Big Ten: Columbus 082

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Getty Images
 Marcus Freeman had 109 tackles for the Buckeyes last season.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- They certainly didn't plan it that way, but the tag-team interception by James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman last Saturday encapsulated what has been a profitable long-term partnership at Ohio State.

The Buckeyes led Ohio 19-14 in the fourth quarter when Freeman, the team's somewhat unsung strongside linebacker, read quarterback Boo Jackson's eyes and tipped a pass with both mitts. Laurinaitis, the award-winning All-American, adjusted to the ball and dove for his eighth career interception.

As usual, most of the credit for the takeaway went to Laurinaitis, whose superb skills, speed, toughness, tattoos and compelling back story -- if you've been in Azerbaijan for the last 20 years, his dad was "The Animal" of pro wrestling fame -- make him Ohio State's obvious front man. Following Chris Spielman, Andy Katzenmoyer, A.J. Hawk and others in a line of dominant Buckeyes 'backers, Laurinaitis already owns a Butkus Award, a Nagurski Trophy and a Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award.

But Laurinaitis attributes much of his success to Freeman, who lent a hand during a difficult time in 2005. Freeman was next in line for Ohio State's linebacker rotation after playing as a true freshman the previous season, but he tore his meniscus in the season opener and had to redshirt. When starter Bobby Carpenter broke his fibula against Michigan, Laurinaitis, a true freshman, stepped into a spot seemingly reserved for Freeman.

"He could have sat there and said, 'Man, that could have been me out there,'" said Laurinaitis, who appropriately wore a gray "I Am Grateful" wristband as he answered questions. "He didn't do that at all. He took the approach of, 'I'm going to coach this young guy up and make sure he does the best possible he can do.' I really respected that and I really appreciated it. That's what really made us closer."

The two linebackers don't reminisce much about 2005. They have other things on their minds, namely how to stop No. 1 USC on Saturday night at the L.A. Coliseum (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).

The mega matchup marks the 29th time Laurinaitis and Freeman will line up alongside one another. Neither player would have things any other way.

"Me and James will be friends for the rest of our lives, no matter what happens here at Ohio State or in the NFL," Freeman said. "I'm always proud of him and he's proud of me."

The two players are separated by a year in school, but not much else.

"We're always coming in at the same time, we're doing workouts two times a day at the same time, eating lunch," Laurinaitis said. "It's like you can't go anywhere without one another."

 
 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
 Laurinaitis already has a Butkus Award and a Nagurski Trophy.

Laurinaitis has built his reputation on tremendous lateral speed, endurance and the ability to play a role on almost every play. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound senior has averaged 8.9 tackles in his last 28 games, stretching back to the start of 2006.

He's most effective in pass coverage, recording five interceptions in his sophomore season.

"He's in the right spot all the time," USC quarterback Mark Sanchez said. "He's the heartbeat of their defense."

Throughout the week Laurinaitis has been compared with his USC counterpart Rey Maualuga, But unlike Maualuga, arguably the nation's top linebacker coming out of high school, and fellow Trojans star Brian Cushing, Laurinaitis came to Ohio State with limited fanfare.

"James came a long way from them throwing him into the Michigan game [in 2005] and nobody knowing really who he was to blowing up," said Buckeyes cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, another overlooked prep prospect. "Now he's a household name."

The growing fame hasn't sidetracked his focus. On a team with multiple senior standouts, Laurinaitis was voted a captain for the second straight year, becoming just the seventh Ohio State player to serve two terms.

Laurinaitis' demeanor impressed Maualuga when the two met up at the Playboy All-America photo shoot this summer.

"You'd think a guy with that stature, who's gotten all the accolades and awards he's got, he'd be a different type of person," Maualuga said. "But he's down-to-earth, unselfish. A complete, great person."

Laurinaitis is lauded for his ability to contribute in multiple areas, but he might be Ohio State's second most adaptable linebacker. Freeman has played both outside linebacker spots, collecting 196 career tackles and 13 pass breakups.

USC coach Pete Carroll noted that Ohio State accentuates the athleticism of its linebackers in the defensive scheme, allowing players to cut loose on the field.

"When you have a guy as versatile as Marcus is," Laurinaitis said, "with the ability to say, 'Hey, when you're in this, go to [strongside linebacker], go to the outside, and then when we go to this package, come back into the middle and play on the weak side,' that benefits not only himself, but the whole defense."

