Quarterbacks: The Horseshoe isn’t the ideal venue for an opposing freshman quarterback to make his first road start, and just his second appearance overall. But Matt Barkley, the heralded rookie recruit, claims he’ll be unfazed by the scarlet crazies on Saturday night. “It will be a little louder [than The Coliseum], but I’ve got a loud voice,” he said.
Still, Terrelle Pryor has played amid this pressure before, while Barkley has not. And don’t forget- though he was the top quarterback recruit this past offseason, Barkley is prone to make mistakes. He threw 18 interceptions during his senior year of high school.
Advantage: Ohio State
Running Backs: The Trojans can roll six-deep with their plethora of talented running backs. In last week’s shellacking of San Jose State, three USC rushers averaged more than 10 yards per carry, while the Trojans racked up 342 yards on the ground. They can take the pressure off of their young quarterback by handing to the shifty Joe McKnight, the elusive C.J. Gable, the hard-nosed Allen Bradford or the touchdown machine Stafon Johnson.
On the other side, Ohio State is still trying to figure out if they can efficiently replace Chris “Beanie” Wells. The “Boom” and “Zoom” duo of Dan Herron and Brandon Saine has shown some punch, but hasn’t yet proven the ability to hit the home run. That’s where OSU hopes Pryor’s legs can contribute.
OSU Receivers vs. USC Secondary: Terrelle Pryor has almost an entirely new arsenal of weapons, but has yet to establish a rapport with one or two playmakers. Sophomore DeVier Posey is the best bet to become Pryor’s favorite target, but he has all of 13 catches in his brief career. An encouraging note was Pryor finding his running backs and tight ends often against Navy. The more options he has on the field, the more dangerous Pryor becomes.
The Buckeyes probably won’t beat USC on deep, downfield passes, but they can excel in the short passing game as they did against the Midshipmen. USC’s defense is fast and athletic, but is more suited to shut down the run. Safety Taylor Mays could be a top-five draft pick next April.
Advantage: Ohio State
USC Receivers vs. OSU Secondary: Barkley will look to a trio of seniors as his primary options. The Trojans will rely heavily on receiver Damiam Williams to ease Barkley’s burden. Tight end Anthony McCoy, a large target at 6-foot-5, also figures to play a sizeable role in the USC passing game. And fullback Stanley Havili, who burned the Bucks with a 35-yard touchdown last year, can catch the ball out of the backfield.
Safety Jermale Hines will see plenty more opportunities for OSU, as he has worked with the starters this week in place of senior Anderson Russell. Hines, whose strong suit is defending the run, will likely be asked to take away the threats of Havili and McCoy. If cornerback Chimdi Chekwa can limit the production of Williams, then Barkley will be hard-pressed to find open targets.
USC Offensive Line vs. OSU Defensive Line: Perhaps the each team’s greatest strength, this battle could determine Saturday’s outcome. The Trojan offensive line must give Barkley all the protection he needs to get in a rhythm, and the Buckeye defensive front must find a way to disrupt that. OSU coach Jim Tressel acknowledged the USC offensive line as being one of the best in the nation. Barkley was sacked just once last week, while OSU managed a pair against Navy. The Buckeyes will use a variety of defensive sets to try to force their way into USC’s backfield, a must if a Buckeye upset is to happen.
OSU Offensive Line vs. USC Defensive Line: The Buckeyes looked overmatched against Navy, despite a substantial size advantage up front. After years of criticism for having a “slow” line, the Bucks have started the transition toward a more agile, athletic group to protect the quarterback. The more time Pryor has to make decisions, the better decisions he will make.
USC will use its quickness up front to pressure Pryor into making the wrong choices. Texas implemented a similar plan in the Fiesta Bowl, and OSU’s quarterbacks were never given enough time to get in a rhythm.
Linebackers: Both teams are replacing their top producers at the position from a year ago. Southern Cal lost its top four ‘backers to the NFL Draft, including three in the first 36 picks. OSU replaces its tandem of James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman. The new groups for both sides are geared more toward speed and athleticism, but both still have plenty to prove.
Coaching: Aside from the incessant banter about Tressel’s supposed inability to win big games, there is a stark contrast in style between the Vest and USC coach Pete Carroll. Tressel plays things by the book and prefers a more conservative approach. That doesn’t always work in games of this magnitude. The Buckeyes need to make a statement, avenging last year’s 35-3 debacle, and ending a five-game streak of losses against elite opponents. Tressel must let Pryor run wild, and reach out of his ordinary element to play aggressively. Carroll’s insistent persona can be seen through the way his teams constantly blow out the opposition. Tressel needs to take chances to win on Saturday, something he hasn’t proven willing to do in the past.
Intangibles: From USC starting a true freshman at quarterback to Ohio State having the motivation to silence critics of its program and conference to playing at home in front of the potentially largest crowd in Ohio Stadium history, every minor off-the-field advantage points to the Buckeyes.
Advantage: Ohio State