Commentary

Ohio State-USC a rare treat in current gridworld climate

Originally Published: September 9, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae-making news in college football ["Officiating for Dummies" sold separately in Pac-10 (1) locations]:

[+] EnlargeSkip Holtz
IconSkip Holtz has the Pirates on a great run.

The Dash is still trying to get a grip on an extra-long extra point in Seattle. And the field goals attempted from short range in Gainesville and long range in El Paso. And the fact that ESPN no longer has the world's most prominent Holtz (sorry, Lou) or the world's most prominent Skip (sorry, Bayless). Don't look now, but Skip Holtz (2) has trumped you both, on his way to becoming the hottest coach in college football.

But more on all that in a bit. First, it's time to get down to Game of the Year business.

Myth Busting: Ohio State vs. USC

It's a wonderful thing when two lavishly talented programs with abundantly rich traditions from proudly established conferences meet in an endlessly hyped game played before two massively smug fan bases. For one thing, it gives sports writers a chance to air out all the adverbs and adjectives in the playbook.

But it's especially enjoyable in the current gridworld climate, in which juicy intersectional games are rarer than a Nick Saban smile. For too many teams, that 12th game added to the schedule was just one more way to get FIU, Eastern Illinois or Northern Colorado on the schedule.

So bravo to the Buckeyes and Trojans for gettin' it on. Now on to the breakdown. The Dash presents a few myths and realities to ponder before Saturday in the Coliseum (ABC, 8 p.m. ET):

• Myth: The loser still has a great chance to play for the national championship (3).

[+] EnlargeJim Tressel
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteBeating USC is key to Jim Tressel and the Buckeyes returning to the title game.

Look at the top nine teams in the USA Today coaches' poll. You'll see USC at No. 1 and Ohio State at No. 5. The other seven? They're all from the SEC and Big 12, which are considered the nation's two best leagues (by a mile).

If, come December, voters are choosing between a one-loss champion of either the SEC or the Big 12 and the once-beaten Buckeyes or Trojans, you know where the nod will probably go. (Especially if the choice is between an SEC team and its pinata from Columbus.) So the loser of this game will need a bloodbath in those conferences to clear its comeback path to the BCS National Championship Game.

Also: The losers in the last huge intersectional September games couldn't run the table anyway, and ultimately were dispatched to lesser bowls: After being beaten by Ohio State, Texas wound up losing twice more and went to the Alamo Bowl in 2006; and the two-loss Buckeyes went to the Fiesta Bowl the previous year after losing to the Longhorns. The winners of those two games did play for the title.

• Myth: Ohio State can't win the big one (4).

Fact is, Ohio State can't win the big one against an SEC opponent. It's done just fine against all other ranked opponents in recent years. The Buckeyes are 11-2 in their last 13 games against ranked teams, with nine of those victories coming by double digits.

• Myth: The Buckeyes have the edge at quarterback because Todd Boeckman (5) is more experienced than Mark Sanchez (6).

[+] EnlargeTodd Boeckman
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesTodd Boeckman's experience doesn't necessarily give the Buckeyes the edge at QB.

The 24-year-old Boeckman has thrown nearly 200 more career passes than Sanchez, but in this what-have-you-done-for-The-Dash-lately world, he has not performed well against quality competition. Discounting Ohio State's opening victory over FCS Youngstown State, Boeckman's last four quarterback ratings going back to 2007 are brutal: 71 against Ohio, 77.1 against LSU, 30.9 against Michigan and 37.9 against Illinois. His yards per attempt: 4.2 against Ohio, 8 against LSU, 3.8 against Michigan, 6.8 against Illinois. In those four games he's thrown two touchdowns and six interceptions. Ohio State has averaged just 21.3 points in those games -- and lost half of them.

Sanchez will be facing the toughest defense of his callow career and probably won't be up to taking over the game -- but neither will Boeckman. Which could make change-of-pace QB Terrelle Pryor (7) even more important, although Ohio State coach Jim Tressel seemed unwilling to throw Pryor into the fire against Ohio last Saturday. And if Pryor wasn't ready for extensive duty against the Bobcats, is he ready for the Trojans?

• Myth: USC has no big-play wide receivers (8).

That has been the knock ever since Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith left L.A. a couple of years ago. While the Trojans have lacked consistency on the outside, they aren't bereft of ability.

[+] EnlargePatrick Turner
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesUSC's Patrick Turner is dangerous in the open field.

