I’ll come right out and say it now. Ohio State will beat Southern California on Saturday night.
That’s not a gut feeling, that’s not wishful thinking. It comes from analyzing a few key factors in the game and coming to a logical conclusion.
Most people remember only one thing about last year’s game – the final score. The Trojans buried the Buckeyes to the tune of 35-3, sending down another cacophonous chorus of how Ohio State feasts on Big Ten cupcakes every season and folds like an old card table in big games.
Those of us who were in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last year know things were not exactly as bad as the final score indicated. Critics conveniently forget that the Buckeyes actually held an early 3-0 lead. After forcing a three-and-out on the Trojans’ opening possession, Ohio State strung together a 17-play drive against the USC defense, a march that lasted 8 minutes, 45 seconds. Granted, the offense bogged down in the red zone and wound up settling for a field goal. The fact remains, however, that the Buckeyes held a 3-0 lead with 3:06 remaining in the first quarter and to that point had outgained the Trojans by a 73-1 margin.
USC quickly got itself untracked on its next possession as quarterback Mark Sanchez moved his team 74 yards in only seven plays – four of them passes – for a touchdown and a lead the Trojans would never relinquish.
The Buckeyes stayed in the game, though. After USC made it 14-3 early in the second quarter, Ohio State put together another sustained drive that could have tightened things considerably. With Todd Boeckman and Terrelle Pryor sharing the quarterback duties, the team moved from its own 24-yard line to the USC 16. Unfortunately, a holding call on the Buckeyes wiped out a short first-down gain, pushing them back to the 26. After a 5-yard gain, another holding penalty pushed them back to the USC 31. Two plays later, kicker Ryan Pretorius pushed his 46-yard field goal attempt wide to the right.
And still Ohio State was in the game. The defense forced another three-and-out on the Trojans’ next possession, and the Buckeyes took over after a punt at their own 20. Backup tailback Dan Herron rushed for 11 yards on first down, and two plays later, Pryor rushed for 11 more.
At that point in the game, OSU trailed by a 14-3 score but still had proved it could hold its own. Both teams had exactly 146 total yards at that point, and the only thing separating the teams seemed to be the Buckeyes’ penchant for shooting itself in the foot.
Then, rather than simply aiming for the foot, they shot themselves through the heart. Boeckman tried to thread a sideline pass into double coverage, USC linebacker Rey Maualuga made a relatively easy interception and that was that. Maualuga returned the pick 48 yards for a touchdown and the Buckeyes were toast. You could make a strong argument that the entire team quit in the second half – 177 total yards before the break, 30 after intermission. The Trojans added two more third-quarter touchdowns before Pete Carroll decided to take his foot off the gas.
If you choose to concentrate on what happened in the game from the Boeckman interception on, you would undoubtedly come to the conclusion there is no way Ohio State can win Saturday night’s game. If, however, you would like to analyze what happened in the first half, you could come to an entirely different conclusion.
HOW IT CAN BE DONE
As I see it, there are two keys for an Ohio State victory along with one intangible that no one seems to be talking about.
First and foremost, Ohio State must play error-free football – both between the lines and between the ears. That is an imperative. The Buckeyes have lost only six times over the past three seasons, and in four of those games they committed more penalties than their opponent.
More important than the penalties themselves is when they were committed. Remember the pass interference and roughing-the-passer calls during Texas’ second-quarter touchdown drive in the Fiesta Bowl? Remember the pass interference on Penn State’s only touchdown drive last year? Remember the roughing-the-punter penalty in the national championship game against LSU? Crucial calls at critical times, each of which could have meant the difference between losing and winning.
To eliminate such crippling penalties, Saturday night’s game must have the Buckeyes’ full attention. Full concentration on nine of every 10 plays is not going to get it done. Simply put, the Ohio State players on the field have to give themselves every opportunity to win. The Trojans are plenty good enough – they won’t need any help.
The second-most important key to this game will be getting pressure on USC quarterback Matt Barkley. Again, this is an imperative. I don’t care how gifted Barkley is. He is a freshman, starting only his second game as a collegian and his first on the road. The Buckeyes have to get to him – early and often – and prevent him from establishing any kind of rhythm.
