SvoNotes: Looking At USC, Part II

Concluding this early look ahead to the marquee game on Ohio State's schedule is a dissection of last season's game between the Buckeyes and USC and what the Scarlet and Gray will have to go to turn around last season's result. Just what did go wrong a season ago, and will the new version of OSU football be able to secure a different result?

In the first part of my early look at USC, I pointed out the sheer amount of talent – at least as far as Scout's database is concerned – that the Trojans will have while trying to replace half of a starting lineup that left for the NFL draft after the season.

But just what impact will the losses USC endured have on the upcoming clash in Columbus? For that, we have to turn back to the first showdown to see how the Trojans were able to beat the Buckeyes – and what might change come September.

What It All Means: The cliché about reloading instead of rebuilding is really true at USC when one considers the number of five-star prospects the Trojans can plug into the holes in the lineup left by graduating players.

Most people have already known that USC pumps talent through the program unlike any other – and that position breakdown in Part I didn't include 2009 five-star signees Devon Kennard (DE), Hebron Fangupo (DT) and T.J. McDonald (S) – so the next question becomes how that talent will play on the field – especially the FieldTurf of Ohio Stadium.

Looking back at last year's game, there's no doubt that Ohio State was destroyed by the Trojans, who left little debate as to who the better team. It was such a thorough beating that observers could hardly even say that the Trojans were better only on that night; it was hard to imagine what could have gone differently in order for the Buckeyes to have been in the game.

The first place Ohio State will have to improve will be on offense. That much seems obvious given that the Buckeyes averaged just 2.1 yards per rush and ended the game with 207 total yards, most accumulated in the first half.

The major losses for USC on defense – including three defensive linemen, three linebackers and two defensive backs – should help Ohio State. While USC seems pleased with the depth and talent ready to play along the line and in the secondary, there very well could be a dropoff at linebacker. No matter what, the Trojans will be dealing with a shortage of star power there after losing well-known linebackers Rey Maualuga – who had the famed interception return touchdown last year against OSU – and Brian Cushing.

And what many must remember is that Ohio State did a decent job offensively through a half of last year's game. The total of three points was held down by one drive that should have resulted in points before a called back touchdown and a missed field goal. Twice the Buckeyes marched the length of the field on the Trojans' vaunted defense.

So what has to change to put points on the board? Execution in the red zone would be a good start given that OSU ended its long drives with just a single field goal. On the other side of things, USC put two together two drives that both resulted in touchdowns, giving the Trojans a 14-3 lead.

In addition, the Buckeyes would like to be able to control the tempo of the game, which they could not do given the facts previously discussed and Maualuga's interception return for a touchdown.

One scary statistic from the first game is that Ohio State tailbacks ran the ball just 14 times for a total of 59 yards. That average of 4.2 yards isn't great but did show that the Buckeyes were able to get some push in the interior on traditional running plays.

With USC having lost six major contributors from its front seven and the fact that Boom Herron has a year of seasoning under his belt while Brandon Saine has reached full health, the Buckeyes could have an advantage on the ground.

And then there's the Terrelle Pryor effect. Pryor was but a cub in the first game, sharing time with Todd Boeckman. Since the last USC contest, Pryor has become the unquestioned starting quarterback, has become used to the speed of the game and – if all appearances from the spring are true – has worked a lot on the passing side of things.

A ready and dynamic Pryor should be a difference maker. At the very least, he should have no problems improving on last season's 52 passing yards and 40 rushing.

For all of those reasons, one would expect Ohio State to have a chance to have some success on offense. It's far from a guarantee considering that USC, as I try to note at every turn, is replacing most of its departees with five-star talent. However, one can at least make an argument that the Buckeyes can fare well offensively against the young Trojans, especially if they get off to a good start and don't fall behind quickly.

On the other side of the ball, figuring out USC's offense a year ago was a bit tricky. The Trojans were nearly unstoppable when they wanted to be but sluggish at others: Cal and Arizona kept USC to 17 points while three others kept it under 30.

The Trojans weren't exactly lights out against the Buckeyes, putting up 35 points and 348 yards. Those totals were plenty enough to win the game but not mind-blowing when teams like Oklahoma were putting up 50 points and 500 yards per game with ease.

Still, the totals seem on the surface to be a little low for a team that compiles top-level skill position talent like it's going out of style – and that's with Mark Sanchez, the second-best quarterback in the 2009 draft, on the squad a season ago.

The biggest challenge facing the Trojans on the offensive side of the ball will be replacing Sanchez, with the early money seemingly on Aaron Corp, who earned the early nod ahead of Mitch Mustain and Matt Barkley thanks to a nearly flawless spring practice session.

Predicting what Corp or any of the USC quarterbacks will do in 2009 at this point would be folly. Corp has the pedigree to be a standout quarterback – he was a five-star prospect, boasts ideal size at 6-4, can move and attended a top program in Orange (Calif.) Lutheran – but has thrown just four passes in his USC career. Then again, it's not like Sanchez, who had just three career starts going into last year, was all that experienced, and he turned out to be worth every bit of the hype.

Whoever starts at quarterback will have a job made easier by the fact that most of USC's skill position talent returns, and the players boast top-notch physical attributes from wideout Ronald Johnson's size to Joe McKnight's speed and ability to make people miss. Perhaps just as importantly, plenty of experience can be found on the offensive line.

Ohio State's defense will have lost superstars like James Laurinaitis, Malcolm Jenkins and Marcus Freeman from last year's squad, but the spring seemed to show that early talk about the Buckeyes boasting a dominating defensive line seemed to be true. If that turns out to be the case, OSU will need to create more pressure after just one sack a year ago. No matter if the starter is Corp or Mustain, he will be short on experience especially on college football's biggest stages, so pressure will be key.

That becomes doubly important with the inexperience of the back seven, which will be missing the previously mentioned starters. The Trojans boast talent that is deadly in open spaces, and it could be easier for them to get to those open spaces with the graduation of three of college football's premier defenders. Players who are stepping into key roles like Andre Amos, Devon Torrence and Austin Spitler will have a tough task.

So what's the final conclusion? Well, there's reason to like what one sees on both sides of the football. USC will have a young but athletic defense, while Ohio State will counter with a maturing Pryor and what they hope is a deeper and better running game than the one missing Chris Wells in 2008. Ohio State's youth on defense is matched by USC at the quarterback spot. USC has the psychological advantage of last year's win; the Buckeyes counter with Ohio Stadium's intimidating night atmosphere.

It's far too early to predict a Buckeye win, but I can see a situation in which one is possible, a tough task when initially looking back at last September's meltdown. OSU will need that strong running game and liberal doses of Pryor's magic, while the Silver Bullets better hope that the defensive line harnesses its talent and jells quickly while facing a new USC quarterback.

If everything goes according to plan, the next night game should be a classic just like the previous two in Ohio Stadium. Whether the Buckeyes can flip the script and emerge victorious remains to be seen.

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