The Almanac: Musings On USC And More

Jeff Svoboda has plenty to talk about in this week's version of The Almanac, which makes sense given Ohio State's opponent Saturday night. Included are thoughts on USC after viewing its opener, the glass half-full and half-empty perspectives and the usual news and notes from around the Big Ten.

I'll be honest; I started this column, The Almanac, as a space where I figured at most I'd post information of interest that I had found around the Big Ten and the nation while providing some Ohio State information that had seemed to slip through the cracks.

But as I sit here writing the third edition of the column, I feel like I'm be including a lot more opinion than I had ever expected to. Maybe that's just the nature of the beast, but I feel like there are some topics that concern Ohio State fans – whether they be actually about the Buckeye team or about the nation at large – that are best addressed with more of an opinion slant.

With that in mind, the opening notes of this piece definitely will be more opinion based. My hope is to provide information, laced with opinion, that really gets to the heart of the matter in a way that reaches a chord with Buckeye fans.

Let's start with some rehashing of some facts. Ohio State started the season No. 2 in the country in our preferred Associated Press poll, while USC was a spot below the Buckeyes. Ohio State came into the year returning nine starters on either side of the ball from a team that went to the national title game.

In the season's opening day on Aug. 30, the Buckeyes disposed of Youngstown State without incident, putting together a 43-0 win that would have been more had the team not settled for a handful of field goals. After that game, USC went out and put together a 52-7 win over Virginia that was, by all accounts, thorough and impressive.

That win propelled USC into the No. 1 spot in the country, as the Trojans hopped both a rampant Ohio State team, which dropped to third, and Georgia, which entered the year holding the top spot and did nothing to dissuade that notion against Georgia Southern.

A week later, Ohio State struggled to a 26-14 win over Ohio. That game dropped the Buckeyes two more spots to No. 5. All of a sudden, Ohio State, which at the time was supposed to see the return of Chris Wells, was an 11-point underdog against the Trojans.

Something doesn't add up here. I'll fully admit that Jim Tressel's Thursday pronouncement that Wells might not play against the Trojans really puts the Buckeyes at a disadvantage, but I just don't see how OSU, a pretty darn good team, was an 11-point underdog early in the week when it was supposed to have its bell cow back.

Now what will happen? Who knows.

Taking A Look At USC
I was able to sit down and view some of USC's decimation of Virginia about a week ago. Some thoughts on what I saw out of the Trojans.

Strengths: Everything? Ha, not quite, but the Trojans are very good. I must say that they jump off the screen as a team that just has a vibe about it. Not only did the Trojans play solid football when it comes to technique and approach, but they had a swagger that made it clear that Virginia was not going to get anything positive accomplished for an extended period of time during the game.

That started on each line. USC's offensive line was dynamite, rarely letting a Virginia team that clearly was reticent to blitz to get near quarterback Mark Sanchez. The team even joked afterward that he had enough time to cook steaks in the backfield. It wasn't that much of a joke.

Defensively, the Trojans' line was impressive, though it didn't often show up on the stat sheet. Credit Virginia quarterback Peter Lalich for being smart enough to realize that his team couldn't block USC, so at least he had the presence of mind to get the ball out quickly – even if it didn't often reach the intended target – before he took a multitude of sacks. The tackles sent Virginia's interior line backwards all day, and the ends used a combination of speed and power to befuddle the Hoos' outside charges.

I would not want to be Todd Boeckman tomorrow night. Why? Simple – not only do the Trojans blitz often, but they do it very well. The linebackers take off for the quarterback with reckless abandon, and they announce their arrival with authority. Boeckman has to be cool under extreme pressure for Ohio State to move the ball through the air.

Sanchez looks to be the real deal, as if anyone couldn't tell during last year's cameo appearance with three starts. His knee isn't bothering him, and he can make any play necessary in this offense. I'll be interested to see him if the Buckeyes actually pressure him, but he put on a clinic against Virginia. Nearly every pass was delivered with pinpoint accuracy and to the right spot.

Weaknesses: It's hard to find much to quibble with during a 45-point blowout on the road against a BCS conference team, but here are a few things that could, at least, show chinks in the armor.

