A lot was made of the Buckeyes struggle with the Ohio Bobcats this past Saturday. It didn't really change my mind about them.
They are what they are, and this game only reinforced their strengths and their weaknesses. Ohio U is not a good football team, but even the best teams have off games. See USC vs. Stanford 2007. Virginia's struggles with Richmond gives us the idea that the Cavs are probably not a very good football team, which means that even though the Trojans have played a bigger name opponent than OSU has, USC is still untested.
The line has crept toward giving USC a double digit advantage. Is this realistic, or have the bettors lost their minds? Let's take a look at the match-up.
Ohio State Offense vs. USC Defense
The Buckeyes have had three eras of offensive football under Jim Tressel. The pre-Troy Smith era featured smashmouth I back football with an extremely conservative bent. In three of Tressel's first four seasons, the Buckeyes averaged less than 200 yards passing per game. (By contrast, SC has averaged at least 264 yards passing every season since 2002.) These teams were predictable, but strong along the offensive front, and in 2002 and 2003, they had a smart and mobile QB in Craig Krenzel who overcame a talent deficit to become a playmaker at crucial times.
The Troy Smith era, moved the offense from the I to regular shotgun spread sets. The Buckeyes didn't run the zone read as much as some people assume, but when they did, it was efficient enough for people to have to worry about Smith. Still, Smith became a far better passer than runner, and won the Heisman.
In 2005 and 2006, OSU completed about 65% of their passes, and averaged over 200 yards passing in both seasons. They achieved an offensive balance which allowed them to run all of their plays out of a base set and its variations, and it made them tougher to defend. After not cracking 30 points per game in any of Tressel's first five seasons, the Buckeyes eclipsed that mark twice easily with Smith at the helm, and in 2005 averaged more than 400 yards per game for the only time under Tressel.
The 2007 season and the beginning of 2008 has featured a combo of the first two eras. They use both regular I sets and the shotgun spread sets, and also mix in more ace/three wide looks. In Todd Boeckman, the Bucks don't have a QB who can run the zone read, but they have super frosh Terrelle Pryor who can. They have used Pryor a little in the first two weeks, and not just to run the ball.
Last season, Ohio State was predictable. When they were in the I, they ran the ball almost exclusively, except for the occasional play action deep throw. When they lined up in the gun, they threw quick or intermediate routes. They used the backs and tight ends sparingly in the passing game. This was effective for the first three quarters of the season because they barely played anyone, and used superior talent and execution to win games.
But the last three games of the season featured middling offensive numbers because of the predictability. The Illini bottled up Chris Wells, and Boeckman's heroics as a scrambler were outweighed by a poor passing day. OSU went ultra-conservative in an ugly win over Michigan in which they only passed for 50 yards. After getting 70 yards on the first two carries of the BCS title game, the Buckeyes got 75 in the next 28 carries against LSU. Boeckman threw two TDs and six INTs over that period.
As a result of last year's late flounder, the Buckeyes have tried to mix things up in the first two games. They run more ace sets than they did last season. They throw from regular and offset I looks far more than they did in 2007. They have added some running to their shotgun one back sets with Boeckman in, and Boeckman has even run the zone read a couple of times.
The staff understands that being predictable on offense hurt them late last season, so they tried to give SC some different looks on films, including the Pryor zone read package. Pryor got two series in each of the first two games, one in the first half and one in the second. In the Ohio struggle, he got his second half series much later in the game, after the Buckeyes had taken a double digit lead.
The Buckeyes have a superstar in Chris Wells, who has size, strength and speed. Their bread and butter play with him is just a regular handoff with the offside guard pulling into the B-gap. They will sometimes run the lead draw, and after watching Virginia have moderate success in the second half with the counter, I'm sure we'll see that as well.
