Columbus Day: Something's Gotta Give

Darrell Royal and Woody Hayes. Earl Campbell and Archie Griffin. The Showband of the Southwest and Dotting the I. Bevo and Brutus. Vince Young and Ted Ginn, Jr. Rodrique Wright and A.J. Hawk. College football's all-time third-winningest and fifth-winningest teams. The No. 2 and No. 4 teams in the current AP Poll. For the first time.

"It doesn't get any better than this," Texas coach Mack Brown said.

That's why ABC officials announced as early as last March of its intent to televise the Showdown at the 'Shoe in a prime-time national telecast. Even then, Texas was scheming for Ohio State (and, presumably, the Buckeyes for the Horns). Oklahoma's home-opening loss to TCU Saturday means that college football's game of the year just got even bigger -- at least for Texas. Almost to a man, coaches and players point out that there is a lot of football left regardless of Saturday's outcome. But with the perception that Oklahoma is way down, and with Texas A&M falling out of the rankings, the barometer by which Texas will be judged the rest of the season hinges on upending a Buckeye team that has never lost a home game at night.

The Horns have won 21 of their last 22 road games. The Buckeyes have won 22 of their last 23 home games. Something's gotta give.

It's Texas' first game in the state of Ohio, but Brown is reminding his troops that they've been there before. The Horns, of course, snapped Nebraska's national-leading 47-game home win streak (when Nebraska was still Nebraska) in 1998. It was deja vu all over again when Texas ended the 'Huskers' national-best 26-game home winning streak in 2002. All told, Brown's road record is 26-6 while Texas' road record was 23-25 in the decade before Brown's arrival.

Brown has mentioned privately that the team feels less pressure to win on the road than at Memorial Stadium where they are always expected to win. Obviously, they usually do. Save for that stinker of a loss to Arkansas in 2003, Texas would have a perfect home slate this decade and would boast the nation's longest home-winning streak. Take away those pesky neutral sites (read: the OU game and bowl games), and the numbers indicate that it's best not to bet against Brown's ball club.

"When you go on the road, you need to be aggressive," Brown said. "You have to take more chances because the odds are against you when (the opponent) is in a comfortable spot. You have to be tough and hang in there, and be together enough and confident enough that you can change the momentum. The momentum usually changes more against you on the road than it does at home. You can't let one bad play lead into a bunch."

But isn't Ohio State, well, different? We're talking seven national championships, college football's only two-time Heisman winner, and a venerable stadium that seats 102,329 (but will swell past 104,000 by 7 p.m. Saturday)?

"It's nice going into a hostile crowd," RG Will Allen said.

Nice?

"Our team accepts the challenge really well," Allen continued. "We are a good road team the past few years. Our guys really respond to going into a hostile environment where every one is rooting against you."

The hype began weeks ago in anticipation of the first big game of 2005, and probably the biggest game all season. More than 12,000 Longhorn fans, representing the largest demand for road game tickets in program history, made requests of UT Athletic Department officials for the approximately 4,000 tickets that Ohio State allotted for the game. The ESPN Game Day crew will be broadcasting live from Columbus. And it will be the highest-attended sporting event in the history of Longhorn athletics.

"This game is going to live up to every expectation," said DE Brian Robison. "Once you get on that field and it's game time, you're not thinking about the crowd and the noise, you are just thinking about the other team."

OHIO STATE OFFENSE

The Buckeyes still embrace their time-honored, power running game. Yet, any consideration of the Ohio State offense usually starts with FL Ted Ginn, Jr.

The sophomore has never had a 100-yard receiving game in his college career. Yet, the go-the-distance threat almost single-handedly rescued the Buckeyes' season in 2004 when coaches moved him from DB to FL when the Buckeyes got off to an 0-3 start in Big Ten play. Ohio State won five of its last six games, including lopsided wins over arch-rival Michigan and then Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl. Many would argue that the revival resulted primarily from Troy Smith replacing Justin Zwick at QB. Smith engineered the 37-21 spanking of the Wolverines. Yet, it was Zwick at the switch when his team dominated the Cowboys, 33-7 and again Saturday in the 34-14 home-opening win over Miami (Ohio). Ginn was the constant, as in constant threat and constantly accounted for.