Ohio State's receiving trio of Brian Robiskie, Brian Hartline and Ray Small has an impressive aggregate body of work: 200 career catches, 2,800 yards and 28 touchdowns. But the Trojans counter with even more wideouts capable of a game-breaking play. Four USC players have at least one 40-yard reception in their careers: Damian Williams, Ronald Johnson, Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton.

The one receiver area where USC appears outmanned is at mouth. Small, who went on a recruiting visit to USC in high school before choosing Ohio State, described the programs thusly to ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg: "Here at Ohio State, they teach you to be a better man. There, it's just all about football."

Hmm. Maurice Clarett (9) must have missed that How to be a Better Man class at Ohio State.

[+] EnlargeRey Maualuga
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesRey Maualuga patrols the middle for the Trojans.

• Myth: The nation's two studliest middle linebackers (10) will be on the field.

No, wait, that's absolute fact. If you've appreciated watching the high-impact career of Ohio State senior James Laurinaitis (111 solo tackles, 148 assists, eight interceptions, three forced fumbles), then surely you've also appreciated watching USC senior Rey Maualuga (115 solo tackles, 81 assists, three interceptions, four forced fumbles).

NFL scouts definitely will be watching those two Saturday night, as well as a pair of star outside backers in USC's Brian Cushing and Ohio State's Marcus Freeman.

Seven Solid Games On the Undercard

It's not all about Ohio State-USC this weekend. If you call yourself a college football fan but don't watch the following games, you're a disgrace to the species:

Kansas at South Florida (11), Friday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET)
What's at stake: The last shred of Big East pride, plus the Jayhawks' staying power as a national contender. As usual, Kansas has stayed home and played chumps so far -- now comes the hard part. Or at least what theoretically is the hard part against a Bulls team that barely got by Central Florida last week to stave off complete Big East embarrassment. Winner stands a good chance of getting through the first half of the season 6-0.

Wisconsin at Fresno State (12) (ESPN2, 10:30 p.m. ET)
What's at stake: BCS dreams will live on at least one more week for the winner and take a mortal blow for the loser. These are the kind of games Bulldogs coach Pat Hill lives for, taking on the establishment team. The Badgers could use the return of ace tight end Travis Beckum (hasn't played yet this year with a hamstring injury) to ward off another ugly first true road game of the year. They've averaged 14 points in those games over the past four years.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Weis
Matt Cashore/US PresswireWill Michigan have to search for excuses after facing Charlie Weis and Notre Dame?

Michigan at Notre Dame (13)
What's at stake: Hell or heaven. Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis gave Michigan some bulletin-board ammo last spring when he said, "The hell with Michigan" and predicted the Wolverines would be making excuses about their coaching transition. (Dash comment: It would be a truly boring world if coaches can't even talk a little trash to their own boosters every once in a while without it turning into some massive sign of disrespect. Please.) Both teams are badly in need of a feel-good victory, because neither could feel too giddy after scraping by last week. Michigan wheezed past Miami (Ohio) 16-6 and ranks 114th nationally in total offense. Notre Dame rallied to beat mighty San Diego State 21-13 and ranks 98th in rushing offense. Last time the two winningest programs in college football history were train-wreck bad at the same time: 1963, when Notre Dame was 2-7 and Michigan was 3-4-2. This season shouldn't get that bad, but you never know.

Georgia at South Carolina (14)
What's at stake: For the Bulldogs, national title hopes. For the Gamecocks, season-altering redemption after an ugly loss to Vanderbilt. Georgia looks much better, but know this: Steve Spurrier has upset at least one ranked team every year at South Carolina (No. 23 Tennessee and No. 12 Florida in 2005, No. 24 Clemson in '06, and No. 11 Georgia last season). For Georgia, this game begins the meat of what might be the most grueling schedule in America. Combined record of the Dogs' final 10 opponents: 16-2.

UCLA at BYU (15)
What's at stake: Credibility. The Bruins have a chance to prove they didn't simply fluke out by somehow rallying to beat Tennessee in Rick Neuheisel's debut. The Cougars have a chance to prove they're better than the highly regarded team that was unimpressive in beating Northern Iowa and flatly lucky in beating Washington. BYU's last two victories over FBS opponents have both come down to last-second blocked kicks, last week against the Huskies and last December against none other than UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl.

