Twenty four hours from now, the Ohio State University football Buckeyes will be battling the USC Trojans on their home turf. The men in the Scarlet and Gray will be fighting not only to avenge last year's demoralizing defeat, but also to redeem their deflated national reputation (not to mention that of the Big Ten). Ostensibly much bigger underdogs in this year's game than in last year's, the Bucks will have their hands full on both sides of the ball in this game.
The good news for the Bucks, on a high level, is twofold: the Trojans run a pro-style offense, which OSU is much better at defending than say, a triple option or spread-option offense. Also, Ohio State played this same offense (with a few different players as compared to this year) last year. The same can't be said for USC: OSU's offense last year was also largely a pro-style offense, crafted for the now-departed Todd Boeckman. This year things will be much, much different with Terrelle Pryor at the helm. This will be a new offense with new looks run by a different style QB. One could even say that Pryor is Boeckman's antithesis.
Keys to the Game
Ohio State and USC match up fairly well when it comes to their skill players. True that USC has more depth and their starters are largely more experienced, but OSU's pool of starting talent--raw talent-- is fairly similar to USC's. The difference, moreso than any other area, will be how well the Bucks fight the battle in the trenches. That's right, the keys to this game are all about line play. It is no secret that OSU's line play-- that of the O line in particular-- has been subpar, even terrible at times. Last year's game, which I blogged about beforehand here, against the Men of Troy was a prime example. Todd Boeckman, a decent quarterback in most regards, lost his job after the USC game due mostly to the fact that the O line couldn't protect him-- and let's face it: when the protection wore down, the guy was slower than molasses in January on his feet. If the offensive line had performed on par with, say, USC's, things would have been much different that game and indeed, the remainder of the season. Had that been the case, right now I'd be speculating on how well Terrelle Pryor would be handling "his" offense in a big game for the first time.
USC D line vs OSU O line
USC's D line knows all too well about OSU's underachieving O line and will do their best to capitalize on it. True, Pryor does a good job of evading defenders when things break down, but he can't be relied upon to lead the offense to a win unless broken plays are more the exception than the rule-- and that will most likely not be the case. Look for Pryor to spend a lot of time scrambling. Thankfully, he's good at this. Against Navy last week, it was apparent that he's in much more of a pass-first rather than run-first mentality than last year. Rather than running for whatever yardage he can get, he will be trying to evade defenders long enough to complete the pass. In other words, Pryor wants to be Troy Smith rather than Vince Young. And that is a very good thing.
OSU D line against USC O line
The matchup that will be more favorable to the Buckeyes will be their D line against USC's O line. USC still has the upper hand here, but things will not be as lopsided as USC's D line against OSU's O line. OSU's D line has the best chance of keeping the momentum from swinging too far in USC's favor. USC generally uses a pass-first mentality: set up the pass early to establish the running game, then use the run to take pressure off the QB and the passing game. It will be absolutely necessary for OSU's D to prevent this from happening and keep USC's offense from getting into a rhythm. The best way to do this, in my opinion, will be to pressure Barkley: bring the DE's in and ring his bell or at least force him to make decisions he doesn't want to make. The results of this will be either incompletions or, hopefully, turnovers. Don't let him get comfortable in the pocket. Shut down the passing game and force USC to the run. The problem here is that while OSU's D line is good, they will be facing the same O line that dominated them one year ago.
OSU under Jim Tressell has historically been of an offensive mindset opposite USC under Carroll: establish the run to set up the pass. Run-run-pass. Tressellball and all that. I will not be surprised if OSU steps away from this approach tomorrow. This will take away the predictability that USC will be prepared for and will also not rely on OSU's ground game, which is currently less than stellar (primarily due to the play of the O line). Herron and Saine are good running backs, but they aren't bruisers that can run between the tackles and bowl defenders over like Beanie Wells was. These guys need good blocking and a bit of space in order to shine, and the offensive unit has not been reliable in providing this.
This may very well be Duron Carter's coming out party. I have been excited about the kid since I saw him in practice and then against Navy. He is a true freshman starting in his 2nd game, but the kid has got talent. He is already showing flashes-- he has good hands and, more evidently, he's got moves. Although he hasn't seen much playing time yet, I believe he's the real deal. He won't be seeing much play time behind Small, Posey, and Sanzenbacher, but look for something special when he is on the field.
I don't need to tell you that USC's D is the real deal. Although they have replaced three future NFL stars at LB, they will likely not miss a beat. USC is a team that reloads like nobody's business on both sides of the ball. Last year, I rightly predicted that Rey Maualuga would be the standout defender. This year, the man to watch will be SS Taylor Mays. Mays is famous for being both very fast and a hard hitter. He has also let it be known that he will be looking for Pryor. Mays is at his most dangerous when he is in the open field: reading the quarterback's eyes or closing on a defender. Perhaps his only "weakness" is his ability to cover. Running receivers straight at him may be the only way to keep him at bay.
This will be a huge battle for momentum. Both teams will come out swinging hard. The Bucks know that USC is a team that cannot be allowed to settle into a rhythm. Once that happens, they are almost unstoppable--unless they can be outscored, which isn't likely. Ohio State will look to set up the passing game using short, quick passes. Get the ball out of Pryor's hands quickly so that the O line won't be so heavily relied upon early in the game. Build up confidence in that way. The pistol formation will be instrumental in this. Once the USC D is forced to back off a bit and focus more on covering the Buckeye receivers downfield, that will allow for the ground game to open up. Pryor will no doubt do his share of the running, but designed running plays will probably not come up right away-- at least not until the offense has scored a couple of first downs, if not later.
USC will also take the field and start by hitting Ohio State in the mouth. They will not hesitate to do some aggressive things to get that all-important momentum. The element that will probably not be present until the offense gets into a rhythm will be the deep passing game. Barkley, for as talented as he is, hasn't proven that he can throw the deep ball yet and Carroll probably won't ask him to do so until he has gained a bit of confidence. Once that time comes, OSU's newly-rearranged secondary will be tested.
Bottom line: he who wins in the trenches likely wins the game. I say likely because Pryor, as I said, can at least make something from nothing when protection breaks down. If the Bucks can at least keep a 40-60 balance at the line of scrimmage against USC, they will be OK.
Ohio State may put up a quick score or two early. But unfortunately, I think USC is just too talented, experienced, and confident coming into the game. Look for them to gain that all-important momentum in the 2nd quarter. Once that happens, the air will be taken out of the Horseshoe and the 12th man will evaporate. Tressell will make few, if any, changes at the half and the 2nd half of the game will be all USC-- excepting a too-little-too-late OSU rally late in the game. OSU will rally and either have too little time left or lose momentum back to USC. Carroll is not the kind of guy who will call off the dogs when his team has the game in hand. His teams play every game like they have something to prove.
USC 38, OSU24.
I hope that in approximately 26 hours' time, I will be eating my words. Go Bucks!