Ten Pressing Questions: Texas at Ohio State

We look at some of the key issues that will help decide the big showdown between No. 2 Texas and No. 4 Ohio State (8 p.m., ABC national telecast). One of those will undoubtedly be how the Buckeyes handle the quarterback situation, where both Troy Smith and Justin Zwick figure to play.

It was somewhere in the late-1990s when Ohio State and Texas got together and agreed on a two-year home-and-home contract for football. The Longhorns would visit Ohio Stadium in 2005 and the Buckeyes will go down to Austin in 2006.

John Cooper was the coach of the Buckeyes at the time. I remember asking him what he thought about the deal.

Cooper, a strong advocate of SEC scheduling (i.e. playing three winnable nonconference games at home every year), correctly predicted the future when he said, "That will be the next head coach's concern, guys. I won't be around here by then."

Six years of waiting have finally come to fruition as Ohio State and Texas will meet on the gridiron today. When this contract was signed, nobody could have predicted that the Buckeyes and Longhorns would be so highly regarded. Texas enters as the nation's No. 2-ranked team, while Ohio State is No. 4.

A sellout crowd of over 105,000 – many of them paying several hundred dollars for $58 face value tickets – and a national television audience on ABC will enjoy the game, which will kick off at 8:08 p.m.

As we all count down the minutes until kickoff, I came up with my usual game day theme, Ten Pressing Questions, to think about what we may look for during tonight's big game with Texas. As always, I'll come back on Sunday with my thoughts on how each of these questions were answered during my Sunday Morning Quarterback column.

Without any further adieu, here we go:

1. How will Jim Tressel handle the quarterback position? -- The coach has deftly kept his plans to himself for this game. Justin Zwick has been more than able as the "fill-in" starter for the Alamo Bowl and last week's season opener with Miami (Ohio). Troy Smith has more than paid his penalty for accepting illegal extra benefits from an OSU booster.

The prevailing opinion from those who have viewed preseason practice – and this includes the likes of Earle Bruce and Chris Spielman, for whatever that's worth – is that Smith gives Ohio State the best chance to win any game, particularly a game against the nation's No. 2-ranked team.

The thought is Zwick will start, but will be kept on a very short leash. Expect Smith to play as well in the first half with the one delivering the best results getting the nod to open the second half.

2. How will Troy Smith play? -- Obviously, Smith has not played since last year's Michigan game, where he had 145 yards rushing and 241 yards passing. He missed some reps in preseason camp as Tressel held him out for further team punishment for past transgressions. But he has been full-go for the last couple of weeks and should get every opportunity to lead the team in this game.

The Texas defensive front is a lot like Michigan's – huge and not so athletic. That may play into Smith's game if the heat gets to be too much and he feels the need to step up and go. Obviously, Smith and Zwick will each need to avoid costly turnovers. Those could swing a game of this magnitude very quickly. Smith says he has gained about 10 pounds to get up into the 220-pound range. We'll see how that added strength affects his ability to punish would-be tacklers in the open field.

3. Will Ohio State be able to run the ball on Texas? -- Michigan had a modest total of 125 yards rushing against Texas in the Rose Bowl with Michael Hart finishing with 83 yards on 21 carries. UT's gigantic front makes running between the tackles an iffy proposition at best. But OSU showed in the win over Miami some ability with Antonio Pittman, who finished with an even 100 yards. Brandon Schnittker will get most of the business between the tackles, we assume.

We also assume that OSU will soften the Texas run defense with an array of vertical passes, screen passes and quarterback draws, giving the run game some room to operate. In short, I expect some limited success running the football because the offense will be diverse.

4. Can Texas' defensive backs match up with OSU's plethora of wide receivers? -- The Buckeyes spread the wealth last week against Miami with Ted Ginn Jr., Santonio Holmes, Anthony Gonzalez and Roy Hall all getting five catches each. They each had one catch on OSU's awe inspiring first touchdown drive.

If the Buckeyes can spread the ball around like that, they will make it hard to defend. I absolutely love the four-wide set with trips to one side and Holmes, typically, to the other. That almost makes it mandatory, barring a dime package, that Holmes gets single coverage. Even against a 4.3 40-yard guy like Miami's Darrell Hunter last week (or Michigan's Marlin Jackson last year), that's a dicey proposition.

