Game Preview: USC

No. 5 Ohio State continues its 2008 football season Saturday by traveling for the game of the year, an 8 p.m. showdown on ABC with No. 1 USC. BuckeyeSports.com previews the game with notes on USC's beating of Virginia, key players to watch and a breakdown of what might happen when the ball is in the air for the third game of the campaign.

No. 1 Southern California (1-0, 0-0)
Saturday, Sept. 13, 8:22 p.m.
Los Angeles Coliseum (92,000)
TV: ABC
2007 Record: 11-2, 7-2 Pacific-10 Conference
Head Coach: Pete Carroll, 77-14 in eight seasons at USC

What more can be said about this game than hasn't been said. USC enters ranked No. 1 in the country after a 52-7 shellacking of Virginia during its opening game Aug. 30. Ohio State is No. 5, but the Buckeyes back in, according to many, after a 26-14 win over Ohio that didn't ring up the style points.

This game has been the No. 1 nonconference game on the docket on just about every list made up previewing the season. A herd of celebrities is expected to descend on the Coliseum floor in what is truly going to be a glamour game. It's so big that ABC has dispatched two sideline reporters – Erin Andrews and Lisa Salters – for the national broadcast.

A look at each team's head coach should show just how good the matchup should be. Both started in 2001; since taking over, Carroll is 77-14 and has won two national titles, while Buckeye head man Jim Tressel is 75-16 with a national championship and two other appearances in the title game.

During that span, each has developed a reputation as a big-game coach. Throwing aside each team's first year – a campaign in which the Trojans lost six games and the Buckeyes five – Carroll boasts a 27-4 record against ranked teams and an 11-2 mark against teams in the top 10. Tressel's teams are 26-7 and 8-4, respectively.

To much of the nation, the Trojans enter as the obvious choice as victors. Not only is there a question whether Ohio State will have its best offensive weapon, but USC's destruction of Virginia was so thorough that the Trojans jumped to the top over the polls over Georgia, which began the season No. 1, and OSU, which was No. 2, despite the fact both of those teams dominated their opposition as well.

At practice a few days after the game, head coach Pete Carroll told his team – according to the official USCRipsIt blog on his website – that the only negatives during the game were that his team gave up two turnovers and were called seven penalties.

"We were hitting on all cylinders," Carroll said. "What I take special pride in is that everybody thought we'd not be able to ignore what was coming up in two weeks."

Trojan Players To Know
QB Mark Sanchez: Sanchez was the toast of the town after the opening game against Virginia, in which he completed 26 of 35 passes for 338 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. For that start, he was named Pac-10 offensive player of the week and the Davey O'Brien national quarterback of the week.

Sanchez, who dislocated his kneecap during the preseason but recovered in time to move well with a brace against the Cavaliers, will be making his fifth career start against the Buckeyes. He was 2-1 as a starter a year ago, struggling against Arizona and taking Notre Dame apart in wins before a solid but unspectacular performance during a loss to No. 5 Oregon. He finished the year with 69 completions in 114 attempts (60.5 percent) for 695 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions.

While Sanchez was more than happy to mix short throws in with long tosses against UVA, his head coach has compared him to another USC star, Matt Leinart, who wasn't afraid to make plays.

"Mark's a little bit of a gambler – he's going to take a shot at stuff more like Leinart," Carroll said. "And I'm hoping that he'll do it well and do it in a timely fashion."

WR Damian Williams: Williams started his college career at Arkansas in 2006, but he and high school teammate Mitch Mustain transferred to USC after that campaign in a bitter divorce. Mustain is now the squad's No. 3 quarterback, but Williams was its No. 1 receiver against the Cavaliers, catching seven passes for 91 yards.

While still at Arkansas, Williams started five games as true freshman and ended with 19 catches for 235 yards and two touchdowns. Last year as USC while sitting out a year because of NCAA transfer rules, he developed a rapport with Sanchez, and though he's still listed as a reserve, his skill set and familiarity with Sanchez makes him extremely dangerous.

"He has a knack of finding the soft spot," offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. "That's something we haven't had for a couple of years. And he has a burst after the catch. Damian has such a feel for the game."

LB Rey Maualuga: Maualuga is known as the scariest player in college football. At 6-2, 260 pounds, which great speed and instincts, why wouldn't he be?

Maualuga has had a standout three years with USC already. He played in 12 games as a freshman, finishing with 36 tackles, including nine with two forced fumbles against UCLA. In 2006, he made 78 stops and was a first-team All-Pacific 10 choice. Last year, he was a third-team All-American according to Phil Steele after finishing with 79 tackles, including six sacks.

According to the USC media guide, ESPN analyst and former Buckeye assistant Lou Holtz has compared him to none other than A.J. Hawk.

"Maualuga's athletic ability is similar to Hawk's, but the infectiousness of his free spirit makes him even more valuable to his team," Holtz is quoted as saying.

One thing to keep in mind with Maualuga: he's been battling injuries. He should be wearing a cast on his hand to protect a broken finger, and that had a different effect on him in 90-degree heat at Virginia. After taking Vicodin to help ease the pain, he threw up during the game, then cramped up on the bus, threw up against at the airport and collapsed. He was administered an IV on the plane ride back to Virginia.

