Friday, September 5, 2008
It's no secret that the match-up of the week (possibly the entire regular season) will be Ohio State against USC this Saturday in the Coliseum. What appeared two weeks ago to be a dominant Ohio State against a USC team that would not be as strong as they had been in recent years will now in fact be a #1 ranked firing-on-all-cylinders-and-taking-no-prisoners Trjoan team against a Buckeyes team that so far has only succeeded in underwhelming fans and critics alike. Any questions about Mark Sanchez's knee injury have vanished and the Trojan defense looks strong as ever. The Buckeyes have failed to execute as expected against two overmatched opponents and star Beanie Wells has been injured. Will the Trojans continue their streak of non-conference domination? Will the Buckeyes' O be able to get traction if Beanie doesn't return to carry the load? We'll find out four days and four hours from now.
If one thing is certain, it's that the Buckeyes- who now will enter the game as a 10-point underdog- will need to step up their game and play a tough one if they want to stay in it. In their first two games we have seen a lack of boldness on play calling, freshman-caliber mistakes, and more missed catches than a schoolyard game of monkey-in-the-middle. The running game at this point is a bit of a question mark. There is no doubt that Beanie will play, but lips have been tight as to his condition. Even if he is at 100%, which he will certainly need to be, there is always a possibility that he could re-aggravate the toe injury. He will already be targeted by a hungry USC defense - lead by stars such as standout linebacker Rey Maualuga. If Ohio State want to open up the ground game, Beanie will be the guy to do it. Unless we were missing something on Saturday, we saw that the rest of the running backs on the OSU depth chart could not take his place altogether.
There has also been rampant speculation about what we have so far seen from Ohio State. The prevailing notion seems to be that the coaching staff have been deliberately refusing to show their hand so that USC won't have any film to study and won't know exactly what we plan to throw at them. I, for one, hope that this is the case because we sure won't be gaining many yards with the sort of "vanilla" offense that OSU typically runs. Trying to run it up the middle every 2nd or 3rd play won't go over too well in LA.
Another hot topic is what to expect true freshman QB Terell Pryor. Again, unless we haven't really seen him utilized to the best of his ability, he won't be a factor. So far we have seen that although he can run well, he lacks the sort of "touch" he needs, a la Todd Boeckman. It's great if the guy can run, but pre-designed take-the-snap-and-run-to-the-outside plays won't be fooling anyone. If Pryor proves that he can pass well and (usually) run when he is under pressure, he could emerge as a threat.
Speaking of emerging as a threat, we have finally seen some razzle-dazzle out of WR Ray Small. His combination of speed and agility (something we haven't seen since Ted Ginn, JR) is exactly the sort of thing the Bucks will need if they want to spread the out that tough USC defense. Hartline and Robiskie have both proven reliable, but they have never had the ability to burn the defense when they hit open space in the same way as Small can. He spent much of season struggling against a leg injury, so expect better things out of him this year.
Ohio State will struggle out of the gate. Expect the first couple of posessions to be short. Maybe not 3-and-outs, but not scoring drives either. The defense will be hungry, perhaps too hungry- USC's O will capitalize on miscues and exploit their weaknesses well. If the OSU D can step up, execute, and keep USC bottled up, the offense may be able to make things happen. This will absolutely key: if our defense doesn't slow down USC's offense, our offense will struggle. If both the offense and the defense struggle early on, expect USC to tear this one wide open. They will do their best to get us out of it quickly because they know that if we can hang with them, we will eventually gain momentum and give them a run for their money.
Boeckman will struggle. He will do well if the O-line gives him enough time, but he will overthrow his receivers on the deep passes. He will throw at least 2 INTs. If he can establish a rhythm he will produce results. However this is doubtful since USC's D-line will be tough to hold back.
We will bring Pryor out in the Red Zone, using 4 and 5 receiver sets. Don't expect this to burn USC's defense though. His first couple of series will be key because we haven't seen how he handles big time pressure. If he can keep his cool and execute, he will produce. If Boeckman struggles, we may even bring him out at midfield.
Beanie will play and he will do his part, but he will be too high of a priority target to be able to have many big runs. He will probably average 2-3 yards per carry. Don't expect the offense to capitalize on USC's D focusing on Wells.
The defense will do well early on, just like they did against LSU in Janurary. They won't be able to keep it up and eventually USC will open things up, but not enough to run away with the game.
Ultimately, OSU's demonstrated weaknesses will outweigh their strengths. USC will win by two scores.
Of course this is all given the assumption that Tressel & co have more up their sleeve than we know. But given Ohio State's recent record in "big" games, don't hold your breath. If the Buckeyes escape, it will be by 7 points or less.