[+] EnlargeCurtis Painter
Sandra Dukes/IconPoints could be boiling over when Curtis Painter and Purdue host Oregon.
Oregon at Purdue (16) (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET)
What's at stake: The Ducks are trying to prove it doesn't matter who plays in their high-octane spread offense (as long as it isn't Brady Leaf). The Boilermakers are trying to prove their quarterback deserves mention among the best in the country. Oregon might have lost quarterback Dennis Dixon and running back Jonathan Stewart, but it currently has three QBs with an efficiency rating of 138 or better; eight runners averaging 5.3 yards per carry or better; and seven receivers averaging at least 11.7 yards per catch. Purdue counters with Curtis Painter, who has thrown for more than 9,000 yards in his career. Scoreboard might erupt here.

Arkansas at Texas (17) (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET)
What's at stake: Nothing like the 1969 game that helped decide the national championship, that's for sure. Razorbacks are trying to refute the suspicion that they're the worst 2-0 team in America after needing double-digit, fourth-quarter comebacks to beat Western Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe. Longhorns are trying not to be overshadowed in the Big 12 South by the early offensive orgy at Oklahoma. Both quarterbacks, Casey Dick of Arkansas and Colt McCoy of Texas, look better than they ever have. Dick has had the first two 300-yard passing games of his career to start this season, flourishing in Bobby Petrino's QB-friendly system. McCoy has thrown seven touchdowns and one interception after having 22 TDs and 18 picks last year.

Excessively Officious

When Jake Locker (18) scored and tossed the ball skyward in celebration in the closing seconds against BYU (19) Saturday, he broke the rules. Specifically, Rule 9, Section 2, Article 2c, which says a player can be flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for "throwing the ball high into the air."

[+] EnlargeJake Locker
Mike Tedesco/US PresswireJake Locker's celebration after scoring a TD on a 3-yard run with two seconds left drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

Enforcing the rule was the dumb part.

The 15-yard penalty helped lead to BYU's blocking the tying extra point, which suddenly went from a 20-yard chip shot to a 35-yard effort. It's true that the Cougars knocked a rather large hole in the Washington (20) line and might have blocked the kick had it been closer, too, but there's no doubt the trajectory of the kick was changed by the distance. And thus the outcome of the game was altered as well.

There should have been overtime. There should have been common-sense restraint from the zebras.

From the Pac-10 supervisor of officials on down, the refs are hiding behind the rulebook. They're citing the rule and basically saying their guys had no choice but to call it, and blaming the people who voted the rule into being to begin with.

But the problem here is the mindless application of the rule when the officials had to know its spirit was not being violated in a spontaneous act of sheer joy and excitement. It's akin to whistling a technical foul on a basketball coach for being six inches outside the coaching box in the final seconds of a one-point game.

[+] EnlargeSamantha Cole
George Napolitano/Getty ImagesDashette Samantha Cole would have waved off the celebration penalty on the Huskies.

They don't make that call in basketball because they know it's not the time or place to do so. The refs in this football game should have done the same thing and swallowed their whistles rather than affect the outcome of the game.

As it stands, aspiring BCS buster BYU gets a vitally important victory and Washington gets a crushing defeat that could hasten the demise of Tyrone Willingham (21). For a coach fighting for his job, losing a game that way is downright cruel.

And once again, there is nothing to celebrate about the way a Pac-10 officiating crew did its job.

But there is everything to celebrate about Dashette Samantha Cole (22), who could only be flagged for excessive hotness.

Questionable Kicks

With his team up 20 in the final 30 seconds against Miami on Saturday, Florida coach Urban Meyer (23) sent in the field-goal unit to tack on three more.

That decision reverberated through Coral Gables.

"Sometimes when you do things and people see what kind of person you really are, you turn a lot of people off," Miami coach Randy Shannon (24) said Sunday, according to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. "Take from that what you want. It helped us more than you will ever know."

Shannon intimated that Sunshine State recruits were alienated by that run-up-the-score maneuver. Meyer declined Monday to respond, or to even explain/defend his decision to add the late three. Quarterback Tim Tebow (25) didn't dodge the subject, though.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
James Lang/US PresswireUrban Meyer isn't getting a lot of applause in Coral Gables this week.

"I'll have Coach Meyer's back on anything. To say something like that about Coach Meyer isn't true at all," Tebow told the Orlando Sentinel after Monday's practice. "If you want to talk about him, you should definitely talk about a lot of other coaches than Coach Meyer. You can talk about running the score up, I don't care. They are paid to stop us; [offensive coordinator Dan] Mullen is paid to score. They don't do that, oh well."

Instead of letting his quarterback do the talking, The Dash would prefer that Meyer stand up and tell the truth himself. Something roughly like this: "We're trying to win a national title, and only a fool would think margin of victory doesn't matter. We're going to try to put points on the board whenever possible, regardless of time and score. If you don't like it, sorry."