"I'm not so sure you all-together stop a guy like that," Co-Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik said. "You go into the game hoping to contain him the best you can. What people have to take into consideration is that you can't focus all your efforts on one guy. You could if he was the only great player they had."

There is no bread-and-butter play with the multi-facet Ginn, Chizik maintains. But what he expects are scenarios in which Buckeye coaches will try to get Ginn so far out in space that defenses cannot converge before the damage is done.

"They really look for the one-on-one where your help is so far away that you can't get there," said Chizik. "Where they make big plays is where they get you isolated. They're going to take you deep at least four to five times a game, and maybe more. They'll take their shot, and they'll have their trick plays with Ginn. They'll have him on reverses. They'll have him on a reverse and throw a ball. All of those things are things that we feel pretty confident will happen."

Yet, for all the hype surrounding Ginn (359 yards on 25 grabs in 2004), SE Santonio Holmes is the most polished receiver on the Buckeyes' roster (769 yards on 55 catches). To date, Holmes has been more of a deep ball threat while Ginn's mere presence on the field means Holmes typically draws single coverage.

"It's really tough to double-team them," Chizik said, "unless you let us play with 12 guys."

Holmes has caught two or more passes in 19 straight games. The junior finished with five receptions for 74 yards last Saturday. (His over-the-shoulder 20-yard TD grab from Zwick, Brown said, was one of the more amazing catches he has ever seen.)

"It's going to be a great battle," Chizik said. "We are preaching to our players that they are very good and they will make plays. They're going to move the football, and they're going to hit a big play on you here and there. Everything, from that point, comes down to how you respond to it. In that environment, when something big happens, the place gets electrified and they're on a roll. You really have to work at putting out fires."

The Buckeyes' spread offense that was on display Saturday was not a departure from the program's traditional reliance on a power running game, Chizik believes. The Texas DC said he lost count of all the formations the Buckeyes put on the field but the primary intent was to clear out space to run the football. Ohio State employed a variety of sets and personnel on offense in the opener, rushing for 160 yards and passing for 222.

Zwick was 17-of-23 passing for 155 yards Saturday, including a TD. Smith's two-game suspension for accepting $500 from a booster is well documented. But he's eligible to play for the first time since the Michigan game in which he accounted for 386 yards in total offense. OSU coach Jim Tressel said both will play. Zwick will likely get the starting nod, but Texas has prepared for them both.

"Troy Smith can make a lot of plays with his feet and he can throw," Brown said. "Justin Zwick is someone we tried to recruit out of high school. He's 6-4 and a great passer."

SS Michael Huff was assigned to Oklahoma WR Mark Clayton last October, reducing him to a non-factor in the 12-0 loss. This Saturday, Huff believes he can ill-afford to spy on just one WR.

"It's going to be a challenge because they have two receivers, so you can’t just focus on one," Huff said. "The main thing is to stop the running game because if they run the ball, it makes it a lot easier for the passing game."

Ohio State's national title hopes are largely dependent upon whether the Buckeyes can develop a consistent rushing attack for the first time since Maurice Clarrett took his game to, well, Dunkin' Donuts. That responsibility falls on the shoulder pads of sophomore RB Antonio Pittman who accounted for 100 yards on 14 carries last Saturday. It was the second time in his collegiate career that he passed the century mark.

Four starters return to the offensive line. Center Nick Mangold is a bonafide All-American candidate.

OHIO STATE DEFENSE

Ohio State returns nine defensive starters from a unit anchored by All-American WLB A.J. Hawk. In fact, the Buckeye linebacking crew may be second-to-none among the collegiate ranks in 2005.

"They're the best linebacking corps that we've faced in a long time," said Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis.

Hawk is a two-time All-Big 10 selection after leading his team in tackles the past two seasons. His 141 stops in 2004 was the most since Chris Spielman set the standard 19 years ago with 156. Hawk also has 283 total tackles and six career INTs on his resume. He recorded his 13th game in double figures with 10 tackles against Miami (Ohio).