Then, on the other side, they have any number of variations those receivers can run routes. Somebody will be open. Texas' three lead corners, Cedric Griffin, Aaron Ross and Tarell Brown (a one-time OSU recruit), are all nice players. They should be on the firing line, though, all night.

5. Can the offensive line hold its own against Texas' gigantic front four? -- The Texas defensive line averages about 290 pounds. The ends, Tim Crowder and Brian Robison, are extremely active. The interior guys, Frank Okam, Rod Wright and Larry Dibbles in a three-man platoon, use strength and leverage to their advantage to gum up plays and collapse pockets.

We have heard time and again how OSU's offensive line has improved from last year. Here is where they put their money where their mouth is. This front four will be as good as any OSU will see all year. OSU surrendered one sack last week against Miami. We'll see how they fare here.

6. How will the OSU defensive line fare against Texas? -- I think the Texas defensive line will be among the best lines OSU faces. I know for a fact the Texas offensive line will be among the best lines OSU will face this year. They are veteran and they are huge, led by 6-7, 315-pound left tackle Jonathan Scott.

In the Rose Bowl, UT churned out 25 first downs and 444 yards total offense, including 264 on the ground (192 by quarterback Vince Young).

In OSU's opener, we saw the Buckeyes utilize an array of blitzes to help the front four get to the passer. We also saw the Buckeyes pull a lineman in favor of a linebacker during some nickel situations. That's a change from most of what we saw during the Mark Dantonio/Mark Snyder/Mel Tucker years. That also tells you that the staff knows this defensive line needs help in impacting games.

Again, we come back to assignment football – gap control and outside containment. It would be nice if the line contributed some game changing plays. But if they help the Buckeyes stop Texas from making any huge gains on the ground, that should be enough.

7. How will OSU contain Vince Young? -- This is the $64,000 question. Young is a load at 6-5 and 233 pounds. He has 4.4-second speed in the 40. The front will only be able to do so much. At some point, the linebackers and safeties will need to chime in, particularly when he gets outside the tackle box (which he figures to do 8-10 times in this game).

Bobby Carpenter, after talking the talk (and I didn't really think what he said was so bad), in particular needs to walk the walk. He figures to be one-on-one with Young more than once and must get him to the ground any way possible and mitigate the damage. The same goes for A.J. Hawk as well as Anthony Schlegel and safeties Nate Salley and Donte Whitner. It will take a team effort to contain Young, who can rip off 20 or 25 yards in the blink of an eye.

8. How will OSU's secondary match up with Texas' receivers? -- Texas has two guys to key on. Ramonce Taylor is probably UT's fastest and most versatile weapon. Like Ginn, he could line up in the backfield or at receiver. The other is Limas Sweed, a nice big target at 6-5. Again, I don't think Texas has much in the way of a vertical passing game. The receivers are also inexperienced. Meanwhile, the OSU secondary has a combined 30 or 40 starts. You tell me.

9. How will the kicking game factor into this showdown? -- Texas' Richmond McGee has a big leg as the punter, but his inconsistency leaves his average under 40 yards. You wonder if somewhere in there he might hit one or two returnable balls for Ginn and/or Holmes. McGee also missed a PAT kick and had two blocked last week. Josh Huston and A.J. Trapasso, in contrast, each had nice debuts a week ago. Maybe Texas pops a big return or something, but I see OSU having the edge here.

10. Is Ohio State truly a national championship caliber team? -- The winner of this game probably becomes the strong No. 2 and, in the eyes of some voters, could also merit at least a few No. 1 votes. The loser will probably fall to about No. 10 or so. That team would have to win out to have even an outside shot at making the BCS title game at the Rose Bowl.

That is a scenario OSU fans want no part of. Ohio State did a fabulous job last week focusing on Miami (Ohio). The RedHawks only had 179 yards midway through the fourth quarter before they mounted their two touchdown drives against the reserves. One of those was set up by a fumble on a kickoff.

This game can't set up any better for Ohio State in the big picture. This is the win that sets the stage for OSU to return to the national picture. It's at home, it's at night and it's on every ABC affiliate from Miami to Seattle. You can't beat that.

Hey, enjoy the game and we'll see you on the other side.


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