success. Under Tressel, the Buckeyes have posted 75 victories and won or shared four Big Ten championships. They also have won a national championship and reached the BCS Championship Game in each of the past two seasons.
    EDGE: Even.

  • USC WILL WIN IF
  • The Trojans must protect Sanchez. He wasn't sacked against Virginia and had the best performance of his career. He'll be facing a much better defense this time, but given adequate protection he'll find open receivers and get them the ball. USC also must contain Ohio State's rushing attack. If the Trojans can consistently force obvious passing situations, Boeckman could have a hard day.

  • OHIO STATE WILL WIN IF
  • The experienced Buckeyes' offensive line has to create running room. If Ohio State can run effectively, the Buckeyes can get USC's defense off-balance which will help the passing game. Defensively, Ohio State needs to get good performances from stars such as CB Malcolm Jenkins and LB James Laurinaitis. Most important, it can't allow big plays.

  • X-FACTOR
  • Beating the No. 1 team in the nation requires using every asset that's available. For Ohio State, that obviously includes freshman QB Terrelle Pryor. He could add another dimension to the Buckeyes' offense.

  • RIVALS.COM STAFF PICKS
  • Olin Buchanan: USC 24-17
    Tom Dienhart: USC 27-17
    David Fox: USC 28-21
    Mike Huguenin: USC 24-17
    Steve Megargee: USC 24-10

    MORE: Video preview | Five to watch | 'Games of the Century'

    Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




     

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