If OSU is to beat the Trojans, it will have to employ the same kind of pressure defense it used in the Fiesta Bowl against Texas QB Colt McCoy. The difference is that McCoy was a veteran quarterback, finishing his third season as a starter, and he was able to stand in against the hard-charging Ohio State rush. Even so, relentless pressure caused McCoy to fire 17 incompletions. He was also sacked four times, equaling a season high. That was against a guy who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting.
It was a marked change from McCoy’s performance when the Buckeyes traveled to Austin in 2006 to face defending national champion Longhorns. McCoy was a freshman, starting only his second game as a college player, and he caved to the Buckeyes’ pressure game. He completed only 19 of 32 attempts in that 24-7 loss to OSU, and averaged a career-low 4.81 yards per attempt. The Buckeyes intercepted him only once and sacked him only once in that game, but they knocked McCoy down so many times early that he started to get gun-shy and short-armed several passes in the second half.
That is the key to success against Barkley. It will be more difficult because USC has a better running game than Texas had in 2006. Rush the quarterback too much and Joe McKnight & Co. will make you pay. Still, if Barkley spends more time on his feet than on his rear end in the first quarter, it may be a long night for the Buckeyes.
Lastly, only one team has ever beaten OSU in back-to-back seasons with Jim Tressel at the helm. That was Wisconsin in 2003 and 2004.
Tressel has lost a lot of his luster in the wake of so many recent big-game losses. But I happen to think the guy can still coach. That’s why you saw some unusual things last weekend in the opener against Navy. The reserve on the opening kickoff. Screen passes and short flips to running backs. Throwing out of the I-formation and running out of the shotgun.
Those things were designed to give USC a few additional things to think about. The same holds true for playing backup quarterback Joe Bauserman in the second quarter. I think that was to give Bauserman some meaningful playing time because Tressel plans to employ Pryor as a wide receiver against the Trojans the way he did against Texas in the Fiesta Bowl.
There is a reason why only one team has ever beaten Tressel in back-to-back seasons since he’s been at Columbus. Regardless of what his critics say, he can and will make adjustments – and that could make the difference Saturday night.
So, what’s my prediction? Stay tuned.
** Tressel enjoys a 51-6 record at Ohio Stadium. With the Buckeyes, he is 28-9 overall against ranked teams and 8-7 against those ranked in the top 10.
** Ohio State is 9-12-1 against USC in the all-time series. That breaks down to a 6-8-1 mark in regular season games vs. the Trojans and 3-4 in the Rose Bowl. Overall against Pac-10 teams, the Buckeyes are 50-24-2, including a 44-17-2 mark in regular-season contests.
** Southern Cal is 67-27-2 against the Big Ten, which includes a 49-18-2 mark in the regular season. The Trojans are also on a nine-game winning streak against Big Ten teams, games in which they have outscored the opposition by an average of 26.8 points.
** Carroll is a perfect 6-0 against Big Ten teams – 38-17 over Iowa in the 2003 Orange Bowl, 28-14 over Michigan in the 2004 Rose Bowl, 32-18 over Michigan in the 2007 Rose Bowl, 49-17 over Illinois in the 2008 Rose Bowl, 35-3 over Ohio State during the 2008 regular season, and 38-24 over Penn State in the 2009 Rose Bowl. That computes to an average margin of victory of 21.2 points over Big Ten competition for Carroll-coached teams.
** OSU is 121-10-4 all-time in home games played in September. With the Buckeyes, Tressel is 23-1 in home games during September. The lone blemish on that mark was the 25-22 loss to eventual national champion Texas on Sept. 10, 2005.
** Carroll is 10-4 in road games with USC during the month of September. That includes last year’s 27-21 loss at Oregon State, the Trojans’ only blemish during a 12-1 campaign.
** Carroll is working on a seven-game winning streak in road openers. The only loss he experienced in a road opener while at USC came in his first season. The Trojans dropped a 24-22 decision at Oregon in 2001 on their way to a 6-6 finish. All-time, Southern Cal has a 76-27-8 record in road openers.
** The Trojans have won each of the last six meetings in the series, including three straight Rose Bowls between 1974 and ’84 that were determined by three points or less. Ohio State hasn’t beaten USC since a 42-21 win in the 1973 Rose Bowl, and hasn’t tasted victory over the Trojans in Ohio Stadium since a 17-0 shutout in 1964.
