It's just Week 2 of the college football season and yet there will be a bowl game atmosphere in Columbus this Saturday night when Ohio State hosts Southern Cal. The Buckeyes might have been caught looking ahead to this one after squeaking past Navy last week while the Trojans ran a vanilla offense in an easy 56-3 rout of San Jose St. This Saturday's forecast calls for rain at Ohio Stadium along with a USC victory.
The crickets were chirping at Ohio Stadium on Saturday after Navy Midshipmen QB Ricky Dobbs ran 24 yards straight up the gut of the OSU defense and into the house, making the score Ohio State 29, Navy 27 with under three minutes to play. But linebacker Brian Rolle returned the 2-point conversion attempt all the way to the other end of the field to make the final score 31-27. Navy still cashed in as a 22-point road dog.
This is not how Ohio State wanted to warm up for one of the biggest games of the college football season. The USC Trojans invade Columbus on Saturday (8:00 p.m. Eastern, ESPN) in a rematch of last year’s epic 35-3 burial of the Buckeyes (+10.5) out on the Left Coast. The betting odds for Saturday’s matchup had USC as a 7-point road favorite as we went to press. Some books had USC -6.5, which is a very useful half-point for Trojan supporters on the magic number seven.
There are a number of differences working in OSU’s favor this year. One is supposed to be the crowd at The ‘Shoe, which will be all over USC freshman QB Matt Barkley.
“Their fans are loud and awesome,” Trojans coach Pete Carroll told the Los Angeles Times on Sunday. “If they get it going, it's really hard.” And yet Ohio State is 1-7 ATS in its last eight home games after squeezing past Navy.
The second difference, and much easier to quantify, is Buckeyes QB Terrelle Pryor. He took over the starting job from Todd Boeckman after last year’s loss to USC, and the freshman nearly led the Buckeyes to a Fiesta Bowl victory over the mighty Texas Longhorns. Ohio State went 8-2 SU and 6-4 ATS behind Pryor last year as he threw 12 TD passes (with just four interceptions) and rushed for another six majors.
From a betting standpoint, Difference No. 3 cannot be overlooked: Justin Boren, the former Michigan Wolverines center/left guard. Boren (6-foot-3, 315 pounds) was an all-Big Ten honorable mention in his 2007 sophomore campaign before transferring to Columbus and sitting out last year. He was Ohio State’s top performing lineman against the Midshipmen, but Boren’s arrival has yet to pump sufficient life into an O-line that was one of the Buckeyes’ weaknesses in 2008.
The smaller Navy linemen were mobile enough to create matchup problems in the trenches. What can Pryor cook up against the giant Trojans defense? He doesn’t have Beanie Wells to carry the ball this year – although Wells was injured and didn’t take the field against the Trojans last year, either. Pryor’s scrambling skills overcame that obstacle to some extent; he rushed for 40 yards on 11 carries, and connected on seven of his nine passes for 52 yards. But all that work generated zero points against USC.
Much of the public focus will be on the other quarterback in this contest. Barkley looked a bit green at the start of his debut performance against the San Jose State Spartans, but he quickly found his feet behind the dominant Trojans offensive line and finished the day pick-free. USC (-33.5) blew by the Spartans 56-3 as Barkley completed 15 of 19 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown. Of course, that was in front of a friendly crowd of 85,000-plus fans at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The OSU defense should put up more of a fight at The ‘Shoe, but it may not be enough. Barkley played last week without top center Kristofer O’Dowd (dislocated kneecap), who practiced Monday and says he’ll be ready to go Saturday. And even with Rolle looking sharp versus Navy, the Buckeyes are thinner at linebacker this year following the departures of James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman to the NFL. Trojans RB Joe McKnight rushed for 105 yards (8.8 yards per carry) against the Buckeyes last year and didn’t even play the entire game. He should be the difference-maker again this year.