Whoever stepped in as Ohio State's third starting linebacker this season was going to be overshadowed by Laurinaitis and Freeman, but sophomore Ross Homan is holding his own so far. The 6-foot, 229-pound Homan leads the Buckeyes in solo tackles (6) after redshirting last season with turf toe.

"You know he's going to be where he needs to be," Laurinaitis said. "His work ethic is unbelievable and his steady ability is unbelievable. I have all the confidence in the world in the guys all around me."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
 Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor didn't get much playing time against the Bobcats.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State players insisted their eyes were locked on the players in front of them, not on the bigger, stronger and faster men 2,000 miles away.

They insisted the energy level was high, even higher than it had been before the season opener against Youngstown State. Ohio U wouldn't be a trap game. Letdowns happen in sports all the time, but not to this team, not to these seniors, not to this coaching staff.

"Everybody was ready to play," cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said.

Ohio State emerged with a "W" on Saturday, the 800th in team history, but for the most part, the game had all the ingredients of that L-word.

"It kind of looked like everyone predicted you might look like in between your opener and your big 'national stage game,' which is disappointing because we really needed to make progress," Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel said.

Ohio State made some progress in a 26-14 victory. The defense forced four of Ohio's five turnovers, quieting the takeaway talk. Wideout Ray Small emerged as a big-play threat, and defensive end Lawrence Wilson caused havoc in the backfield.

But the Buckeyes should have accomplished so much more. Taking the field a week before a mega matchup at top-ranked USC, Ohio State had a lengthy to-do list. Most of the items were never crossed out.

"We didn't get better this week," center Jim Cordle said. "We were supposed to."

Added running back Maurice Wells: "We really didn't expect the game to go how it did. It wasn't pretty. We're going to have to make a lot of improvements next week if we want to get a win out there."

This game provided a unique opportunity, particularly on offense. Playing without their best player, running back Chris "Beanie" Wells, the Buckeyes had the opportunity to experiment with different plays and personnel groups.

But when their bread-and-butter schemes didn't produce a comfortable early lead, the script changed. Creativity was tabled to next week.

Perhaps the team's biggest regret involved freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor, whose last chance to go through a game before USC was cut short.

Pryor took just three snaps when the game was in doubt, relieving starter Todd Boeckman late in the first quarter. But after misfiring on two passes -- raising questions about his arm and decision-making skills -- Pryor departed and didn't return until the 3:06 mark of the fourth quarter.

Trailing for most of the game, Ohio State opted not to gamble with its prized freshman.

If Saturday's conversation between Tressel and offensive coordinator Jim Bollman is any indication, don't expect to see Pryor in crunch time against USC. Tressel wanted to use the freshman with Ohio State up 19-14 in the fourth quarter. Bollman wasn't so sure.

"I said to coach Bolls, 'Why don't we have Terrelle see if he could take this,'" Tressel said. "And coach Bolls says, 'You sure you want to put him under pressure like that?' And I said, 'When would you like his first pressure to be?'"

It's unlikely to come against Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and the Trojans defense.

Pryor generated the loudest roar of the afternoon when he broke off a 23-yard run with two minutes remaining. But the Buckeyes didn't learn anything new about their talented freshman.

"If Terrelle goes out there, ignites the offense a little bit and makes some plays out there, I'm all for it," Boeckman said. "We needed to get going today. We needed someone to have spark."

Ohio deserves plenty of credit for the Buckeye blues. The Bobcats defenders clogged the middle and put pressure on Boeckman and the running backs.

Despite losing starting quarterback Theo Scott to a left shoulder injury in the first quarter, Ohio maintained its poise behind junior Boo Jackson, who became the latest mobile quarterback to give Ohio State problems. Jackson tossed three interceptions in the loss, but he scrambled for 55 yards and kept several drives alive with third-down heroics.

The Bobcats converted 9 of 17 third-down opportunities, a ratio that must improve for Ohio State to have any chance of beating USC.

"There were a lot of third-and-longs where they scrambled and picked them up," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "You've got to get off the field. It's frustrating."

The tackling will need to tighten up next week, but the Buckeyes defense only gave up one touchdown and can draw confidence from forcing turnovers. The real concerns are on offense.