** Despite leading the overall series, USC is only 3-4 in Columbus. Their most recent trip was in 1990 and is best remembered for being called with 2:36 remaining because of heavy thunderstorms in the area. The Trojans rolled up 331 yards on the ground that day, including a career-high 199 by tailback Ricky Ervins, and took a 35-26 victory.
** Southern Cal’s six-game winning streak against the Buckeyes is the longest for any Ohio State opponent in more than 80 years. Michigan was the last opponent to win as many as six consecutive games against OSU. That streak occurred between 1922 and 1927. No school has beaten Ohio State seven times in a row since the Wolverines won nine consecutive games in the series between 1901 and 1909.
** Ohio State has a 32-15 all-time record in night games (determined by a 5 p.m. or later kickoff). That includes a 6-2 mark in Ohio Stadium since 1959. USC is 133-34-4 at night, including 36-11 on the road.
** Carroll is the active Division I-A leader in winning percentage. His 89-15 record computes to an .856 percentage, putting him well ahead of Florida head coach Urban Meyer (84-17, .832). Tressel (219-76-2, .741) currently occupies the No. 7 position in winning percentage among active coaches.
** The game will be ESPN’s featured Saturday night game with Brent Musberger providing play-by-play, Kirk Herbstreit doing color commentary and Lisa Salters on the sidelines. Kickoff is set for shortly after 8 p.m. Eastern.
** Herbstreit will be joined by Chris Fowler and Lee Corso as ESPN’s College GameDay broadcasts from its usual location at the northeast corner of St. John Arena. This will mark GameDay’s 24th appearance in Columbus since 1996.
** The game will also be broadcast in 3-D to a handful of movie theaters around the nation. That kind of broadcast requires different kinds of cameras and evidently an entirely different announce crew as well. Mark Jones, Bob Davie and Ed Cunningham will provide coverage on the 3-D broadcast. Venues that will show the 3-D telecast include the Rave at Polaris in suburban Columbus and the Galen Center at USC as well as theaters in Hartford, Conn., and Hurst, Texas.
** If you are nowhere near a television or theater, Sirius Satellite radio will have the broadcast on channel 121.
** Next week, Ohio State hits the road for the first time this season. The Buckeyes head for Cleveland Browns Stadium to take on instate rival Toledo. Kickoff is shortly after 12 noon Eastern. The game will not be televised nationally although Channel 6 will carry the game in Columbus while other local outlets should have it around the state of Ohio. Those of you who live out of state will likely have to make a small donation to the Worldwide Leader and order the game through ESPN GamePlan.
THIS WEEK IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL HISTORY
** Twenty-six years ago today, Florida and USC played to a wild finish in the Coliseum. On Sept. 10, 1983, the 15th-ranked Gators were on the verge of a 19-13 upset victory when they stopped the No. 9 Trojans on fourth down with seconds remaining in the game. A Florida penalty on the play gave USC new life, however, and quarterback Sean Salisbury connected with receiver Timmie Ware as time expired to tie the score at 19. All the Trojans had to do was kick the extra point to pull out the win, but a bad snap resulted in the game ending in a 19-19 tie.
** Also occurring during this week in college football history: on Sept. 8, 1984, Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie kicked off his Heisman Trophy-winning season by throwing three touchdowns passes and rallying the Golden Eagles from a 31-14 deficit to a 38-31 upset over ninth-ranked Alabama at Legion Field in Birmingham; on Sept. 9, 1972, UCLA quarterback Mark Harmon led the Bruins – who had won only two games the previous season – to a 20-17 upset win over preseason No. 1 Nebraska; on Sept. 12, 1987, Michigan committed seven turnovers in a 26-7 loss to Notre Dame, the first season-opening home loss ever for head coach Bo Schembechler; and on Sept. 13, 1986, Hayden Fry became the winningest coach in Iowa history when the Hawkeyes took a 43-7 win over Iowa State. The victory was No. 53 for Fry, who passed Forest Evashevski for most wins in school history. Fry was to coach 20 seasons in Iowa City and retired with 143 victories with the Hawkeyes.
AROUND THE COUNTRY
** If the opening-week slate of games is any indication, the Big Ten has officially transformed itself from a running conference to one that relies more and more on the passing game. The first week of the 2009 season produced eight different Big Ten receivers who totaled 100 or more yards, led by Minnesota’s Eric Decker with 183. Meanwhile, only one conference running back cracked the century mark – Purdue sophomore Ralph Bolden, who exploded for 234 yards against Toledo.
