Tuesday, September 9, 2008
OHIO STATE Facing a CALIFORNIA Nightmare
Ohio State facing California nightmare
Buckeyes, fellow Big Ten 'power' Badgers have huge concernsBy John Walters
Travel Alert: We here at the NBC Sports Meteorological Center feel compelled to issue a bellwether advisory for Big Ten schools traveling to California next weekend. While much of the east and gulf coasts were threatened by hurricanes last Saturday (as was Gainesville, at least for three quarters), the Golden State will produce pockets of high-pressure defenses and avalanches of scoring next weekend.
Ohio State and Wisconsin, we mean you. You are the top two teams in the Big Ten -- or at least were thought to be so prior to the season; Penn State appears to be better, but we will suspend judgement until they engage a worthy opponent outside the Nittany Lions’ den. But you two are a combined 4-0 without having left campus or having played anyone from a BCS conference.
Buckle up, Buckeyes and Badgers, as your nascent undefeated seasons are about to experience a significant degree of turbulence. This coming Saturday Ohio State, fresh off a 26-14 defeat of Ohio (a team that many observers feel is at least the 7th- or 8th-best in the Mid-American Conference, so there), visits Southern California in prime time. Two and a half hours later and roughly 220 miles north, Wisconsin will kick it off at Fresno State, a school that has not hosted a top 10 opponent in seven years (a 44-24 upset win over No. 10 Oregon State in 2001).
California, here you come. Are you both ready? We should mention that, while it is very early, out-of-state visitors are a combined 0-3 in California this season and two of them—Tennessee, which played at UCLA, and Oregon State, which played at Stanford—entered as favorites. Your upcoming foes, USC and Fresno State, respectively, have already trekked cross-country and stamped “Done Before New Year’s” labels on their hosts. The Trojans ravaged Virginia, 52-7, while the Bulldogs clamped down on Rutgers, 24-7.
Ohio State-USC looked to be, from an August forecast, the game of the season. The Buckeyes, the first runners-up in the last two BCS championship games, returned nine starters from a defense that finished first in the nation a year ago. The best of them, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, is either the best defensive player in the country or the best one who does not know the lyrics to “Fight On!” Ohio State returned just as many players on offense, including magnificent tailback Chris “Beanie” Wells, while adding everyone’s most mouth-watering recruit, dual-threat quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
So what happened on Saturday in Columbus? How did a supposedly Top 5 team find itself trailing 14-12 in the 4th quarter against a bottom-half MAC opponent? The Buckeyes pulled out Saturday’s stinker thanks to a pair of special teams plays—one of them a 69-yard punt return with 5:57 remaining by Ray Small—and by intercepting the Bobcats four times (Ohio QB Boo Jackson is no Bo Jackson).
“That was pathetic. It was a pathetic performance,” said Buckeye wideout Brian Hartline, displaying a refreshing candor that other storied Midwestern programs might do well to emulate. “OU should’ve won the game.”
Ohio State was without its Heisman candidate, Beanie Wells, who injured his ankle on a non-contact injury during the 43-0 season-opening win versus Youngstown State. But Wells absence does not negate the fact that the Buckeyes gained just 18 more total yards than the Bobcats did in the Horseshoe. And, as they prepare to face a USC defense that may just be the best of the decade, never mind the season, head coach Jim Tressel should be very concerned.
“'It kind of looked like (what it) might look like between your opener and your big 'national stage game,” said Tressel, explaining his team’s flat performance.
That may be true, but so is this axiom about September performances: The truly special teams get after it. Penn State, for example, which may in fact be the best team in the Big Ten, outscored Coastal Carolina and Oregon State 111-27. Right now Joe Paterno’s team would appear to pose a much stiffer challenge to the Trojans.
The cold, hard fact is that the most compelling game in college football takes place each week and is not televised. That “game” is any USC scrimmage between the first-team defense and the first-team offense. Ohio State may be far more focused when they emerge from the tunnel at the Coliseum on Saturday evening, but the win against Ohio planted seeds of self-doubt into the minds of every Buckeye player. They may not admit such, but it did.
Also, while Beanie Wells may be fully healthy by next Saturday, USC linebackers Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews take on the nation’s deepest stable of tailbacks each week in practice. The USC defense is fast and tenacious—not unlike Florida’s defense in ’06 and LSU’s last season.
One final note on this matchup: No team is looser than USC during its Friday walk-through at a stadium. During the Trojans’ walk-through in Charlottesville on August 29, the Cavalier players emerged from the tunnel, marched up the sideline, and engaged in a good old-fashioned staredown with USC.
You can bet that Coach Tressel will ensure that none of his players say or do anything this week to rile up the Trojans.
Heading northbound on I-5, we come to The Valley. Fresno State, home of Pat Hill and the Bulldogs. Last September Wisconsin visited UNLV and only won by a touchdown against a Runnin’ Rebel team that would win two games all season. Such an effort will not suffice this time around. The Badgers may be 17-0 at Camp Randall Stadium under Bielema, but they have also lost three of their past four games on the road. And they enter this game with a quarterback, Allan Evridge, whose last road start came in November of 2005 at Nebraska when he was a freshman quarterback at Kansas State. Evridge was 0-3 in his road starts as a Wildcat.
This game, though, will come down to who runs the ball better. Wisconsin tailback P.J. Hill has carried the ball 44 times in two games, averaging 133.5 yards a contest. But that was versus Akron and Marshall. Fresno State sophomore Ryan Mathews had 163 yards and three touchdowns at Rutgers.
On the season’s opening weekend a very good Michigan State team traveled to California and lost to Cal, 38-31. This coming Saturday two more Big Ten schools, each of them with designs on a BCS bowl if not more, head west. It may be worth noting that the Donner party—the original ill-fated California-bound pilgrims—originated in Big Ten country, Springfield, Ill.
And it may be best for the Big Ten, no matter how entertaining it is for the rest of us, if in the future the conference restricts its California visits to the first week in January.