Boeckman struggled to find a rhythm until late in the third quarter, and a miscommunication with Cordle led to a fumbled snap and an Ohio touchdown, which put the Bobcats up 14-6 and sent panic through The Shoe.

"I gave Jimmy the signal and then I looked up a little bit and he snapped it," Boeckman said. "I kind of wasn't ready for it, and it also was a little high."

Boeckman and Cordle can't afford similar miscues at USC, when crowd noise will be a much bigger factor.

Maurice Wells was asked to speculate on how Trojans players viewed the Buckeyes' performance Saturday.

"They're probably thinking it's going to be a slam-dunk win next week," he said.

The same thoughts might have hurt Ohio State on Saturday. It certainly looked that way.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Chris "Beanie" Wells spent the afternoon in sneakers and sweats, but he still found a way to help his Ohio State teammates.

Unable to contribute with his feet, Wells used his mouth. After a sluggish first half from the Buckeyes' offense, the normally subdued Wells tried to spark his teammates.

"He was actually pretty intense there a little bit," quarterback Todd Boeckman said. "Just getting after us, yelling at us, just trying to cheer us up a little bit."

Buckeyes redshirt freshman Dan "Boom" Herron and the other backs filling in for Wells had him in their ears all game. His message was clear.

"Just keep on running," Herron remembers hearing. "Something's going to open up."

It took the better part of three quarters, but Herron and teammates Maurice Wells and Brandon Saine finally saw some daylight in a 26-14 win against Ohio. The three reserves combined for 113 yards on 26 carries.

Both Herron and Saine found the end zone, and Maurice Wells finished with the best yards-per-carry average (5.3), but it took time for all three to get going. Ohio State finished with just six rushing yards in the first quarter. Then after a Malcolm Jenkins interception put the offense in scoring position, Wells was stuffed on fourth-and-1 at the Ohio 29-yard line.

Between-the-tackles runs were a struggle most of the game, and the Buckeyes seemed to have more success on the edges.

"We probably performed maybe B-minus-wise," Maurice Wells said. "We ran the ball well and we protected well when our chances came, but as far as the running backs, it's not really so much what you do. It's the whole offense. The O-line has to block well, we have to run well and hit creases and break tackles. We did well, but not as well as we could have."

Would Chris Wells have made a difference?

"We just didn't execute," center Jim Cordle said. "I don't think having him in there would have made that big of a difference."

Herron expects Chris Wells to be "very good" next week against USC, but if the junior is limited by a toe injury, the Buckeyes' reserves are ready to step in.

"He's a very important part of our offense," Herron said, "but you can't just say that we're done [if he doesn't play]. We have a ton of great athletes on our team and in our offense. Beanie is a big part, but we have a team."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The two teams that meet next week at the L.A. Coliseum have enjoyed tremendous success with dramatically different philosophies.

Ohio State wide receiver Ray Small pointed out some of those differences after Saturday's too-close-for-comfort 26-14 win against Ohio. Small, like several players in the Ohio State-USC game, visited both schools during the recruiting process.

"As I took my visit to USC, I'm like, 'How are they successful? They're not even serious about the game,'" said Small, who caught five passes and had a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown against Ohio. "Before the game, they're all going crazy. Me and [Buckeyes defensive end] Rob Rose was on the visit and I'm looking like, 'Wow.' And then the coach said, 'You better get out of here. It's 'bout to get hectic.'

"And then I come [to Ohio State] on the visit and before the game, it's all quiet, everybody getting taped, coaches talking. It's the total opposite."

Small can't figure out how two divergent programs achieve such similar results. But he knows he made the right choice with the Buckeyes.

"It's more of a class thing," he said. "We took what [former USC quarterback] Carson Palmer said. I don't think somebody from Ohio State would have ever said that remark."

Palmer, the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback, sounded off in July, telling an L.A. radio station how he "cannot stand the Buckeyes and having to live in Ohio and hear those people talk about their team, it drives me absolutely nuts." He later apologized, saying he does respect the Buckeyes.

"Here at Ohio State, they teach you to be a better man," Small said. "There, it's just all about football."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- If there's one positive that comes out of Ohio State's subpar performance, it's that the defense is making plays again.

The nation's No. 1 total defense and scoring defense in 2007 had taken some heat for not forcing enough turnovers. The unit's takeaway skills today might have prevented a crushing upset loss.

