Saturday, September 12, 2009

OSU/USC Game of the Year Preview

By Rick Morris

I will preface this column by directing everyone to the site of tonight’s most unique and all-around coverage of the big game: no, not the “ESPN family of networks.” I speak instead of a fellow member of The 21st Century Media Alliance, Googling Atlee Hammaker. This is truly a cooperative effort among Alliance members as The Scout Ken Becks of 1st Down Scouting will be the man coordinating all of the reports while delivering the best Xs and Os breakdowns you will find anywhere. With GAH proprietor Platinum Smalls reporting from an OSU street party in CBus, another correspondent at a USC street party in LA, perspectives from the press box, sidelines – and from yours truly in the South Stands of the Horseshoe – among other vantage points, this collective liveblog helps augment big-game viewing like nothing else that has ever been produced. If you’ve got your laptop with Net connection in front of the tube or your smart phone with you, you owe it to yourself to check in with our surround coverage.

This is easily the intersectional game of the year, a must-win for two teams hoping to remain in the national championship chase. While much has been made, deservedly so, of how the Buckeyes must prevail here to salvage their big-game reputation after the crushing losses to Sun Belt powers in recent years, it’s also worth mentioning that USC isn’t likely to rack up enough big wins the rest of the way to put themselves back into the national championship picture with a loss in Columbus tonight. Frankly, playing in the Big 10 and the Pac 10 leaves little room for error when you consider the meat-grinder schedules that the SEC and Big 12 champions must necessarily navigate (including title games, which neither the Big 10 nor Pac 10 plays).

Both teams suffered some offseason turnover, but return with areas of strength as well – hence their national rankings, although those probably also have something to do with the fact that the NCAA has seen a lot of parity down past the “super tier” over the last several seasons. USC has one of the greatest depth charts in the history of college football at running back, although few on that list are ever likely to earn much acclaim individually at this level because they are all used interchangeably. This takes some pressure off of true freshman QB Matt Barkley, who will face the greatest challenge yet to his unflappable nature when he faces 100,000 crazies on the banks of the Olentangy after dark. He is also blessed with an offensive line that has a rare blend of size and athleticism.

OSU QB Terrelle Pryor cannot say the same. The most disturbing element of Ohio State’s near-miss against Navy last week was the fact that the retooled offensive line failed all day to establish any kind of push despite outweighing the Midshipmen front line by an average of 45 pounds per man. If you extrapolate that against facing the Trojans … well, good night now!

Frankly, Pryor has to be the best player on the field, maybe by a decent amount, for the Buckeyes to win. USC has the advantage at several positions, not least of which because of their athleticism across the board. What keeps this game from being a foregone conclusion is that Pryor does have that capability. He’ll have to freeze the Southern Cal front seven by pulling down the ball and running, something that Troy Smith made work for the Bucks in the past and something that USC has had some trouble with in recent years from mobile QBs. He can’t expect a lot of help from his backfield mates; Dan Herron looked like Maurice Wells sans dreadlocks last week and for whatever reason, the coaching staff never wants to unleash the explosive Brandon Saine. Whether or not this ties in to Jim Tressel's general tightness in the aforementioned recent huge games is not generally known.

Seeing a game of this magnitude quarterbacked by two players with less than a full season of experience between them is quite unusual indeed. What will be required from the two of them is quite different. Barkley must merely survive, counting on his O line to hold off the strength of the Ohio State team, their defensive line. He just has to avoid mistakes. Pryor, the prototypical multidimensional quarterback, must call upon all of his capabilities to gel with a young receiving corps and make several big, career-defining plays.

The question we always pose at FDH is: what is the likeliest outcome? Read back the previous paragraph and you will see that it answers itself. While the big clash is likely to come down to the last few minutes, the winner has to be assumed from the aforementioned matchups and the trajectory of both programs in such monster games in recent years. The lack of success everyone points to with Ohio State in recent years came in the '06 and '07 national championship games, the '09 Fiesta Bowl and the '08 USC game -- none of which were at home. So the Buckeyes can cling to the notion that they are playing one of these games in Columbus for the first time in this era. For that reason alone, it is likely to be relatively close. USC 24, OSU 16.

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