Every fan is aware of the crucial match-ups across the board in this game, and there are some great ones. Todd Boeckman going against the USC defense. The USC receivers going against the experienced Buckeye defensive backs. James Laurinaitis going against Mark Sanchez. On and on it goes, but the biggest key to victory in this game won't involve on-field talent. It will be about attitude, and which team is mentally tougher than the other. For Ohio State, these questions are especially important following the past two national championship losses. It's a valid point to ask if the Buckeyes are tough enough to handle the pressure of such a huge game.
Two years ago the Buckeyes swaggered into the desert to claim their national title and barely considered the Florida Gators as worthy opponents. The Buckeyes were over-confident, out of shape and ill-prepared to handle the intensity the Gators brought to the game. When things went badly early in the game, the Buckeyes curled up in a fetal position, and took their beating with no resistance at all. The result was a 41-14 loss that wasn't as close as the score might indicate. If that game had been a boxing match, it would have been mercilessly stopped after two rounds.
Last year the Buckeyes went up against LSU vowing to have learned from the previous year's mistakes, and early on it appeared Ohio State would dominate LSU. But, like champions, LSU absorbed the Buckeyes' best shot, shook it off, and proceeded to run off points in an alarming fashion. How did Ohio State respond to the LSU run? With dropped passes, turnovers, mistakes in the kicking game, poor tackling, and inferior line play. To be fair, Ohio State was in a rebuilding year in 2007, and making it to the championship game was a great accomplishment. LSU was simply the more mature team and handled the pressure of the game far better than the younger Buckeyes did. The thought was that in 2008, Ohio State, with 20 starters returning, would have both the talent and the experience to win games on the national level.
Well, next year is here. It's time for Ohio State to make its case as a national player, and what better stage to do it on than at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the celebrated home of the USC Trojans? This is a moment that very few athletes get to experience, but for these Ohio State seniors it just might be their final moment on the national stage.
Much has been written in the national media about the failings of Ohio State. Sure they can dominate a weak conference, but they can't play with the big boys of college football. Worse yet is the feeling around the country that when the going gets tough, the Buckeyes fold up. Ohio State has a chance to answer the national media this Saturday in California. Should they blow it, there might not be a second chance in 2008.
Trust me, there isn't a talent gap between USC and Ohio State in 2008. How can I prove that? Try watching the NFL draft over the next few years and watch a majority of the starters, from both teams, get their names called. There are stars galore on both teams and on both sides of the football. But this game won't be decided by one team "out-talenting" the other. No, this game will be won by the team most able to force its will upon the other squad.
Former Buckeye head coach Earle Bruce said earlier this week that this game would be won by the tougher team, and it's hard to argue with him. For Ohio State, the key will be being able to respond when USC hits it with its best shot. It's more than being able to take a shot, which surely will be delivered by USC, it's being able to respond with a drive following a USC score. It's being able to have a three-and-out defensively, when USC is looking to answer. It's being able to play with an anger, an attitude, while at the same time maintaining composure and playing under control.
Can Jim Tressel win a national big game again? Can James Laurinaitis have a game-changing performance, one that has eluded him since the Texas game two years ago? Can Todd Boeckman deliver a great performance under the type of pressure he faced last year at LSU? Can the Ohio State offensive line protect Boeckman and open holes in the running game? Can the Buckeye defensive line play like the 2002 team did against Miami in the championship game? Can the Ohio State receivers run great routes and hang onto the football?
Whether these questions are answered in the affirmative will not depend upon these players having enough talent, for certainly they do. No, this game will come down to playing with an attitude of both confidence and controlled fury, something the Buckeyes have not done in the first two games of this season.
Are the Buckeyes talented enough to on the road and defeat USC? No question in mind that they are, with or without Chris "Beanie" Wells. But are they tough enough to do just that?
I once heard former NBA coaching great Pat Riley speak about the greatest bit of advice he had ever received in his life. It came when he was a teenager, and came from his now-deceased father. Lee Riley told his son that in his life "someday you're going to have to take a stand, plant your feet, and kick somebody's ass."
For the 2008 Ohio State Buckeyes, that day has arrived. Take THAT to the Bank.