After claiming its first lead since midway through the second quarter on a Brandon Saine touchdown run, superstar linebackers Marcus Freeman and James Laurinaitis teamed up to stop a promising Ohio drive. Freeman perfectly read Ohio quarterback Boo Jackson and tipped a pass with both hands. Laurinaitis dove for the interception at the Ohio State 35-yard line. The takeaways are making up for some spotty third-down defense.

The Bobcats have committed four turnovers, and Ohio State's Ray Small likely put this one out of reach with a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown.

I'm heading down to the field but will be back later with plenty more updates.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State's senior stars returned for another run at the national title. They probably didn't think Ohio University would stand in their way.

The Buckeyes need a rally in the fourth quarter to avoid their first loss to an in-state team since 1921. The good news is the offense has finally shown up.

Quarterback Todd Boeckman led a 13-play, 73-yard scoring drive capped by a 1-yard touchdown from by Dan "Boom" Herron in the closing minutes of the quarter. The offensive line finally opened holes for Herron and Boeckman, who showcased his scrambling ability. Ohio State is driving again in the Ohio red zone and should take the lead soon.

If the Bobcats fall, they'll undoubtedly look back to a play at the end of the third quarter. After forcing a three-and-out, Ohio's Mark Parson fumbled a punt and Buckeyes defensive back Shaun Lane recovered at the Bobcats' 25-yard line, amazingly keeping the ball and his body in bounds. Ohio is now losing the turnover battle 3-1, which is never a good sign for an upset.

Panic time: Ohio 14, Ohio State 6

September, 6, 2008
9/06/08
2:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State is in major trouble.

After the Buckeyes were pinned inside their 10-yard line early in the third quarter, center Jim Cordle's snap went past Todd Boeckman and Ohio defensive end Curtis Meyers recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.

Unless the Buckeyes' offense picks it up in a hurry, this could turn into the season's first mega upset. The Buckeyes haven't lost to an in-state team since 1921.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- USC has got to be loving this.

Relaxing in Cali after a dominant performance in Week 1, the top-ranked Trojans are watching No. 3 Ohio State stumble in what looked like a tune-up before next Saturday's showdown at the L.A. Coliseum. Ohio's first trip to Ohio Stadium since 1999 has been a great one so far.

It's hardly panic time yet, and the Buckeyes should come back to win this game, especially if their defense continues to force turnovers. But so far, Ohio State is wasting a critical opportunity to evaluate its entire personnel on offense, namely freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor.

This was a chance to see if reserve running backs Maurice Wells, Dan Herron and Brandon Saine could carry the load in the case Chris "Beanie" Wells doesn't recover well from a right foot/toe injury. This was a chance to assess Pryor against improved competition before the freshman enters an inferno next week at the L.A. Coliseum. This was a chance to show some creativity in play calling.

So far, the Buckeyes are failing in all areas.

Despite two takeaways by the defense and good field position on several instances, the offense has done next to nothing. The offensive line has struggled to protect Boeckman or open holes for Wells and Herron. Ohio State has 50 rushing yards on 15 carries without Chris Wells after running over Youngstown State last week with him. The close score has prevented coach Jim Tressel from using Pryor, who misfired two pass attempts late in the first quarter. And the play calling has been ultra-conservative so far.

Boeckman seems out of sync, as do his top receivers Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline. Robiskie can't break free from Bobcats defensive backs and Hartline has dropped several passes, including one in the end zone. Junior wideout Ray Small (4 receptions, 25 yards) is the only Buckeyes skill player who has graded well.

The defense remains solid; end Lawrence Wilson has been dominant and the two takeaways are an excellent sign. But a mobile quarterback is once again giving Ohio State a bit of trouble. Bobcats backup Boo Jackson got off to a shaky start, throwing an interception on his second pass attempt, but the junior has settled down nicely. He avoided several seemingly sure-fire sacks and either scrambled for good gains or found open receivers. Jackson somehow got free of Wilson on third-and-14 and launched a pass downfield to Taylor Price for a 30-yard gain. The backfield escape set up the Bobcats' go-ahead touchdown. According to ESPN Research, the last time any team from the Buckeye State beat the Buckeyes was Oberlin in 1921. The score was 7-6.

Ohio holds a 127-117 edge in total yards and has converted 5 of 9 third-down attempts. Bobcats starting quarterback Theo Scott will not return after suffering a shoulder injury in the first quarter.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State running back Chris "Beanie" Wells seems fine as he stands on the sideline. It's the Buckeyes offense that looks a bit gimpy.