S Taylor Mays: If you're looking to make an All-America safety, you'd probably make him big – say, 6-3, 230 pounds – and also the fastest player on the team.

In other words, you'd have Taylor Mays, who has already received All-America honors, having been named a first-teamer by The Sporting News last year for making 62 tackles and three interceptions. He also started as a true freshman in 2006 and received second-team All-America honors from TSN. In the opening game, he made six tackles and an interception.

Mays was Scout's No. 2-ranked safety in the class of 2006 coming out of Seattle O'Dea and has done nothing to disappoint.

Game Breakdown
When Ohio State has the ball: With Thursday's revelation that tailback Chris Wells might not be able to play because of his lingering foot injury, this section becomes more of a guessing game. What changes if the player hyped as a Heisman Trophy winner before the season ends up downgraded from "doubtful" to "out" by the time the game comes around?

Well, there are two scenarios, it appears, if Wells can't go. Either Ohio State will stick with a similar game plan and try to balance a running game featuring Boom Herron, Maurice Wells and Brandon Saine with a Todd Boeckman-led passing attack and the occasional Terrelle Pryor cameo. Or, the Buckeyes could go in a different direction and show an unfamiliar attack, perhaps one featuring liberal doses of Pryor.

This is all speculation, of course. Wells could have something along the lines of a quicker recovery than one thinks and still play Saturday. And who knows what Pryor's role will be no matter what happens with No. 28? Those would appear to be the best guesses, though, as to what might happen.

Anyway, the defense Ohio State will be going up against is stout. The Trojans trust their athletes at the back and make great use of the guys up front. The talent on the defensive line is immense, led in the middle by senior tackle Fili Moala. Moala is in his third-year as a starter, is on the Outland Trophy watch list and could be a very high draft pick when April rolls around.

Outside there are some players who can get to the quarterback, led by sophomore Everson Griffen. Scout's No. 1 player overall in the class of 2007, the defensive end is a bear to handle on the outside, as evidenced by his 5.5 sacks as a true freshmen last season. Also outside is Clay Matthews Jr., the son of the NFL legend, a converted linebacker who made six tackles and forced two fumbles against Virginia.

Then there's those outstanding linebackers, highlighted above by Maualuga. Brian Cushing has many of the same attributes on the strong side and weak-sider Kaluka Maiava made six tackles against UVA and was all over the place.

USC is not afraid to blitz from every which way, and UVA quarterback Peter Lalich had little time to do anything in the pocket even when USC brought four.

"There's a lot of guys in the box, and they're effective with their blitzes," Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said. "They're good athletes. They run quickly. But they have a lot of guys in the box all the time, making it very difficult to do things without any blitzing."

There is trust in the back end that the cornerbacks and safeties can cover long enough so that the players up front can get to the quarterback. Senior Cary Harris is a third-year starter and junior Shareece Wright is solid on the other side. Safeties Mays and Kevin Ellison are All-America candidates. The backup corners are Josh Pinkard and Kevin Thomas, both of whom have started in the past.

"They have a great front seven," receivers coach Darrell Hazell said. "Because of that they like to put a lot of pressure with the front seven and mainly play man on the outside. We have to be doing things to make sure that we're able to handle that front seven pressure."

The Trojans kept Virginia to just 14 first downs, 32 rushing yards and 187 total yards.

When USC has the ball: What can Ohio State expect out of USC's offense? The unexpected, it appears.

"They have no tendencies," defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said. "In each game, you're going to get something a little bit different. Probably the stuff we've been working on, there's a pretty good chance we won't see it.

"They do a lot of things with all of the personnel groupings and with their players."

They combine that ability to do a lot of things with some of the best talent in the country. Quarterback Mark Sanchez was the No. 1 signal caller in the country in his recruiting class. Tailback Joe McKnight was the No. 2 player overall and the No. 1 running back in 2007. Backup Stafon Johnson was Scout's No. 2 running back in 2005, C.J. Gable was a five-star safety that same year and Allen Bradford was a five-star linebacker in 2006.

At wideout, Vidal Hazelton was the No. 1 wideout prospect in 2006, Patrick Turner held the same designation the year before, wideout Ronald Johnson was a five-star cornerback prospect and Williams was the No. 8 WR prospect in 2006.

"I would probably say this is the most talented team that I've seen," OSU cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said, "just a little bit over Florida, as far as just having great speed and great athletes at every position."

All that talent helped USC to 558 yards in the opening game against Virginia, and of course the aforementioned 52 points. Ohio State will have to do its best to bring pressure, but how it does so will be open for debate.

"You can't give them the big play," Heacock said. "You have to make them work. If you watch, some of the teams that beat them didn't blitz them at all. If you look over the last two or three years, they played pretty much base.

"We'll just try to decide what we're best at, what we can do, and then we'll try to do a good job of getting prepared."

Among those chores will be to bring some heat. Sanchez was not sacked and was rarely pressured against Virginia.

"He's a poised quarterback," OSU's Lawrence Wilson said. "He knows what he's doing. He knows the offense very well. Once he gets into a rhythm, it's extremely hard to stop him. We feel like we have to be able to affect him to stop their offense."


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