First of all, it bears mentioning that this is not a team of superhumans. Heck, even the great Rey Maualuga took the wrong angle to the ball carrier on the first play of the second half, allowing him to break off a run of around 20 yards. As well as the offensive line did as a whole, I saw each member make at least one mistake. USC will make mistakes. Every team does.

A few positions were hard to grade, given that I was watching on TV, but I'm interested to see how the team's skill players do against a team of Ohio State's caliber. First of all, people are making too much of the four tailback group the Trojans boost. They're good players, but what good are four good tailbacks if you can only get one or two on the field at a time? I'd rather have a talented guy with 30 carries who gets into a rhythm than four guys with around 10 touches apiece.

As for the wideouts, USC didn't get much going for this group a season ago despite its obvious talents. I'm not sure what they bring to the table this year. During the first half of the game against Virginia, Sanchez often had all day to throw but rarely went downfield to the wideouts. That tells me that they very well might have been covered. The Trojans were able to put some big plays together later in the game, but the jury could still be out on the wideout group.

It was nearly impossible to rate USC's defensive backfield on the TV tape, especially considering how rarely Virginia could go downfield given its shoddy blocking. I won't sell the Trojans' safeties short, though, considering they've already been first-team Pac-10 selections.

One thing to remember: USC is not unbeatable just because of what happened in Charlottesville. Oregon and Stanford won against the Trojans last year, and Stanford did it in the Coliseum. As impressive as the win over Virginia was, head coach Pete Carroll said the team was hitting on all cylinders; if something is off, and if Ohio State's athletes put more pressure on the Trojans, there's no telling what might happen. This is still a team with a quarterback starting his fifth game, whose leading returning rusher had 610 yards and three touchdowns and whose leading returning receiver had 540 yards and four touchdowns. Having said that, they're also the most talented team Ohio State will play during its regular season by far.

Things That Might Happen
I'm really conflicted as I think about this game. If someone were to put a gun against my head and asked me to pick the game, I'd be pretty upset, mostly because I'd really have no idea what to say.

When two good teams get together, it's really hard to forecast what will happen. Generally, these games come down to finishing – things like taking care of the ball and scoring in the red zone when one has a chance. If these teams are as evenly matched as I thought going into the season, then anything can happen.

One thing I know for sure is that I don't feel any worse about Ohio State after last week's performance. I went in expecting the worse and got it – in spades. But really, the Buckeyes have laid their fair share of stinkers against lesser opposition and always responded well.

And I don't believe that there is much corollary from one week to another, and thus, I just don't get the people who discount Ohio State based on that performance against the Bobcats. The timing was off in the passing game Saturday, which was the biggest flaw in the OSU offense. That kind of stuff can be corrected quickly in practice. Some weeks you just don't have it, but Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman and his top receivers have worked together too long for that to be a huge issue in consecutive weeks.

The glass half-full perspective: Ohio State really has the Trojans right where it wants them. USC looked like world beaters against Virginia and has spent two weeks hearing about how good it is, and there's a good chance the Trojans are rusty after that week off following just one game. If the Buckeyes are on the same page, they should be able to move the ball through the air. Add in liberal doses of Terrelle Pryor and a solid defense that can put pressure on Sanchez and you have a winning recipe.

The other side: Well, the talent compiled by USC is ridiculous. Take quarterback Mark Sanchez and his top four weapons at both running back and wide receiver; of those nine players, six were the No. 1 player in the country at their position coming out of high school. The least talented player, according to Scout's rankings, was wideout Damian Williams, who – ho hum – was the No. 8 wideout in his class.

And take a look at the recent beatdowns the Trojans have put on teams in big games.
**They destroyed No. 6 Auburn 23-0 on the road to start the 2003 season, then later drubbed No. 6 Washington State 43-16 at home and No. 4 Michigan 28-14 in the Rose Bowl on the way to the AP title.
**They laid waste to just about everyone in 2004, dropping No. 15 Arizona State 45-7 at home in October and then spanking Oklahoma 55-19 in the national title game.
**In 2005, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush went through the regular season undefeated with five wins over ranked teams, including a 66-19 embarrassment of No. 11 UCLA in the Coliseum to end the campaign.
**Notre Dame felt pretty good about itself in 2006 during Brady Quinn's senior season, but USC rolled to a 44-24 win over the No. 6 Irish. Later, USC went wild on offense during the second half to post a 32-18 Rose Bowl win over a Michigan team that had been ranked second most of the year.
**Last year, USC disposed of No. 14 Nebraska 49-31, ran No. 7 Arizona State off the field on Thanksgiving night 44-24 and then pulled away from No. 13 Illinois by a 49-17 score in the Rose Bowl.

