A year ago, when Ohio State-USC promised to be a battle of the game's best linebacking corps, James Laurinaitis and Rey Maualuga graced the marquee. This season, the game shifts to the banks of the Olentangy River, and with it the spotlight shifts to a pair of young quarterbacks.
The clash could be a defining game for both Ohio State sophomore Terrelle Pryor and USC freshman Matt Barkley. Pryor, who took over the starting job after last season's 35-3 loss to the Trojans, can assert himself as one of the nation's elite quarterbacks and vault himself into the Heisman discussion. Barkley, who one coach believes will untimely leave USC with a stiff-arm trophy of his own, can show he deserves the hype and the confidence Pete Carroll showed in naming him the first freshman to open the season as USC's starter.
Pryor, for one, believes the game will match the expectations this time around. "It's going to be a fight, and it's going to be a war," he said earlier this week. "I'm looking forward to it. It's what you dream of -- it's going to be a real fun game."
1. How will Barkley handle his first road test at the Horseshoe? Barkley certainly didn't hurt his stock by completing 15 of 19 pass for 233 yards and a touchdown against San Jose State. However, that was in front of some 85,000 Trojans fans in the friendly confines of the Coliseum. He'll face a far more hostile crowd in his first road game, playing in front of 105,000-plus under the Ohio Stadium lights.
Carroll, for one, doesn't believe the atmosphere will bother his new quarterback. "He's going to be excited to see what it looks like to be in an opponent's stadium of that stature and all, and then he's going to go play," Carroll said. "I don't think it will matter to him at all. That's just the way he's been and how he's handled things and he has such confidence and such comfort in his own skin."
The Buckeyes' hopes may well hinge on disrupting that comfort.
Against San Jose State, Barkley had the luxury of relying on USC's deep stable of running backs (Joe McKnight, Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable, Allen Bradford, etc.). Even without All-America center Kristofer O'Dowd, the Trojans still rushed for 342 yards and six touchdowns and forced the Spartans to bring an extra defender for run support. O'Dowd returns this weekend, but if Ohio State can limit USC's rushing yards without exposing its secondary, it can force Barkley to make throws possibly beyond his years. The fact is, he's still a true freshman whose only experience is against a WAC team. If, though, the Buckeyes fails to apply pressure with Thad Gibson and the front -- the strength of this team -- it'll be a long night for OSU.MANDEL: Barkley looks like next great college star
2. Has Ohio State solved the offensive line troubles that plagued it against Navy? Forget the "one game at a time, we're not looking past this week," coach-speak; it's hard to believe the Buckeyes viewed the game against the Midshipmen as anything more than contact drills leading up to the Trojans. Of course, Navy isn't the typical non-BCS team -- the Middies have beaten seven teams from the major conferences in the past three years -- but no academy school should outmuscle a major power's offensive line like Navy did against OSU. The Buckeyes' line outweighed Navy's front seven by 75 pounds, yet the group underachieved and was consistently driven back.
Offensive line coach Jim Bollman blamed the performance on a lack of communication, a troublesome claim considering four OSU linemen boast starting experience. A mobile player like Pryor can widen the margin of error if the line collapses, but OSU needs to fix the communication problems if it hopes to take advantage of what's long been USC's Achilles' heel.
Mobile quarterbacks have long plagued USC, from Ell Roberson to Bryan Randall, Dennis Dixon to Vince Young. Pryor can certainly follow suit, but not if he spends the night running laterally and backward to escape from pressure. It's cliché to say the game will be won in the trenches, but in order for the best offensive player on the field to show his skills, Ohio State must dominate at the line of scrimmage.
3. The Big Ten's reputation may not be the only one on the line. Fair or not, each time Ohio State faces a national-title contender, it bears the flag of a conference with an image problem worthy of Sterling Cooper. Most not wearing scarlet and gray this weekend maintain the Big Ten's rep needs some work, and the best way to start fixing it is for the team that has become the league's whipping boy to deliver the kind of win it's lacked the past three seasons.
By now, the Big Ten having to defend its standing feels like a page from the Groundhog Day script, but this game could provide a new wrinkle. This time, Jim Tressel might face similar criticism. Tressel has an 85-19 record at Ohio State, including the 2002 national championship and a share of five Big Ten titles, but the past three seasons have opened him up to criticism for key losses and a typically conservative game plan.
Tressel is 0-5 in his last five games against top five teams (back-to-back BCS title game loses to Florida and LSU and 2008 defeats against USC, Penn State and Texas in the Fiesta Bowl). He's by no means on the hot seat, but Earl Bruce and John Cooper both had the full support of the Arch City before lulls lost them the rabid fan base. Perhaps Tressel set the bar too high by winning a title in his second season, but OSU fans have become a fickle bunch.
Tressel and the Big Ten can go a long way toward restoring their images when USC comes to town, but it certainly won't be easy. Ohio State is 24-1 at home versus non-conference opponents under Tressel, but a Big Ten team hasn't beaten USC since 1996.ROSENBERG: Will this time be different for OSU?
Since Barkley has only played one college game, I turned to Tesoro High coach Brian Barnes, whose team picked off Barkley four times his senior year at Mater Dei (Calif.) High. Here's what he had to say.
"Everything he does is perfect. He makes all the right reads and he conducts himself really well. For us, last year, we were trying to stop the rest of the team.
"We played against some big-time quarterbacks last season -- Clark Evans, who's at Colorado, Sean Schroeder, who's at Duke -- and Matt was the most successful of any of them. You hear a guy throw four picks and two for touchdowns, but it didn't rattle him. We put pressure on him like crazy and it didn't affect him like it did some of these other kids.
"Some of the balls he throws are NFL balls. They're passes no other high school kid can make. If a ball's got to be six inches from the corner marker of the end zone, [then] it's six inches from the corner marker of the end zone, it's not seven. He just throws a screamer of a ball, too."
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Pryor writes "Vince" "Young" on his eye black, 300 total yards. OSU 31 SC 28-- @Dennymayo
USC 30, Ohio State 21. Barkley, for all his confidence, will face the toughest test he's ever had when he heads to the 'Shoe. But with one of the country's best offensive lines and a deep stable of running backs to bolster his performance, Barkley will pass the test, and the Big Ten's big game hex will continue.