There was plenty not to like about another field goal attempt Saturday night. Namely the one UTEP coach Mike Price ordered up for kicker Jose Martinez (25). From 65 yards.

It's one thing to try such a moon shot. It's another to apparently not prep your field goal unit to cover the thing when it inevitably comes up short. Martinez's kick landed in the hands of Texas return man Quan Cosby in the end zone, and Cosby sprinted unimpeded 65 yards with the ball after the entire Miners team stood and watched instead of running downfield.

The Dash knows this much: Price has lost eight straight and his team has surrendered at least 34 points in each of those games. Might be time to work a little more with the defense and a little less on long-distance field goals.

One-Buster Limit

It's early -- really, really early -- but there are as many as six non-BCS conference schools dreaming of busting into the elite club and playing in one of the five biggest bowls.

But unless something unprecedented happens, this won't be a two-team crashing of the big party. By BCS rules, only one outsider who finishes the year ranked in the BCS top 12 is guaranteed a spot. If more than one ranks that high, the second candidate goes into the at-large pool -- where it would have to win a bowl popularity contest with a power conference school that probably would sell more tickets and command better TV ratings.

So the following six dreamers are competing against one another as much as against the establishment schools:

East Carolina (26). The previously mentioned Skip Holtz has done brilliant work here. The Pirates have won nine of their last 11 games, including three straight over ranked opponents (No. 24 Boise State to end the 2007 season, No. 17 Virginia Tech to open this season and No. 8 West Virginia last Saturday). Their 2008 wins over the Hokies and Mountaineers have given ECU the pole position among the buster brigade in the AP poll, ranked 14th. Toughest games to come: They have a pair of road games against bad ACC teams (NC State and Virginia), then visit UCF and Southern Miss in November.

Utah (27). Speaking of programs on a roll: the No. 22 Utes have won 10 of their last 11, losing only to BYU to close the 2007 regular season. They're now huge Michigan fans, hoping the Wolverines play better the rest of the season and thus improve the value of Utah's win in Ann Arbor. Toughest games to come: Utah's only remaining BCS conference opponent is 0-2 Oregon State; toughest league games are at Air Force Sept. 20, home against TCU Nov. 6 and a potential cataclysm with BYU to close the regular season Nov. 22.

BYU. If ECU is hot and Utah is hotter, the No. 18 Cougars are hottest, riding a 12-game winning streak that is the longest in the nation. But they haven't done anything terribly impressive this year, other than blocking a key extra point. Toughest games to come: UCLA Saturday, at TCU Oct. 16, at Air Force Nov. 15 and at Utah Nov. 22.

[+] EnlargeTom Brandstater
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesTom Brandstater and Fresno State are early players in the BCS hunt.

Fresno State (28). The Bulldogs are working with 17 returning starters and have beaten the last three BCS conference opponents they've faced, including Rutgers on the road on Labor Day. Fresno didn't do anything with overwhelming force against the Scarlet Knights, but they're plus-two in turnover margin and quarterback Tom Brandstater is unlikely to get his own team beaten. Toughest games to come: Wisconsin at home Saturday, at UCLA Sept. 27, at Boise State Nov. 28.

Boise State (29). Don't sleep on the Broncos. They're replacing four-fifths of last year's offensive line and quarterback Taylor Tharp, but Boise has built its program to the point where it is almost recession-proof. New QB Kellen Moore is No. 2 nationally in pass efficiency and that remodeled O-line has paved the way for the No. 2 total offense in the country. (Admittedly, there's only been one game, against FCS Idaho State. So the stats are hardly conclusive.) Toughest games to come: Bowling Green Saturday, at Oregon Sept. 20, at Southern Miss Oct. 11, Fresno Nov. 28.

Tulsa (30). The Golden Hurricane, loaded at the skill positions and on the line, had only one pressing offensive question coming into the season: could new quarterback David Johnson adequately fill in for hugely productive Paul Smith? Two games in, Johnson leads the nation in pass efficiency and Tulsa is averaging 50.5 points per game. As long as the defense holds up, it will be hard to outscore the Hurricane. Toughest games to come: home against New Mexico Sept. 20, home against Rice Oct. 4, at Arkansas Nov. 1 and at Houston Nov. 15. The Razorbacks aren't great, but they've won the last 16 meetings with nearby Tulsa.

