USC-Ohio State: LB matchup is scary-good

September, 11, 2008
9/11/08
12:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

 
 Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
 Rey Maualuga had 10.5 tackles for a loss last year.

LOS ANGELES -- The term comes up more than a few times during this highly charged week: "scary."

Such as, "Coach Tressel, is Rey Maualuga scary?"

Jim Tressel, Ohio State's coach, doesn't want to bite on the loaded word, not completely anyway. "I don't look at it as scary because I don't have the ball."

USC defensive end Kyle Moore almost seems bothered that folks refer to his good friend, his soft-spoken friend, his newly svelte friend (down 26 pounds from his Rose Bowl MVP weight to 247), Rey Maualuga, as "scary."

"Rey's not scary," Moore said. "It's just the way he plays on the field that gets him perceived as scary."

Well, yeah.

Now, Moore adds, Brian Cushing. He's scary. That's a notion seconded by defensive tackle Fili Moala.

"We're all kind of fiery at times but Cush is nonstop, no holds barred, all out -- that, 'I'm going to give it to you before you give it to me,'" he said. What puts Cushing over the top, though, is this: He's from Jersey.

Cue the music from the "Psycho" shower scene.

"He's got that little accent," Moala says with a grin that suggests that, oh, just maybe that characteristic comes up every once in a while during locker room jesting.

In a week of hot topics -- hey, did you know No. 5 Ohio State is visiting No. 1 USC on Saturday? -- the comparison of the linebacking corps has been scorching.

The Buckeyes boast James Laurinaitis, whose trophy case features the 2007 Butkus and 2006 Nagurski awards, and Marcus Freeman, who was second-team All-Big Ten. The Trojans counter with Maualuga and Cushing, both preseason All-Americans.

All four are going to make a lot of money playing on Sundays, but first they have to endure endless questions about the opposing unit and how they match up.

"It doesn't match up at all because we're not going to be on the field at the same time," Maualuga reasonably points out.

Still, this exciting, Rose Bowl-like showdown features an extraordinary amount of talent, especially at linebacker.

"It's a really cool opportunity for people to watch these guys on both sides of the ball," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "It's rare that you would have this many guys who would have big futures, big upsides as you see in this game."

Cushing, Maualuga and Laurinaitis got acquainted this summer at the festivities surrounding their selection as Playboy All-Americans. Photos that circulated on the Internet suggested they all got along famously.

"Besides being a great linebacker, [Laurinaitis is] a great person, he's got a great personality," Maualuga said. "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. But he's down-to-earth, unselfish. A complete, great person."

Added Cushing, "He's a good kid."

Cushing has battled injuries throughout his career, but became a national figure when he won the 2007 Rose Bowl MVP after recording 2.5 sacks in the victory over Michigan. He's 6-foot-3, 255 pounds and carries as much body fat as a petrified tree.

Maualuga, whose combination of size and speed and Samoan heritage makes it impossible to not introduce Junior Seau comparisons, was the Trojans leading tackler a year ago and earned All-Pac-10 honors for a second-consecutive year. He had 10.5 tackles for a loss and became a YouTube sensation for his numerous blowup hits.

"[Maualuga] brings a presence," Laurinaitis said. "He's a tremendous blitzer. Quarterbacks know they better watch out where 58 is. He does a great job running to the ball. If you're a ball carrier, you know where he is, because if you don't and he catches you off guard, you're going to be on ESPN."

Carroll sees differences in the tandems. He describes the Trojans "classic" linebackers as physical, tough and capable in space and tight areas.

The Buckeyes unit is a smaller and, Carroll intimated, perhaps quicker. It's also clear that Laurinaitis is a player Carroll can't help but appreciate.

"Laurinaitis can do everything; he's an extraordinary player," Carroll said.

There's an oh-by-the-way here, too. As Tressel pointed out: "Don't discount 43 either -- he gets after it."

No. 43 would be USC's third linebacker, senior Kaluka Maiava, who led the Trojans with six tackles at Virginia from his weakside spot. Also, Clay Matthews, listed as a defensive end, plays a hybrid position -- the "elephant" -- that's closer to a linebacker than a pure, hand-on-the-ground end.

For Ohio State, the weakside 'backer is Ross Homan, whose 10 tackles in the Buckeyes first two games is not far behind the pace of Laurinaitis (14) and Freeman (12).

Both groups of linebackers have spent the week discounting Saturday as a showdown of the nation's top two units on its top two defenses. It's all about team, they say.

But it doesn't take too much prodding for them to admit there's a little bit of extra juice to the matchup.

"Seeing [Laurinaitis] across the field and knowing who we are playing is going to bring a little more out of me," said Cushing, who's not allowing hip and wrist injuries to keep him off the field.

If it brings a little more out of the crews on both teams, it could make it a long afternoon for both offenses.

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