Big Ten: Dennis Dixon
|Quarterbacks Terrelle Pryor and Matt Barkley will be the focal point for Saturday's Ohio State-USC throwdown.
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?
|AP Photo/David J. Phillip|
|Oregon quarterback Justin Roper has plenty of options at his disposal.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Purdue knows all about big numbers and the spread offense.
The Boilermakers broke the school scoring record in each of Joe Tiller's first two seasons as head coach. Purdue ranked seventh nationally in passing offense in 1998, fourth in 1999 and sixth in 2000.
Superlative statistics became a Purdue trademark, and Tiller's offense earned the nickname basketball on grass. But even Tiller and his coaches haven't seen a beast quite like the Oregon offense, which takes the field Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).
The 16th-ranked Ducks are more like pinball on grass.
"This is probably the fastest team we've ever seen here in the 12 years," Boilermakers defensive coordinator Brock Spack said Wednesday. "Most teams have one or two guys that can get it done. They have one at every spot."
Oregon's eye-popping production so far this season brings back memories of Tiller's early Purdue teams. The Ducks lead the nation in total offense, averaging 592 yards a game, and rank fifth nationally in scoring (55 ppg).
No Ducks player ranks in the top 50 nationally in any major statistical category, a testament to the team's skill-position depth. Led by Jeremiah Johnson, who expects to play Saturday despite a right shoulder injury, five players with at least 10 carries average more than 35 rushing yards a game. Top wideout Terence Scott averages 16.1 yards per reception, and the next two options, Jeff Maehl and Jaison Williams, aren't far behind (13.4 ypg).
"When we first came to Purdue, we had some gaudy numbers," said Tiller, who can become the winningest coach in team history if he beats the Ducks. "We did it because the defenses weren't equipped to defend the spread, what we were throwing at them. Defenses are better equipped today to do that, but Oregon just has superior talent.
"From an offensive productivity point of view, their foot speed gives them an edge over many of the people that are trying to defend them."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Reading Bruce Feldman's list of the nation's softest nonconference schedules got me thinking about August/September and how critical it will be for the Big Ten. Four Big Ten teams made Feldman's top 10 -- Indiana (1), Northwestern (3), Minnesota (7) and Iowa (10) -- and Wisconsin likely would have been there if not for an intrepid trip to Fresno State (can't wait for that game). I know bowl bids are gold and stacking up early wins is the way to get there, but this league needs to make an early statement, especially after what happened in Pasadena and NOLA earlier this year.
Fortunately, several teams passed on cupcakes and will play games that will determine whether the Big Ten regains national respect. You probably know about the one in Los Angeles on Sept. 13, but here's a rundown.
Illinois vs. Missouri (at St. Louis), Aug. 30: The general feeling when the BCS selections came out was that Illinois didn't deserve a spot and Missouri did. The two teams' bowl performances didn't do much to change that. Missouri enters the Braggin' Rights game with national championship aspirations. Illinois lost its best player (Rashard Mendenhall) but brings back quarterback Juice Williams and wideout Arrelious Benn. A win here vaults Illinois into the Big Ten title picture with Ohio State.
Michigan State at Cal, Aug. 30: The Spartans appear to be on the right track under Mark Dantonio, but a solid road win would undoubtedly raise their national profile. Michigan State won only two road games last season -- one against hapless Notre Dame -- so a win in Berkeley would further the argument that the Spartans can be this season's Illinois.
Utah at Michigan, Aug. 30: The notion that Michigan should win this type of game no longer exists after Appalachian State. Add to that a new coach, a completely new offense, a new quarterback, a new running back, new wide receivers -- do I need to go on? Oh yeah, and Utah is very good. Brian Johnson understudied for Alex Smith and has boatloads of experience. The Utes' backfield is stacked. A win here wouldn't guarantee a ton of respect for Michigan, but the Wolverines certainly wouldn't lose any.
Oregon State at Penn State, Sept. 6: Penn State's new quarterback -- Daryll Clark or Pat Devlin -- faces a rebuilding Oregon State defense in a game the Nittany Lions should win at home. But given Oregon State's recent success, this would qualify as a solid early win for Penn State.
Ohio State at USC, Sept. 13: Don't miss this one. The nation's premier nonconference game pairs two teams that have combined for 12 BCS bowl appearances and five national title game appearances. Ohio State can silence talk of its back-to-back title game stumbles with a road win against USC, which has some issues on the offensive line but always boasts top-shelf talent. An Ohio State win puts it in prime position for another national title push.
Oregon at Purdue, Sept. 13: The knock on Purdue, from coach Joe Tiller on down to quarterback Curtis Painter, is that it no longer wins big games. Here's an early chance to prove otherwise. Oregon lost Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart but boasts a defense that will test an iffy Boilermakers passing game. Purdue played it bold in scheduling this year with Oregon, Central Michigan and as always, Notre Dame, and a win against the Ducks would be a great start.
Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 13: Neither team is expected to contend for a BCS bowl berth, but the annual matchup of the game's two winningest programs always merits plenty of attention. The scary thing for the Wolverines is that they have a lot of the same issues Notre Dame had in 2007, especially with personnel on offense. A strong performance on the road against a team Michigan embarrassed last season would give RichRod and the Wolverines a major boost before league play.
Wisconsin at Fresno State, Sept. 13: Props to Wisconsin for doing what most teams avoid at all costs -- playing a game in Fresno. Pat Hill has had too many BCS teams back out of games at Bulldog Stadium, so it's nice to see one squad follow through on its word. Wisconsin's new starting quarterback faces his first major test, and the Badgers must stop Tom Brandstater, Ryan Mathews, Bear Pascoe and Co. If Wisconsin leaves the Central Valley with a W, people will take notice.
Notre Dame at Michigan State, Sept. 20: Dantonio is changing the culture in East Lansing, but it's hard to forget the Spartans' collapse in the rain two years ago against Notre Dame. The loss spelled the end for John L. Smith. Beating Notre Dame doesn't carry the glitz it once did, but Michigan State has the opportunity to continue its success against a rival and notch another eye-catching win.