Thursday, September 11

Preview: Ohio State @ Southern Cal

In ten seasons, Ohio State and USC have been the two most frequent BCS Bowl participants along with Oklahoma. Ohio State has racked up a 4-2 record, including 1-2 in championship games with an upset of Miami in 2002. USC is 5-1 overall, the most BCS bowl victories of any program, including a 1-1 record in championship games with a blowout of Oklahoma in 2004. Notable, USC was awarded an AP championship after their Rose Bowl victory over Michigan following the 2003 season. These two programs have played in the last four BCS championship games, although they've also lost the last three.

Amazingly, the two programs haven't met since 1990, when USC came away with a 9-point victory in Columbus. (after destroying the Buckeyes in LA the season before)

Most people are picking the winner of this game to play in the national title game. There's a good chance for the loser as well, if they finish 11-1. (Yes this includes Ohio State, despite what some sportswriters are saying. These same people argued that OSU didn't deserve to be ranked #1 at the end of the 2007 regular season, then promptly ranked them #1.)

So let's get on with it.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio State is a conservative offensive team who wins games by pounding the ball on the ground, playing unmovable defense, and quietly winning the kicking game. Tressel Ball 101. Ohio State is an extremely experienced team - returning nine starters on each side of the ball.

The 2008 defensive group is truly amazing. Led by James Laurinitis, this bunch has essentially been playing together for two complete seasons, and in those 28 games I have only seen one truly bad defensive performance. (vs Florida... vs LSU, a lot of that can be blamed on the offense as they only gave up 326 yards but had bad field position most of the game due to turnovers and penalties) Malcolm Jenkins is considered one of the best cornerbacks in the country as well. Two games into this season, the Buckeyes are surrendering an average of 164 yards and 7 points per game with 6 turnovers forced (4 interceptions in last week's game!) - indeed, defense is the reason OSU is 2-0 right now rather than 1-1.

The Ohio State offense is very hit-or-miss, and missing Beanie Wells could make that worse. Maurice Wells is a good inside runner and Brandon Saine has great speed as a former track star. The Bucks return four starting offensive linemen and this unit has been a dominant force so far. The receivers are dependable but not stellar, with Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline being much more effective when the ground game is already rolling and requiring safety help to stop. Quarterback, however, has been the position of inconsistency. Todd Boeckman was statistically the best QB in the Big Ten last season, but turnovers cost the Buckeyes in losses to Illinois and LSU in 2007. Already against Ohio U, Boeckman fumbled a snap that led to Ohio U's only points in the second half - a defensive score. He is an accurate short passer but his throws seem to fall apart beyond 20-25 yards. Not much has been seen or Terrelle Pryor, but I expect him to be a wild card up Tressel's sleeve.

OSU has already hit seven field goals this season in 8 attempts, more evidence that the kicking game is strong. Though punting has been average (40.0 average), punt returns have been a strong area for the Buckeyes - averaging 19 ypr compared to just over 2 ypr allowed, and already having returned one for a TD.

Southern Cal Trojans

USC is an explosive offensive team who plays both big and consistent, complimenting their beastly defense. Though the genius of Norm Chow is gone, the USC offense attacks opposing defense through such wide variety - power running, speed outside running, precision passing - that it seems like once you finally figure out a scheme to stop them, then next series they're out there running something completely different but equally effective.

The USC defensive group returns seven starters from a unit that was among the elite in 2007, and they started this campaign by allowing a mere 32 yards rushing (187 total offense) against Virginia. Three of the new starters are in the front seven, and this is where USC recruits best. Led by Rey Maualuga, this group has consistently been among the toughest to run against for years under Pete Carroll. Taylor Mays is one of the nation's best safeties and they are not easy to throw the ball against either.

USC's only real offensive question was how 4 new starting linemen would perform. Against a Virginia team starting four new faces on defensive line, they completely dominated. Mark Sanchez looks to be a nice upgrade at the QB position from Booty, with more velocity and range on his throws. The receivers he'll be looking for aren't the beasts that USC has had in the past, but this is still a very strong group. At halfback, USC has three legitimate stars who can come in and play different styles, from the bruising attack of Stafon Johnson to the speed of Joe McKnight.

It's hard to grade the USC punters and kickers as they've hardly seen any plays due to their extreme offensive efficiency, but from past experience we know that David Buehler is a reliable kicker. The return groups have looked average so far.


When USC has the ball:


Statistically, Ohio State has had the #1, #15, and #3 rushing defense from 2005-07. Each of these groups has been led by a stellar linebacking corps and an underrated, deep defensive line. Against USC, they will face a rushing offense that is among the nation's best regardless of what the statistics say (their ability to pass in a balanced offense hurts the raw numbers). Last season, USC averaged nearly 5 yards per carry on the ground and it is their depth that is possibly their biggest weapon here, wearing down defenses with three fresh backs. Ultimately, this battle is going to come down to USC's offensive line. Ohio State has both skilled and fundamentally sound linebackers, and if the defensive line gives them penetration then it will be a long day even for these talented backs. However, OSU's linebackers aren't known for their speed, and if USC's o-line wins the trenches, then OSU's linebackers might not be able to seal plays from a positional disadvantage.