** Speaking of Decker, his nine catches in the Gophers’ season-opening win over Syracuse gave him 186 career receptions. He needs 14 more to become only the 10th receiver in Big Ten history to reach the 200 mark in career catches. Decker still has a way to go to catch the all-time conference leader. Taylor Stubblefield had 325 receptions from 2001-04 at Purdue.
** Purdue kicker Carson Wiggs is rapidly earning the reputation for being a big-time performer. Near the end of the first half of the Boilermakers’ win over Toledo, Wiggs shattered his own school record by booting a 59-yard field goal. He set the old mark last year with a 53-yarder against Ohio State. As good as Wiggs’ effort was, it still only tied him for the seventh-longest field goal in Big Ten history. Morten Andersen of Michigan State has held the record at 63 yards since 1981. Anderson’s kick came during a 24-13 loss at Ohio State.
** Minnesota unveils its new TCF Bank Stadium this weekend, hosting Air Force. It marks the first time since 1981 the Gophers have played on campus. Kickoff is 6 p.m. local time and the contest will be televised by the Big Ten Network.
** The ACC suffered through a nightmarish first weekend, going 4-6 against nonconference opponents including losses to two Division I-AA opponents. Duke fell by a 24-16 score to Richmond while Virginia suffered a monumental meltdown against William & Mary. The Cavaliers committed seven turnovers during a 26-14 loss to the Tribe. W&M redshirt freshman defensive back B.W. Webb was the star of the game, picking off three interceptions and returning one of them for a touchdown.
** Our condolences to New Mexico. The Lobos lost their season opener by a 41-6 score to Texas A&M, making it four years in a row that New Mexico has dropped its season opener. Even worse is the fact the Lobos have failed to score a touchdown in their season opener four years in a row. In those four games, UNM has been outscored 94-21.
** The Draddy Trophy is getting a new name. The so-called “academic Heisman,” given annually to the top scholar-athlete in college football, will now be known as the Campbell Trophy. It has been renamed in honor of Bill Campbell, current chairman and former CEO of the Intuit software company and a former player and coach at Columbia. The award had been named after the late Vincent de Paul Draddy, who played quarterback at Manhattan College and went on to develop the Izod clothing brand. The National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame, which is in charge of handing out the Draddy/Campbell Trophy, did not give a reason for the name change. But we can all gue$$, can’t we?
** Evidently pizzas are selling better than cars even in Detroit. The game formerly known as the Motor City Bowl has been renamed the Little Caesar Pizza Bowl. In this case, there is no mystery surrounding the name change. Financially-strapped General Motors and Chrysler ended their sponsorship of the game, set for Dec. 26 at Ford Field in Detroit.
** My book, “The Die-Hard Fan’s Guide to Buckeye Football,” and is now on bookshelves nearly everywhere. It’s available at Barnes & Noble, Border’s, Books-A-Million and online at Amazon. The book is a fan-friendly guide that covers the OSU football program from its roots in the late 1800s and goes through the 2008 season. There is lots of historical data, stories, photos, player rankings by decade and even a quiz to test your Buckeye football knowledge. I had a lot of fun putting it together and I hope you’ll pick up a copy.
** I will be signing copies of the book at the Barnes & Noble location at 1598 N. High St. (formerly Long’s Bookstore) beginning at 6:30 p.m. Friday. Stop by and say hello if you’re in the area.
Thanks to thousands of requests (OK, one or two), we’re dusting off the Fearless Forecast for another year. Last season, we finished a respectable 98-37 straight up and 70-60-1 against the spread. That makes us 1,282-389 straight-up (76.7 percent) and fairly well above water against the spread at 620-551-17 (good enough for 52.9 percent).
As I say every year, this is just for fun. I make more picks based on how I feel that what I actually know. Nevertheless, off we go for what we hope will be an outstanding season that has us all convening next January in Pasadena. (By the way, the rankings are always from the AP.)
