PREVIEW: Bucks Back In Title Hunt - Again

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 2007 BCS National Championship Game. First team to score 20 points wins.

In the purple and gold corner: the No. 2-ranked LSU Tigers, an 11-2 team that played one of the toughest schedules in the country and jumped five spots in the final BCS poll after beating Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game.

In the maroon and grey corner: the No. 1-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, who went 11-1 and finished the season in fifth place but then sat back and watched everyone in front of them lose.

What can viewers expect to get for their money?

Defense, defense, and more defense – in fact, the nation's top-ranked defense (OSU) versus the third-ranked defense (LSU).

This was never more evident than on what LSU called the "Glenn Dorsey Award Tour," when Dorsey found himself going head-to-head with Buckeye linebacker James Laurinaitis for every major award he was eligible for. The Tiger bested the Buckeye at each turn, winning the Nagurski, Lombardi, Outland, and Lott trophies, and both were named to multiple All-America teams – each for the second time in his career.

Laurinaitis, the 2006 Nagurski Award winner and 2007 Butkus Award winner, is the 6-3, 240-pound middle linebacker who anchors Ohio State's bruising defense. The son of former professional wrestler "The Animal," Laurinaitis has made a name for himself in Columbus, lettering every year and setting the tone for the Buckeyes on the field. Laurinaitis ranks first on the team in total tackles with 103, second in sacks with five, second in interceptions with two, and fifth in tackles for loss with 8.5.

Laurinaitis is joined by 6-2, 236-pound junior weakside linebacker Marcus Freeman, who was the team's defensive Player of the Week after the Northwestern, Minnesota, and Purdue games and leads the team in solo tackles with 60, and 6-3, 226-pound senior strongside linebacker Larry Grant, who is tied with Laurinaitis with five sacks in 2007.

Of course, for an offense to get as far as Ohio State's linebackers it first has to go through a defensive line led by 6-4, 264-pound junior drop end Vernon Gholston. Gholston leads the team in sacks with 13 and tackles for loss with 14.5, and he has a touchdown to his credit on a 25-yard fumble return against Northwestern. The Detroit, Mich., native's ability to be effective both in rushing and pass coverage situations saw him named to both the Bednarik and Hendricks awards watch lists in 2007, though he ultimately won neither.

Lining up with him are 6-6, 282-pound freshman left end Cameron Heyward; 6-7, 271-pound sophomore left tackle Doug Worthington; and 6-3, 286-pound sophomore right tackle Todd Denlinger.

Junior cornerback Malcolm Jenkins (6-1, 208) leads the Buckeyes with three interceptions and even returned one 24 yards for a touchdown against Penn State. Sophomore Donald Washington (6-1, 188) mans the other corner. In his first year as a full-time starter for OSU, he one-upped Jenkins' scoring efforts with a 70-yard interception returned for a touchdown against Kent State.

At 5-11 and 187 pounds, sophomore strong safety Kurt Coleman is the only starter under six feet tall, but his 54 total tackles are good enough for fourth on the team. Fellow sophomore Anderson Russell (6-0, 205) rounds out the defensive starting 11 at free safety and sits one spot ahead of Coleman on the stat sheet with 58 total tackles.

As a team, the Buckeyes lead the nation in pass efficiency defense with a 93.97 rating, total defense at 225.25 yards per game, scoring defense at 10.67 points per game, and pass defense at 148.17 yards per game. In addition, the Big Ten champions are third in rushing defense (77.08 yards), third in sacks (3.5 per game), sixth in tackles for loss (8.33 per game), 14th in pass efficiency (147.77), and 23rd in interception percentage (3.96 percent).

Gholston's sack and tackles for loss totals have him ranked fourth and 38th, respectively, in the nation, while Laurinaitis' 8.58 tackles per game have him ranked 65th in the country.

On the other side of the ball, the Ohio State offense can more than hold its own, too. The team averages 32 points per game, its 397.08 yards per game are split almost 50/50 between the pass and the run, and the line ranks 14th in the nation in fewest sacks allowed.