Frankly, beyond Wells and the uber talented but raw Pryor, this offense is average. The offensive line is good by Big Ten standards, but it's the typical road grading, slow group, which is why Ohio State has struggled against elite competition. They gave up ten sacks in the two BCS championship games. They had more success running the ball out of the I against LSU then out of the gun against Florida, but LSU is a sell out blitz team, which can create running lanes. The Trojans are not.
The wide receivers leave a lot to be desired. Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline have been productive, but they don't scare anyone. Ray Small has some athletic ability, but it definitely has not translated to success at wide out. This year he is seeing the ball more, but he only has 62 yards on eight catches.
But the quarterback position is where the problem lies. By next year, Pryor is going to be a load, but he probably isn't ready to face one of the best defenses in the land full time. That puts a lot of weight on Boeckman's shoulders. He had a great pass efficiency rating last season and was first team All Big 10, but threw for less than 2500 yards. He threw 14 INTs in less than 300 attempts, which isn't great. Can he put the team on his back and drag them across the finish line if need be? At this point in his career, I've seen nothing that leads me to believe the answer is yes.
Ohio State Defense vs. USC Offense
So how did the Buckeyes get to the national title game with such an average offense last season? They have an outstanding defense. Last year's group was statistically the best defense in the nation. They are tough against the run without doing an inordinate amount of blitzing, and their secondary is outstanding. Other than a poor game against an excellent Illinois offense and a disaster of a first half against LSU, they were great last season. They don't do it with gimmicks.
Most of the time, they line up in a base 4-3 and just execute their assignments. They blitzed more in 2007 than they did in 2006, and that made them even more dangerous. After only forcing 19 turnovers last season, they have made opponents cough up six in two games so far this season.
They are solid up front despite the loss of Vernon Gholston to the NFL. It's not apparent yet whether they will be able to replace Gholston's pass rushing gifts. But the group is great against the run. The linebackers are a big part of that. James Laurinaitis gets a lot of love (and rightfully so), but Marcus Freeman is outstanding in his own right on the strong side. Against I sets, Freeman will plant himself on the line head up with the tight end. Against the Trojans' ace sets, OSU will stick with three backers and move the weak side guy out toward the slot.
The secondary in my opinion is the best unit on the team. Only four of OSU's 13 opponents cracked 200 passing yards, and none went over 300. The Buckeyes' staff has the confidence to play a lot of bump coverage at the line. They will blitz corners off the edge as well because they trust the safeties. They are not usually an "eight in the box" group as Oregon is.
They are a lot like USC in that the principle tenet of their defense is that they believe they can stop your running game with linemen and backers, so they keep their safeties back. They are different in the sense that they are more aggressive with their corners when it comes to run support and jamming. The secondary is going to present a big challenge to the Trojan wide receiver group, who at times has struggled with physical play.
So does the OSU defense have any weaknesses? There are none of the surface. Below the surface, there are a couple of minor questions. First, can the Buckeyes generate pass rush with their front group against USC? Virginia didn't come close, and Mark Sanchez sliced the Cavs up.
The Buckeyes only have three sacks in two games, but Youngstown State didn't do much passing, and Ohio had a pretty mobile QB. Second, how will the Buckeyes do against a balanced offense with a good passing game? You can make the argument that OSU hasn't faced one since the Florida game, which was a disaster. But this is a more experienced defense, and they gave less balanced passing teams like Northwestern and Purdue a hard time last season.
Usually, I don't add this group into the equation except for talking about it a little in the Outlook section, but the Buckeyes deserve special consideration. They have been great on special teams under Tressel, and have the makings to be excellent here again. Ryan Pretorius has a big leg, and has only missed once this season from 53 yards. AJ Trapasso doesn't boom them long as a punter, but he kicks them high, and keeps opponents from getting returns.
Small is dangerous on punt returns as Ohio U found out. The Buckeyes don't have a home run hitter on the kickoff return team though. This team makes few mistakes on special teams, and you could argue that this group kept them from losing the Ohio game by recovering a muffed punt and by putting the game away with Small's TD return. The Trojans cannot afford mistakes here.