Here are the games we’ve watching this week:
Syracuse at No. 7 Penn State: I guess the first thing you should know is that the Nittany Lions have won 22 straight games at home against non-ranked opponents. That includes a 55-13 win over the Orange last year. This is a different Syracuse team, of course, with first-year head coach Doug Marrone and new quarterback Greg Paulus. The Orange will get better over time, but they’re no match right now for JoePa’s team in Happy Valley … Penn State 38, Syracuse 7. (12 noon ET, BTN)
Western Michigan at Indiana: IU nearly spit the bit last week before finally escaping with a 19-13 win over I-AA foe Eastern Kentucky. Meanwhile, the Broncos looked shell-shocked against Michigan a week ago, giving up 31 first-half points to the Wolverines en route to a 31-7 loss. On paper, any Big Ten vs. MAC matchup usually tilts toward the Big Ten team. I have this sneaky feeling the Hoosiers are going to have problems with WMU quarterback Tim Hiller, who has topped the 3,000-yard mark each of the past two years. But Indiana QB Ben Chappell may also be in for a treat since the Broncos surrendered three touchdown passes to Michigan’s young quarterbacks last week … Indiana 26, Western Michigan 24. (12 noon ET, BTN)
Houston at No. 5 Oklahoma State: To be perfectly honest, I believe the Cougars are vastly underrated and the Cowboys are a little bit overrated. In Houston, you have a team that can score in bunches behind quarterback Case Keenum, who threw for 359 yards and four TDs last week in his team’s 55-7 rout of Northwestern State. The fact of the matter is that Houston was one of only five teams that averaged more total offense per game last year than Oklahoma State. Of course, the Pokes impressive in their opener, taking a 24-13 victory over 13th-ranked Georgia from the big, bad SEC. This one has the makings of an entertaining shootout, but Houston has a penchant for turning the ball over in marquee games … Oklahoma State 49, Houston 31. (3:30 p.m. ET, FSN)
No. 18 Notre Dame at Michigan: The so-called experts are pitching comeback seasons for both of these former heavyweights. Sorry, I’m not buying – at least not yet. I know the Irish have a schedule soft as a baby’s bottom, but I’m still not sold on Charlie Weis coaching a team to nine or 10 victories. Meanwhile in Ann Arbor, Rich Rodriguez just doesn’t have enough horses yet to resurrect what once was one of college football’s elite programs. If it was coaching alone that won games, I’d pick the upset in a heartbeat. I just think the Domers have too much talent on their side of the field … Notre Dame 31, Michigan 24. (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
No. 24 Kansas at UTEP: There is one possible Heisman Trophy candidate that no one has talked about. That’s Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing, who has the misfortune of playing in the same conference as Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford and whoever’s under center at Texas Tech. Reesing, who threw for 3,888 yards and 32 TDs a year ago, started his senior season last week with 208 yards and two TDs during the Jawhawks’ 49-3 win over Northern Colorado. He also ran for 79 yards and two more scores. There could be more of the same this week in El Paso. The Miners, who ranked 115th in Division I-A last season in total defense, gave up 309 yards in their 23-17 opening loss at home to Buffalo … Kansas 42, UTEP 24. (7:30 p.m. ET, CBS College Sports)
Purdue at Oregon: You might have expected these teams to be headed in different directions than what they are. The Boilermakers made new head coach Danny Hope a big winner in their opener with a 52-31 spanking of Toledo. Meanwhile, the Ducks fell 19-8 last Thursday night at Boise State, a game that is going to be more remembered for Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount cold-cocking Boise State defensive end Byron Hout after the game. Ducks head coach Chip Kelly, who suspended Blount for the remainder of the season, has had better weeks. As for the Boilers, we get to find out if last week’s offensive explosion (52 points and 535 yards) was the real thing or a one-game aberration. I’m thinking it was the latter, especially if the Ducks play like they have something to prove … Oregon 35, Purdue 14. (10:15 p.m. ET, FSN)
No. 3 USC at No. 8 Ohio State: After last year’s game, no one gives the Buckeyes much of a chance to beat the Trojans and that’s reflected in OSU being seven-point underdogs at home. The point everyone seems to be missing is that USC starts a freshman at quarterback against a team that’s hungry for a big win. Add that to 105,000-plus boisterous fans in the Horseshoe and I think you can smell what’s cooking … Ohio State 26, USC 24. (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Here are the spreads for the above games: Syracuse at Penn State (-28½); Western Michigan at Indiana (-1½); Houston at Oklahoma State (-16); Notre Dame (-3) at Michigan; Kansas (-11) at UTEP; Purdue at Oregon (-11); USC at Ohio State (+7).
And just so you know, USC is 1-4 ATS in its past five games on the road.