Friday, September 11, 2009

Big Ten - Game of the Week


Game of the Week: USC at Ohio State

So last year’s game against the Trojans didn’t work out so well for the Buckeyes as they went down hard, 35-3, and looked overmatched in just about every phase of the game. The difficulty is looking at this year’s game not as the 5th-8th quarters of last year, but as just another chapter in the rivalry. While USC cruised over, through, and around San Jose State with 342 yards rushing (surrendering just nine yards on the ground), last week’s 31-27 escape by the Buckeyes over Navy doesn’t help assuage the feeling for some that Ohio State lacks a chance against the perennial BCS contender.

On paper, the Trojans and Buckeyes share the burden of having to replace playmakers on both sides of the ball, particularly at the linebacker position. The obvious mirror of this game compared to last year’s encounter is that USC will have to roll out a freshman quarterback on the road in a BCS game with Matt Barkley. Although Barkley’s statistics were solid (15-for-19, 233 yards, one touchdown) in his debut, they were obviously inflated against a weak opponent. Likewise, he wasn’t forced to make plays early–his first collegiate touchdown pass came after USC had hit paydirt five consecutive times rushing. My suspicion is that the Trojans will be successful rushing against the Buckeyes; however, Barkley will probably need to make some plays without the luxury of a five-touchdown cushion.

If the Buckeyes have a chance to win at the end of the game, it’s because:
1. Coach Jim Tressel unlocked the playbook and rolled out more option plays for Terrelle Pryor.
2. Pryor didn’t throw the costly interception, Barkley did.
3. The Buckeyes front four got enough gap penetration to close down running lanes for Joe McKnight, Stafon Johnson et al.

If the Trojans have a chance to win at the end of the game, it’s because:
1. The running back stable let their horses run wild like they did last week…
2. Which allowed Barkley to assume the “game manager role”, not be relied upon to dig USC out of 3rd-and-longs.
3. Pryor is contained by the front seven, which left free safety Taylor Mays in centerfield to lock down the secondary.

My knee-jerk reaction to predicting this game was that USC would handle the Buckeyes with a double-digit victory. However, after researching how last year played out, I found some interesting intangibles, which could impact how we perceive the balance of power between the two teams.

Call this the “Why you should think twice before handing the game to the Trojans” List:
1. USC, in preparation for their 2008 showdown against the Buckeyes, cashed in on an extra week of practice with a bye. No such luck this year.
2. All of USC’s scoring last year (five touchdowns) came from players now in the NFL (Mark Sanchez threw four touchdown passes, Rey Maualuga returned an interception).
3. Home field swings back to Columbus–at night.
4. A true freshman starts at quarterback for the Trojans this year.
5. Bad luck struck Ohio State early–running back Beanie Wells was out with an injury and a holding penalty nullified a potential Buckeye touchdown.
6. The quarterback shuffle failed Ohio State–sixth-year senior Todd Boeckman threw a pick-six (two total interceptions) and was sacked four times. Pryor, as a freshman, went 7-for-9 (for only 52 yards) and was sacked only once, but was still able to pick up positive rushing yards (40 yards on 11 carries).

Final Prediction:
I thought twice about it, and after all that, I still think USC wins, but in a lower scoring game with a smaller margin of victory. If the Midshipmen can put up 186 yards rushing in Columbus, I am uncertain USC will fare worse. And that will be the difference.
USC 24, Ohio State 20

Photos Courtesy of The Ohio State Department of Athletics, College Press Box