Quarterback Todd Boeckman (6-5, 243) was a Davey O'Brien Award semifinalist in his first year at the helm after replacing Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, and all he has done is lead the Big Ten and rank 13th in the nation in pass efficiency while throwing for 2,164 yards and 23 touchdowns. The junior is completing 63 percent of his passes and boasts a touchdown-to-interception ratio of almost 2:1 with just 12 picks in 2007. While he is a solid passer under center, he presents no threat as a runner with just 70 rushing yards all season on 47 carries.

When the ball is in the air, receivers Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline are Boeckman's favorite targets. Robiskie, a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist, leads the team in receptions per game with 4.17, receiving touchdowns with 10, and yards per game with 73.75. The 6-3, 196-pound junior has cracked the 100-yard mark twice, first with 153 yards in the season opener against Youngstown State and then with 107 yards two weeks later against Washington. His production trailed off late in the season, however, as he failed to reach the 50-yard mark in any of Ohio State's final three games. His worst performance came in what was admittedly a complete mud bath against arch-rival Michigan, where the fact that he was able to catch anything at all was a minor miracle.

Lining up opposite him is Hartline, who is second on the team behind Robiskie with 3.83 receptions per game, five total touchdowns, and 51.58 receiving yards per game. The 6-3, 180-pound sophomore has not reached the 100-yard mark in 2007 but saved his best performances for last, catching seven passes for 95 yards against Wisconsin and four passes for 86 yards against Illinois in the Buckeyes' only losing effort all season.

Hartline also doubles as the team's punt returner and ran one kick back 90 yards for a touchdown against Kent State.

Beyond Robiskie and Hartline, however, there is a big drop in numbers. Ohio State's third leading receiver is 6-0, 182-pound sophomore Ray Small, who has 19 receptions for 232 yards with two touchdowns in 2007. Backup tight end Jake Ballard (6-7, 255) is the only other member of the team with more than one receiving touchdown, matching Small with two.

The real offensive firepower comes on the ground for Ohio State, as 6-1, 235-pound sophomore Chris Wells has turned himself into one of the nation's best running backs in just his second season with the Buckeyes. The Doak Walker and Maxwell awards finalist rushed for 100 yards on seven different occasions this year, with his best performance coming in the rain against the Wolverines when he rushed for 222 yards and two touchdowns.

That was actually his second 200-yard effort of the year, as he rushed for 221 and one score against Michigan State in October. Wells' 1,463 rushing yards have come at an outstanding 5.76 yards-per-carry average, and his 121 yards-per-game average is the 11th best in the nation. In addition, his 14 touchdowns comfortably lead all Buckeye rushers.

Clearing space for Wells and keeping Boeckman on his feet are 6-8, 313-pound junior right tackle Alex Boone, a member of the 2007 Outland Award watch list; 6-8, 345-pound junior left guard Steve Rehring; 6-4, 302-pound sophomore center and Rimington Award watch list member Jim Cordle; 6-4, 321-pound junior right guard Ben Person; and 6-6, 300-pound, fifth-year senior right tackle Kirk Barton, also an Outland watch list member.

Junior kicker Ryan Pretorius, a Lou Groza Award semifinalist, has hit 17 of 21 field goal attempts (including 5 of 6 between 40 and 49 yards and 1 of 1 from beyond 50) and 45 of 46 PATs, while junior punter A.J. Trapazzo, a Ray Guy Award semifinalist, averages 42 yards per punt and has dropped 17 inside his opponent's 20-yard line.

In short, expect the Buckeyes to run the ball – mainly to the left behind the monstrous tackle/guard combination of Boone and Rehring – and throw it accurately to Robiskie and Hartline, while the defense will bring pressure from the opening kickoff to the closing whistle. Space will be at a premium on both sides of the ball, and this matchup of defensive superpowers will likely come down to whoever protects the ball the best. That team will get the crystal trophy.

Or, the first team to score 20 points wins.

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