Pac-12: James Laurinaitis

Trojans offensive line might surprise

September, 12, 2008
9/12/08
7:02
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

LOS ANGELES -- A little gamesmanship from Pete Carroll? You decide.

USC's coach was asked how much of a step up Ohio State's defense will be from the Trojans first opponent, Virginia.

Said Carroll: "These guys are the best defense in America -- every single guy played last year. This was the best defense in the country last year statistically. This is the ultimate challenge for our guys at this point. How can you play somebody better than the best?"

Golly. Then the USC offensive line has no chance, right?

"When you lose four starters, that's huge," noted Trojans center Kristofer O'Dowd about USC's rebuilt line.

If there's an area where folks would think the Buckeyes have an advantage, it would be a comparison of the offensive lines.

The Buckeyes welcome back four starters. The Trojans are replacing four starters.

The Buckeyes are huge, averaging about 318 pounds per man. The itty-bitty Trojans only go 296 pounds on average across the front.

O'Dowd, however, just grins at those numbers. He thinks skinny is good.

"We work on our six packs," he said. "There aren't any beaches out in Ohio."

If Carroll and O'Dowd sound a bit glib, it's because folks around Heritage Hall don't seem too worried about the USC line, which might be one of the nation's most athletic units.

This crew -- senior OG Jeff Byers is the only returning starter -- completely dominated at Virginia, giving QB Mark Sanchez an eternity in the pocket and opening wide swaths in the overmatched Cavaliers D-line.

Sure, it's ridiculous to compare Virginia's defense to Ohio State's, but O'Dowd and his linemates are quietly confident they can produce another sterling performance. After all, they practice against a fairly salty defense every afternoon.

If there's a unit that has dramatically improved from the beginning of spring practices to the end of preseason camp, it's the line.

They've even won a few "Competition Tuesdays" against the defense.

"It took us a while, but towards the end of camp we really jelled well together and during our preparation for Virginia, everything clicked," O'Dowd said. "We feel comfortable now, so that question doesn't even bother us."

O'Dowd saw the question coming, though. He knows the line will remain the Trojans' biggest area of concern until it provides a definitive answer.

Perhaps that's why O'Dowd doesn't hide his own ambition for Saturday. He's looking forward to hunting down one guy in particular.

Said O'Dowd, "My primary guy? The guy I'm going after? Oh, it's 33! You want to go up against the best."

No. 33 is, of course, All-American LB James Laurinaitis.

It's a little misleading to call the USC line inexperienced, even though O'Dowd, OG Zach Heberer and OT Butch Lewis are all sophomores. Each of the "new" guys, including junior tackle Charles Brown, started at least one game last year.

But they have yet to face a unit like Ohio State.

The "best defense" in America should provide a pretty good test.

The view from the other side of Ohio State-USC

September, 12, 2008
9/12/08
1:15
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg has been in Columbus with the Buckeyes all week, while I've been in Los Angeles. It seemed like we should catch up.

Ted Miller: Folks over here in beautiful Southern California are feeling pretty confident -- read: really confident -- about their Trojans' chances to not only beat but whip Ohio State. What's the feeling over there in the Midwest?

Adam Rittenberg: The feeling here in flyover country is a little more tense. Something to do with a big toe. But they're confident that "Little Animal," AKA James Laurinaitis, and the Buckeyes defense will give Mark Sanchez some trouble on Saturday night. You sounded pretty pumped up the other day after actually getting to watch USC practice. What stood out during the Trojans' workouts?

Ted Miller: What stood out? How good the Trojans look. These guys pass the sight test. Of course, Ohio State would too ... if Jim Tressel let you Big Ten folks into the super-secret football sanctum. Anyway. What caught my eye was 1) Mark Sanchez; 2) Joe McKnight. Sorry to stick with the fancy guys, but Sanchez was sharp this week and he's obviously fired up about leading the Trojans. As for McKnight, he's got the sort of speed and elusiveness that he stands out among a team loaded with fast, elusive guys. So let me ask ... Is Beanie going to play? All the USC folks say yes.

Adam Rittenberg: My sense is he'll play, but probably not much, 5-10 carries. The fact he was still so sore from taking 20 "carries" with no contact in Wednesday night's practice suggests there's still plenty to risk by leaving him out there too long. He obviously gives that offense a ton of confidence and let's be honest, Ohio State needs to win this one to get back to the national title game. But this guy, despite his size, can be labeled injury prone at this point, and Jim Tressel might not want to gamble again. Speaking of injuries, what's the latest on the USC front? Cushing? Hazelton?

Ted Miller: USC has notable bumps and bruises but it appears that nothing will keep guys from playing -- at least initially. WR Vidal Hazelton practiced yesterday and looked OK -- Pete Carroll said he was "behind" in terms of the game plan. LB Brian Cushing has a bum wrist and hip -- he gets nicked a lot -- but he should be a go. LB Rey Maualuga is wearing protection on his hand and briefly sat out with a hyperextended elbow Thursday but he returned to practice. This is a healthy team. So, let's say Wells is limited: Does that mean the game is in Todd Boeckman's hands and the Buckeyes will have to throw to win? And is Boeckman ready to post that signature performance?
 
Adam Rittenberg: Boeckman needs a huge performance in what will be the defining game of his career to this point. He admitted the timing was off with his top wide receivers, Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline, last week against Ohio. That simply can't happen for Ohio State to keep up with USC. Boeckman doesn't exude a ton of personality, which might be good or bad. He could be a steadying force for an offense going through adversity or a guy lacking in leadership skills. Then again, we could see a ton of Terrelle Pryor on Saturday, especially with Wells limited. How about the other quarterback in this game, Mark Sanchez? Great numbers in the first game, but c'mon, it's Virginia. Is he ready for an elite defense like the Buckeyes?
 
Ted Miller: That's a good question. Sanchez got some playing experience last year when John David Booty was hurt -- most notably at Oregon -- but he has not faced an elite defense, other than every day in practice. Still, he hasn't faced anything like the pressure and soundness the Buckeyes will bring when the lights are on. My sense is the guy can't wait to show the world what he can do -- he's a very confident, charismatic guy. It's fun to watch him charm and work reporters. Moreover, the WRs, who underachieved last year, seem to have found their rhythm. If so, it's a talented, deep group. Let's talk speed. That's all we heard during the Buckeyes twin BCS title game face plants vs. the SEC. "Ohio State is slow." What's the feeling on that in Columbus? Exaggerated or true?
 
Adam Rittenberg: Man, it must be nice to be talking to players with personality. Why can't we all cover the Pac-10? OK, rant over. The speed thing is exaggerated, in my opinion. The NFL scouts who list Malcolm Jenkins as the top cornerback on their draft boards don't see a slow player. Same goes for Laurinaitis, Marcus Freeman and many others. A bigger problem for Ohio State has been discipline, sticking to its assignments rather than trying to make the extraordinary play. The Buckeyes have lost their composure in the national title games, either with personal-foul penalties or blown assignments. I think the defense steps up for a while and makes it closer than some anticipate, but I can't see Ohio State winning this one on the road. I'll stick with my pick, 31-24 Trojans. You get the last word. What happens Saturday night?
 
Ted Miller: I had thought all summer I was going to pick Ohio State. Most people don't realize that the Buckeyes contending for a national title in 2007 was gravy. 2008 was supposed to be the year. The Buckeyes are seasoned and talented. But, I just can't pull the trigger. I'm sticking with my projection this week of 28-17 Trojans. I'm rooting -- hard -- for a good game. And I'd think we'd both salute these programs for showing the courage to play each other. Some so-called elite teams hide from showcase nonconference games like this.

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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