Literary Corner

Football fans in general and Big Ten fans in specific will love a book coming out this week, "War As They Knew It: Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, and America in a Time of Unrest." It's written by one of The Dash's favorite newspaper columnists, Michael Rosenberg (31) of the Detroit Free-Press.

Rosenberg is a very funny writer, but this book showcases his reportorial and analytical abilities. He illuminates two coaching legends beyond their two-dimensional iconography as hard-assed Midwestern football fundamentalists, and views them in the context of their tumultuous times.

Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes
AP PhotoCoaching icons Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes took different approaches during a turbulent era.

"When I started my research, I knew that Woody (32) had visited the troops in Vietnam four times, was a friend of President Nixon's and had talked to protestors on campus. I knew that Ann Arbor was a counterculture hotbed when Bo (33) arrived in 1969 and that he did not fit the town at all. These were just little nuggets, but they were enough to make me think there was a bigger story to tell about these two conservative coaching icons during one of the most tumultuous times in American history.

The story turned out to be far more compelling than I imagined. You talk about the game's passing a coach by; that happened with Woody, but more than that, the world was passing him by. He loved his country and felt it was spinning out of control. Woody saw his program as a model for society, and it killed him that society wasn't following his model. Bo, meanwhile, just wanted to keep society away from his program. He didn't care who protested on campus as long as they didn't stop practice. This is why he survived those early years in Ann Arbor. Bo could have happily coached for 20 years in Columbus. Woody would not have lasted 10 minutes in Ann Arbor.

"Bo is a mainstream, more palatable counter to Woody in the book, and Columbus is a mainstream counter to Ann Arbor. Bo was much more pragmatic, and he was willing to let his guard down and let players feel close to him. The Michigan players loved Bo; Ohio State players were in awe of Woody."

[+] EnlargeIdaho Vandals
Icon SMIThe Dash got a kick out of the placement of the Idaho logo on the Vandals' uniforms.

Wardrobe Malfunction

Pity poor Idaho (34). If you're a fan of the Vandals, you expect little and know you'll probably have to settle for less. You hire two kinds of coaches: winners destined to leave (Dennis Erickson, John L. Smith) and losers destined to be fired (too numerous to mention). You're accustomed to cashing checks in exchange for fearful beatings to balance the athletic department books. (Latest: a 70-0 loss to Arizona to open this season.)

And now this.

Now you get new uniforms, and when your players pull on their shiny britches they discover the school's "I" logo on the rear end. Not just on the rear end, but low on the rear end -- like, too low. Like, on the level where the first assumption is that someone had a most unfortunate accident.

Is it too late for a refund on the pants?

Conference That Earned Some Respect

The oft-pilloried Sun Belt (35), which is taking incremental steps toward respectability. The Belt has authored one major upset each of the first two weeks: Arkansas State (36) over Texas A&M in Week 1 and Middle Tennessee (37) over Maryland of the mighty ACC on Saturday. Significantly, neither of those teams was expected to be the best in the Sun Belt -- that was Florida Atlantic, followed by Troy.

Conference That Earned Some Disrespect

Last week the ACC was ready to fast-forward to basketball. This week it's the Big East (38) listening for the sounds of far-off dribbling. After two weeks, only South Florida and Connecticut are undefeated, and neither has been that impressive -- both needed overtime to win Saturday, the Bulls over UCF and the Huskies over Temple. On the positive side, everyone in the Big East has to feel like it has a chance now -- except, of course, Syracuse, which is moving at warp speed to get coach Greg Robinson (7-30 record) fired.

Putting Out An APB For …

… Former Ohio State offensive lineman John Hicks (39), who was so overpowering as a blocker in 1973 that he finished as the runner-up to John Capalletti for the Heisman Trophy. Hicks and the Buckeyes capped that season with an emphatic 42-21 victory over this Saturday's opponent, USC, in the Rose Bowl, and finished No. 2 in the final rankings behind Notre Dame.

Meanwhile, The Dash is happy to report that last week's APB subject, Miami quarterback Steve Walsh, is alive and well and living in Florida, where he's making appearances as a studio analyst for Sun Sports and working as a sales manager for Countrywide Home Loans. The Dash thanks the legion of Hurricanes fans who sent in APB information.

Point After

Hey, it's easy to find a place to eat and drink in Los Angeles for the Ohio State-USC game. The bigger challenge is finding just the right spot for a beer in Tampa on Friday night for the Kansas-South Florida game. Dash recommends MacDinton's (40) in the yuppie Hyde Park area of South Tampa. It's a cool indoor/outdoor place with all the requisite TVs, beer and food for enjoying the Football Experience.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.