After scoring on their first six possessions last week against Youngstown State, the Buckeyes are getting stonewalled by a speedy Ohio defense. Backup running backs Maurice Wells and Daniel "Boom" Herron have done nothing, though the holes have been nonexistent.

According to ESPN Research, Ohio State had 15 rushes for 90 yards and 166 totals yards in first quarter against Youngstown State last week. This week without Chris Wells: 28 total yards, 6 yards rushing.

Even after Ohio State's defense did what it hasn't done enough -- force a turnover -- the offense couldn't capitalize. Defensive end Lawrence Wilson made a great individual play, tipping a Theo Scott pass to himself and then racing to the Bobcats' 24-yard line. But the Buckeyes went nowhere and had to settle for a Ryan Pretorius field goal -- the game's only points so far.

A cheer went up after freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor took over late in the quarter, but he misfired on several passes, nearly getting picked off on a slant route that was thrown too hard.

Ohio State's offensive line needs to play a lot better next week against USC. Quarterback Todd Boeckman already has taken several big hits.

The Buckeyes' defense looks typically solid, and some bad news for Ohio as starting quarterback Theo Scott was carted off the field after the quarter. Junior Boo Jackson, who had an impressive spring, is now in for the Bobcats.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- No Chris "Beanie" Wells today, though the Ohio State junior running back didn't limp much when he trotted onto the field next to coach Jim Tressel. The Ohio State marching band just performing finished one of the coolest traditions in college football -- the script Ohio. Kickoff in just a few minutes.

Here are the lineups for both teams:

OHIO STATE

Offense:

LT Alex Boone

LG Steve Rehring

C Jim Cordle

RG Ben Person

RT Bryant Browning

TE Rory Nicol

WR Brian Robiskie

QB Todd Boeckman

RB Maurice Wells

FB Brandon Smith

WR Brian Hartline

Defense:

DE Lawrence Wilson

DT Cameron Heyward

NT Nader Abdallah

DT Todd Denlinger

LB Ross Homan

LB James Laurinaitis

LB Marcus Freeman

CB Malcolm Jenkins

CB Chimdi Chekwa

SS Kurt Coleman

FS Anderson Russell

Specialists:

K Ryan Pretorius

P A.J. Trapasso

OHIO

Offense:

LT Josh Leuck

LG Mike Eynon

C David White

RG Michael Philbin

RT Chris Rodgers

TE Andrew Mooney

QB Theo Scott

WR Taylor Price

FB Jayson White

TB Chris Garrett

WR LaVon Brazill

Defense:

DE Curtis Meyers

NG Ernie Hodge

DT Jameson Hartke

DE Kris Luchsinger

LB Lee Renfro

LB Noah Keller

LB Chris Hall

CB Mark Parson

CB Idris Lawrence

SS Michael Mitchell

FS Steven Jackson

Specialists:

K Barrett Way

P Matt Schulte

Arrived at The Shoe

September, 6, 2008
9/06/08
11:11
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Sorry for the delay here this morning. The wireless was down for a bit here at Ohio Stadium, but it's up and running -- just the like Buckeyes will be in a few minutes. It's a mix of sun and clouds, but weather shouldn't be a factor today.

A piece of advice for anyone attending a game here: Get EXACT directions to your assigned parking lot. I didn't and paid the price this morning. At least the guy with the liberty spikes hairdo and the Troy Smith jersey made my 45-minute detour somewhat enjoyable.

Chris "Beanie" Wells is on the sideline, not in a walking boot and tossing a football to himself while talking with running back Bo DeLande.

Things to watch today:

  • The Buckeyes' other running backs, particularly underclassmen Dan "Boom" Herron and Brandon Saine. Ohio State needs all the speed it can get for USC's defense, and those two bring plenty.
  • How Ohio State uses Terrelle Pryor. We know he can run, but I'd like to see more passing out of this guy. Pryor just took the field for warm-ups and, yes, he is that big.
  • Ohio State's young wide receivers, especially DeVier Posey. There's not too much concern about Brian Robiskie's shoulder injury, but more options in the passing game always help.
  • Whether Ohio can hang around for a while. The Bobcats have some decent speed and Ohio State could be looking ahead, so things might be close for a little bit.

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