When this team gets rolling, watch out.

One prediction: We see Chris Wells on the field for at least 10 carries. A lot can happen between a Thursday afternoon news conference and a Saturday night football game. I just rationally don't see any way Wells, with another few days to recover, let's this opportunity pass him by without giving it a go on the field. I have no inside info; just call it a hunch. Any action out of Wells would be a huge emotional boost for the Buckeyes.

Play Of The Week
Any including Wells, please, on Saturday night. It would be a shame if either team were not at full strength for this one.

That's my cute way of saying that nothing from the OU game stood out as a play worth breaking down. The only thing close was the fourth-down play during the second quarter, and astute Buckeye fans already received that breakdown on the Ask The Insiders premium board.

Around The League
The Big Ten is coming off of an 11-0 weekend against a group of teams that ranged from "mildly competent" to "mind-numbingly bad."

Perhaps the most interesting note from the weekend has to do with health. Anterior cruciate ligaments around the league, watch out: The dreaded ACL tear hit players still actually in the Big Ten this past week (not to mention former Wolverine Tom Brady). Penn State defensive lineman Jerome Hayes tore his against Oregon State, Illinois cornerback Miami Thomas saw his go against Eastern Illinois, then word came later in the week that running back Duane (pronounced Doo-WON, in case you care) Bennett of a resurgent Minnesota team had torn his. All, of course, are out for the season.

With Hayes out, Penn State is in a bind. No decision has been reached on whether end Maurice Evans and tackle Abe Koroma will return this week after sitting out the Nits' destruction of Oregon State because cops found reason to make themselves comfortable in their campus abode the week of the game. Previously, tackles Chris Baker and Phil Taylor were dismissed. Luckily for Penn State, they face Syracuse this week, and the Orange staked their claim as the worse BCS team last week when they were controlled at home by Akron. Yes, that Akron. Remember the SportsCenter commercial where Charley Steiner punches the Orange mascot? How appropriate.

As for Minnesota, Bennett had emerged as a dependable rushing and receiving target as the Golden Gophers announced their return to Big Ten prominence by beating two Mid-American Conference teams in projected cellar dweller Northern Illinois and possible league contender Bowling Green. Bennett will be replaced by a trio of backs, including the incredibly named Shady Salamon.

Then there's Illinois, which saw its secondary torched vs. Missouri. Dere Hicks, a less than impressive starter last year, had moved positions, but he'll have to move back to cornerback to start in Thomas' absence. It'll bear watching whether this Illinois secondary will continue to be susceptible through the air and if its tackling improves from its woeful showing against Mizzou.

A couple of numbers I found incredible: Michigan State running back, erstwhile Ohio State recruit and Dayton native Javon Ringer ran for a career-high five touchdowns against Eastern Michigan. Purdue's Frank Halliburton struck black gold on the way to blocking a school-record two punts against Northern Colorado. A handicapped Penn State took a 35-7 lead into halftime against a not-terrible Oregon State team. Purdue head coach Joe Tiller tied Jack Mollenkopf for the school record in wins.

