- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg and Ted Miller
All eyes will be on Columbus this weekend as No. 3 USC visits No. 8 Ohio State (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). Before the two teams lock horns on the banks of the Olentangy River, we debated several key questions heading into the mega matchup.
Adam Rittenberg: Ted, I look at this USC defense and don't see a glaring weakness. Still, several mobile quarterbacks [Vince Young, Dennis Dixon] have hurt the Trojans in the past. How do you expect USC to defend Terrelle Pryor and does Pryor give the Buckeyes a fighting chance in this game?
Ted Miller: I think Pryor gives the Buckeyes a fighting chance because he can make something out of nothing when a play breaks down -- and the USC defense is good at breaking down plays. While USC fans would debate you on the health of their defense vs. Vince Young, the fact is the Trojans learned from that game that you need to account for an athletic quarterback -- you can't just run your base defense and expect gap control and rush lanes to take care of things. There surely will be some sort of spying, whether with one guy or a shift of guys. On the plus side for USC, this is a really fast defense. It's much faster at linebacker than last year. Malcolm Smith is fast -- his brother is an NFL receiver -- and Michael Morgan is a 4.4 guy. Toss in end Everson Griffen and you've got some guys who can really run on the perimeter of the front-seven. Moreover, middle linebacker Chris Galippo implied to me that this will be more disciplined defense. As extraordinary as Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews and Rey Maualuga were last year, they, at times, freelanced, looking for big plays. That means the Trojans won't be as likely abandon their assigned gaps or let contain break down.
As long as we're talking quarterbacks, what do you think about the poise issue for both guys? USC's Matt Barkley claims he doesn't get nervous. You buy that at the Horseshoe? And how will Pryor react on this big stage?
AR: The Shoe remains the toughest place to play in the Big Ten, getting the slightest of edges against Penn State's Beaver Stadium. Barkley's nerves will be put to the test. It will be extremely loud, especially at the start of the game, and the south end zone addition really makes the decibels rise. I'd imagine USC will go to its strength right away, pound away with those tremendous running backs and athletic offensive line and give Barkley some time to get settled. Everything I've heard about this kid -- from yourself and other observers -- is that he's the real deal. I saw true freshman quarterback Tate Forcier show no nerves last week for Michigan in the Big House, but then again, he was playing at home. Ohio State's defensive line is the strength of the team, and it has to rattle Barkley early for the Buckeyes to have a shot. As for Pryor, he has shown some toughness late in games, particularly against Wisconsin last year. He's certainly more comfortable as a passer, but he can't get away from what makes him special and needs to make plays with his feet. I still haven't seen a team contain Pryor on the move, but he needs the freedom from head coach Jim Tressel and the willingness from within to really cut loose against USC.
Ohio State's defensive line is the team's strongest unit. Same could be said for USC's offensive line. How do you see that matchup shaking out, and will Ohio State need to use speed (Thaddeus Gibson, Cameron Heyward) rather than power to beat the Trojans' front?
TM: USC's offensive line is the best one I've seen. These guys are big and powerful, but it's their athleticism that sets them apart. They aren't your prototypical "hogs." These guys could go to the beach and not embarrass themselves. And these same guys decisively won the battle with the Buckeyes last year. That said, I watched the Buckeyes against both Penn State and Texas last year and saw a physical, athletic crew. I don't think Ohio State can dominate mano-a-mano, but I do think they can win some battles with scheme and by giving the Trojans a variety of looks. To me, it's not about beating the USC line every play -- that ain't happening. It's about doing enough to keep a freshman quarterback off balance. That means slowing a potent running game so the Trojans have to throw, and then getting some pressure on Barkley and forcing him to make mistakes.
I see a lot of new names on Ohio State's depth chart. Who are these guys? Who should USC be concerned with on both sides of the ball?
AR: Good call. There were 37 new players in Ohio State's camp this year, which certainly isn't the norm. On the offensive side, look out for young wide receivers DeVier Posey and Duron Carter, Cris' son. Posey is one of Pryor's best friends and has big-play skills, while Carter obviously comes from some pretty good bloodlines and looked really impressive during camp. A lot of Ohio State fans are down on the two primary running backs, Dan Herron and Brandon Saine. I kind of like the combination there -- Herron is a tough inside runner, while Saine can hit the home run. As for the defense, keep an eye on defensive end Thad Gibson. He isn't a new guy per se, but he's an excellent edge rusher who could give Barkley some problems. Linebacker Brian Rolle is a playmaker, as he showed on that 2-point conversion return against Navy. Also, Jermale Hines, a linebacker/safety hybrid, has looked good and should get some time ahead of Anderson Russell, who struggled last week.
I can't keep track of all these USC running backs. How does each guy change a defense's approach, or do you just need to be fundamentally sound against each ball-carrier?
TM: USC's backfield is absurd, an embarrassment of riches. You probably won't see either Marc Tyler or Curtis McNeal, but we'd probably be searching for cute nicknames for their one-two punch if they played together for the vast majority of other BCS teams. Joe McKnight is now the "feature" back. He's first among equals. He hasn't lived up to his prep All-American pedigree as the second coming of Reggie Bush, but the junior looked good against San Jose State and many around the program think he's going to break out. He's a shifty speed guy. Allen Bradford is big -- 235 pounds -- and fast. More than a few people who watch USC regularly think he's the Trojans best back. Stafon Johnson is the guy who comes in when the Trojans are in the opposing red zone. He's got a nose for the end zone, and he's my personal favorite because he's so consistent. If I were a Ohio State linebacker, I would be aware of who was in the game, because each of these guys runs with his own style. But if I were an Ohio State coach, I wouldn't want to cloud my guys heads with a variety of plans. You need to fill your assigned gap and tackle well. To me, it's about preventing any explosion plays in the running game. These guys can grind out four, five and six-yard carries. Where they really tax you is when they find a seam and go yard.
So Adam ... moment of truth ... what's going to happen?
AR: I can't see Ohio State getting torched like last year. The Buckeyes have lost only four home games since 2003, all by 11 points or fewer. USC has been foolproof in these big games, especially out of conference and on the road. Then again, the Trojans haven't won on Big Ten soil since 1996. I just can't remember the last time Ohio State clicked on all cylinders -- maybe 2007? -- and it will need a complete effort to beat USC. Last week's game against Navy reminded me way too much of Ohio State's pre-USC tune-up against Ohio last year, and we all know what happened next. If Ohio State keeps the score down, they have a shot, but I see USC winning by a touchdown.
What say you?
TM: We did this last year and I thought the Buckeyes would give USC everything it could handle and we saw how that turned out. Still, I'm a huge believer in home-field advantage in college football, and Ohio Stadium is a HUGE home-field advantage, no matter how much the Trojans act like it's no big deal. They'll see. That place is nasty. Still, on a neutral field, I'd take the Trojans going away. The Buckeyes need to keep things close early and see if the pressure gets to Barkley and forces him to make a couple of mistakes. I think USC wins, but Ohio State will show a lot of pride and keep this one -- as you said -- within shouting distance. Let's call it 27-20.
AP Photo Quarterbacks Terrelle Pryor and Matt Barkley will be the focal point for Saturday's Ohio State-USC throwdown. Posted by ESPN.