Edge: Even


When USC lines up with a fullback or two tight ends, I don't like Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton getting much done against this secondary, not with Jenkins as such an elite cornerback. Though while the receivers might have trouble getting open against this great coverage, Sanchez has shown both incredible power and accuracy in his throws, and should be able to thread the ball into the slightest opening.

Ohio State has shown susceptibility to spread offenses and USC does have the ability to bring in three legitimate WRs with David Ausberry as their third, and OSU's base defense will have trouble stopping this. Additionally, Joe McKnight has great hands and is a threat in the passing game.

A wrench that could be thrown into things is the unknown of USC's pass protection. The University of Virginia simply was an inadequate test. Again, Ohio State has a great front seven, and pass protection is tough for a group that has little big game experience together. I don't expect this to be an issue - USC's offensive lines have performed so well for so many seasons - but if we're looking for a wildcard, this is the biggest unknown for the USC offense vs OSU defense matchups.

Edge: Slight USC

When Ohio State has the ball:


Like Ohio State, USC has had an elite running defense the past two seasons, ranking #9 and #4. Ohio State has the nation's top runningback on their roster, but the question is will he play? Obviously this is a huge factor that will swing this matchup. On the lines, you have a great OSU offensive line vs a USC defensive line that has two new starters. Just those factors, Ohio State wins. But then you have to factor in the linebackers, the heart and strength of this USC defense. That swings the pendulum in their favor. Beanie Wells is a good enough back to overcome the edge USC has in their front seven vs the OSU front five. Maurice Wells and Brandon Saine? I don't think that they will have nearly as much success.

A factor that might come into play late is the approx 30 lb differential between the average USC defensive lineman and the average OSU offensive lineman. We expect both teams to rotate players, the USC defense probably a little more often, so I don't think this will show until the 4th quarter. But if the game is close or especially if OSU has the lead in the 4th, this could be an advantage for the Buckeyes to exploit.

Edge: Slight OSU


Frankly, I do not expect Ohio State to have much success throwing against this USC secondary. Todd Boeckman puts too much air under his deep passes and Taylor Mays is great at closing on the ball and making plays. Furthermore, Boeckman is not the quickest nor the best decision-maker. Ohio U brought delayed blitzes with defenders finding lanes to get to the QB. He needed to quickly find the open man and make the Bobcats pay for opening holes in their coverage, but did this on far too rare occasions. Pete Carroll will be bringing far more sophisticated and creative blitzes than Frank Solich did, how will Boeckman respond to that? Not well is my guess.

That said, USC's corner situation is strong but not excellent, and the OSU receivers run good short routes, where Boeckman is also very accurate and doesn't really need to think on the fly. This becomes more important if OSU is creating yards in the ground game and preoccupying the USC linebackers who are very strong in coverage. Brandon Saine is also a solid receiver, should he get more playing time due to Beanie Wells' status.

Edge: USC


For those keeping track, we've got an even matchup, two advantages for USC, and one for Ohio State. Even if OSU wins the kicking game, which they have decent odds of doing, USC also has home field advantage, so the Buckeyes have ground to make up! If it's going to happen, it has to be with Terrelle Pryor running 2-4 offensive drives and getting positive results. We're not going to see a freshman come in against USC and just lead the team to victory, but providing 10 points could be the difference in a close defensive game. If it's a shootout, OSU is toast anyway.

If you have watched much USC football the last four years, dual threat QBs are about the only thing that has really given this defense trouble. (Fresno State game in 05 aside) In their 2004 opener, VT's Randall avoided the rush with his feet and made huge plays - indeed, USC was fortunate that the Hokies killed themselves with procedural penalties. Of course we remember Vince Young's epic Rose Bowl performance against a USC team in their offensive prime. Then there was last season's late loss to Oregon, in which Dennis Dixon turned in a strong enough option performance to overcome USC handling the Ducks' receivers and being +120 yards through the air.

A plus about the Pryor spread packages is that it minimizes the impact of Wells' injury, and for that reason we may end up seeing as many as six drives led by the freshman. Texas ran the VY option better with speedy Jamaal Charles than they did with Cedric Benson. I would really like to see Pryor running option with speedster Brandon Saine in the backfield, even if Wells is available, as a threat to turn the corner and make a big play. This would also allow Wells to rest, as he is absolutely essential to the offense when Boeckman is in the game. Like Young (unworthy as the OSU freshman may be of this comparison), Pryor should actually be the #1 option on his reads, picking up yards in consistent chunks. Saine should be used to punish the defense for over-committing to Pryor or for committing too soon.

Edge: Ohio State

Injury Update

As I finalize thoughts on this, word has come in that OSU star running back Beanie Wells is listed as doubtful for this weekend's game. Obviously this is going to have an impact, but let's not forget that Ohio State's running game is halfway based on their mammoth offensive line and the Buckeyes are deep at the RB position. This makes the game more of an uphill battle for the Bucks, but not unwinnable if the players who are available bring their A game and if the gameplan takes full advantage of all weapons at the team's disposal.

Pick: USC