Notes to know this week: **Illinois: Tackle Josh Brent missed the first two games because of a personal illness head coach Ron Zook won't get into. With Brent and Sirod Williams, whose ACL had the decency to blow out before the season actually began, out for the time being, end Will Davis has been playing at tackle.
**Indiana: Marcus Thigpen scored on runs of 67 and 31 yards during the first quarter of Indiana's 45-7 win over Murray State. If the Hoosiers' running game can complement Kellen Lewis, then their prospects for a second straight bowl game improve dramatically.
**Iowa: The quarterback position appears to belong to Mentor native Ricky Stanzi, whose cool demeanor helped him cut apart Florida International with three touchdown passes on just 10 tosses during his first career start.
**Michigan: Quarterback Steven Threet keeps his job after a ran for a score during a grinding 16-6 win over Miami (Ohio), but his numbers weren't exactly overwhelming. He'll have a new left tackle in Perry Dorrestein, who replaces Mark Ortmann (dislocated elbow).
**Michigan State: The Spartans' secondary is depleted, especially at safety. Projected starter Roderick Jenrette is still gone for personal reasons, while Kendall Davis-Clark is banged up. Cornerback Ross Weaver could move to safety for this game, leaving a spot open. A possible beneficiary: Columbus native Johnny Adams.
**Minnesota: The Golden Gophers used a 3-4 defense to befuddle spread-happy Bowling Green, a lineup that allowed them to avoid going into nickel defenses for large stretches of time. Simoni Lawrence was the benefactor when it came to playing time. Out was nickel back Ryan Collado, who was burned for two touchdowns against Northern Illinois.
**Northwestern: Ohioan Jordan Mabin will make his first career start this week against Southern Illinois. The redshirt freshman will replace Julian Wright, who was banged up against Duke last week. Mabin came in for him and may have given him the Lou Gehrig treatment, as the Nordonia grad made plays down the stretch to help preserve a Wildcat win.
**Penn State: After two games, Daryll Clark is drawing comparisons to Michael Robinson, who led Penn State to an 11-win season in 2005. Clark has excelled at both running and passing the ball, just as Robinson did. The current San Francisco running back called Clark after PSU's win over Oregon State to give him some ribbing and congratulate him on a job well done.
**Purdue: Tiller says that Oregon, his squad's opponent tomorrow, will be the fastest the Boilermakers see all year. His team hopes to be boosted by linebacker Jason Werner and offensive lineman Sean Sester, who each missed the first game with back problems.
**Wisconsin: Allan Evridge proved he could pass after throwing for more than 300 yards during a come-from-behind win over Marshall, but Badger running backs still punched the ball across the line six times. Wisconsin hopes to be boosted by the returns of linebacker Jonathan Casillas (knee) and tight end Travis Beckum (hamstring) against a ranked Fresno State squad.

Pick update: I was 10-1 a week ago for the second straight slate of games, only missing Minnesota's win over Bowling Green (hey, Vegas was with me on that one). This week, my preseason predictions have Purdue dropping its nonconference showdown with Oregon. I've got the other nine Big Ten programs (including Ohio State) putting together wins, although I'm wary of Michigan State's meeting with underrated Florida Atlantic and Wisconsin's trip to Fresno State. If the Badgers play the way they have the first two weekends, they'll return to Madison with a notch in the "L" column. Indiana is off.

And Finally…
**I think I might include a note each week about an Ohio State non-revenue sport that deserves it. This week's shout out goes to the 10th-ranked men's soccer team, a national finalist a year ago. In the offseason, it lost seniors Xavier Balc (the architect of their offense), Eric Brunner (their best and most vocal defender) and Casey Latchem (the steady, sometimes spectacular, goalkeeper). They also lost junior Roger Espinoza, a creative attacking player who had become their best player by the end of the year, to the MLS draft. All the Buckeyes have done is gone 3-0-1 and grabbed two tournament titles at the start of the year. Of special notice was their 2-0 win over No. 18 Tulsa Sunday in a game that was on the Big Ten Network. This team has a long way to go to be as good as last year's, but they're off to a great start.

**As I sit here Thursday night watching Rutgers get humiliated by North Carolina on its own field – the birthplace of college football – I can't help but wonder how much Penn State fans still want Greg Schiano as their head coach. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Schiano. Heck, Rutgers was nothing before he took over. But there was a real debate over just how good this team would be without Ray Rice. So far, they've been outclassed by a Fresno State team that had to travel across the country and destroyed by a North Carolina team that isn't supposed to be anything special in two home games. I'm rooting for the Knights, one of the feel-good stories in college sports over the past few years, in general, but this does not look good.

**I'm not going to sit here and say I approve of the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on Washington as they tied BYU 28-27 as time expired on a touchdown run by Jake Locker. Locker threw the ball in the air in elation only to get a 15-yard penalty that was assessed on the point after try, which, in crushingly predictable fashion, was blocked. It was a horrendous call by an officials corps that was taking its cue from the national office that wants emotion outlawed in this great sport. However, the Huskies still should have at least gotten the resulting 35-yard extra point in the air, but horrendous protection made it impossible. It's yet another blow to a Washington program that has gone nowhere under Tyrone Willingham. Credit to for a great joke this week noting that Locker is the nation's second-most wasted resource after water.

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