I don't see Ohio State moving the ball on USC, with or without Wells. It's one thing to play poorly against an inferior team. It's quite another to let them hold you under 300 total yards. 36 minutes into the game, Ohio State had about 100 yards of total offense against a team that gave up over 400 per game last season in the MAC.
The Buckeyes like to utilize the deep ball off play action, but the Trojans take that away from every team that they play. The Trojans haven't given up a TD pass of 30 yards or more since 2005. That means that Ohio State must run the ball well to have success offensively. The problem for the Buckeyes is that teams that line up in the I and pull guards don't have success against the Trojans because SC's fast linebackers usually beat the guards to the spot, and then gang tackling ensues.
I set teams like Michigan, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, and Arkansas have failed time and time again against the Trojan defense. If the Buckeyes use Pryor more, that could change the equation. But it could just as easily result into the Trojans baiting a young quarterback into making some bad throws. I think we'll see Pryor more than we did in the first two games, but not much more. Tressel by nature is too conservative for that.
If OSU can't run the ball, their offense is doomed. They don't have the kind of quarterback who can dink and dunk them down the field with regularity. Boeckman also is not good at getting to the second and third read either. He runs the ball far too much for a guy who isn't a good runner, and the reason is that he is not good at checking down. If Ohio State gets into too many third and long situations, USC will blitz them into oblivion, as they did twice to highly regarded Michigan offensive lines in two Rose Bowls.
They don't have the kind of wide receivers that force you to respect playmaking ability, and they use the auxiliary receivers (tight ends, backs) so sparingly that you can zero in on their wideouts. In my opinion, USC is likely to stop Ohio State from having great success on the ground, and that's going to force the Buckeyes to put the game on Boeckman, and he will respond the same way that he did at the end of last season by playing poorly.
So can the Buckeye defense keep them in the game? That is a much tougher question to answer. We haven't seen a whole lot of the SC offense. What we have seen time and time again is the Trojans taking non-conference opponents behind the woodshed with big offensive performances. Two excellent Michigan defenses suffered the fate. Illinois gave up over 600 total yards. An outstanding Arkansas group got half a hundred hung on them in Fayetteville. Ohio State's defense is better than all of these. You can probably compare it to the 2004 Auburn defense that USC faced when it comes to talent.
But you won't see the same kind of strategy that we saw in that Auburn game. The last three Rose Bowl games have showed us how the Trojans will attack Big Ten teams: come out chuckin'. The 2003 Rose Bowl featured a Trojan offense that threw 60% of them time. In 2006, after a lackluster first half, USC threw the ball 20 straight times in the second half, and blew the Wolverines out. Against Illinois, the Trojans threw on 18 of the first 26 snaps.
Mark Sanchez came out throwing in week one, and I expect the same against Ohio State. The Buckeyes will try to take away the short stuff early in all likelihood, so the intermediate passes will come into play early. The Buckeyes showed a weakness when it came to post routes against the spread formation when they played Illinois. We could see some of that. What I really suspect that we'll see is the Trojans trying to utilize Joe McKnight, Stanley Havili, and Anthony McCoy in the middle of the field against the Buckeye linebackers. That worked like a charm against Illinois' group, an aggressive unit without great speed. The Buckeyes have more talent at LB than Illinois, but they aren't especially fast.
The fact of the matter is that Ohio State is not explosive enough offensively to make much of an impact against the USC defense. The Trojans can match strides with Ohio State on defense, and in my opinion USC is a better offensive team. Ohio State must win the turnover and special teams battles to stay in this game.
My guess is that they won't win the former with Boeckman, who is mistake prone, on their side of the field. USC will start fast on offense with the passing game, and Ohio State's back seven will wear down because they have to deal with five weapons at tailback and four at wide receiver. The USC defense will help keep the Ohio State defense on the field, Boeckman will hand out a couple of gifts, and the Trojans will roll to an easy win.