The senior-laden linebacking crew includes MLB Anthony Schlegel (10.5 tackles-for-losses in 2004, a two-year starter at Air Force before transferring) and SLB Bobby Carpenter (considered the speediest of the trio and known for his open-field stops).

"Hawk and Carpenter look like twins to me," Davis said. "They both are really talented guys."

The Buckeyes produced five sacks in their home opener: three came from linebackers, one from the secondary and one from the front. The Buckeyes typically blitz about 35 percent of the time, Davis said. (By comparison, Big 12 teams blitz approximately 25 percent of the time but less frequently against Texas. Why is that? Two words: Vince Young.)

You won't find another game all season featuring two finer secondaries on the same field.

Junior LCB Ashton Youboty broke up a team-high 15 passes in 2004 while nabbing a team-best four INT. He recorded eight tackles during Saturday's home opener. He is joined by senior RCB Tyler Everett, a veteran of 39 games. SS Donte Whitner saw six starts last season and returned an INT 26 yards for TD last Saturday.

"The secondary is very fast and very aggressive in what they do," Davis said.

Ohio State returns four starters to their defensive front. RT Quinn Pitcock is the top tackler on the D-line with 49 stops last season. The Buckeyes base out of the 4-3. And even though the unit bears the reputation of valuing size over quickness, Davis remarks, "They've got really good speed. You'd like to think that, in Big Ten football, there's not going to be a whole lot of speed."

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Ginn led the nation with his 26.5-yard average on punt returns in 2004. His four touchdowns on punt returns tied the NCAA single-season record, while breaking Big Ten and school records. The sophomore had three returns for 35 yards Saturday.

"Field position is huge in a game like this," Brown said. "If you can net-punt 30 yards with their returning ability, it's not bad."

Ginn will also return kicks this year, alongside Holmes.

"They've got so much speed in their kicking game that we'll have to play great to have a chance to win," Brown said.

Sixth-year senior Josh Huston is looking to fill the shoes of two-time All-American and Groza Award winning kicker Mike Nugent. Huston connected on all four of his PATs in his first start last Saturday.

'WOO' PIG BUCKEYES?

It was this time last year that Texas managed a 22-20 win at Arkansas and, almost to a man, the Horns have said Fayetteville is the loudest place they have ever played. As such, the consensus is that the late night in the Ozarks has prepared the team to do battle in the heartland (even though there will be 30,000 more people crammed into Ohio Stadium than there were at Reynolds Stadium last season).

DE Tim Crowder said: "Arkansas was the loudest game I have ever been a part of and it was only 70,000. The Arkansas crowd was by far the toughest because they were all hostile. It gets me real excited because I say "Thank you for cheering for me." We all have that same mindset and that’s why we are so great at playing away games."

TE David Thomas said: "It's similar to the Arkansas game, going into a hostile environment early in the year. Last year we played well enough to win but still made some mistakes, so hopefully we'll do better this year. A big part of it is just having confidence in each other. All Vince (Young) has to do is tell one person and he can relay it down. You just have to have confidence in the guy next to you."

Nose tackle Frank Okam: "Arkansas was the loudest place I have played in. There was a point where we had a lot of confusion because people couldn’t focus because of the sound. So, after that game we switched to a lot more hand signals so we could be coordinated in what we are trying to do."

QB Vince Young said: "Arkansas was pretty tough with the trash-talking from the fans... the way Ohio State is right now. You've got to go out there and take care of business. I love that. It makes you play better."

BUCKEYES WAKE THE ECHOES

Former Ohio State State coach Woody Hayes will be honored at halftime. A sign recognizing Hayes' accomplishments will be unveiled in Ohio Stadium and remain on permanent display.

"The ghost of Woody Hayes will be at the game," Brown said.

But so will the presence of living legend Darrel Royal.

"Coach Royal is flying up with us," Brown said. "I told him that we wouldn't get back until four in the morning. He said, 'I don't care. I'm going.'"


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