The eyes of college football settle on the two great traditional locales of the Big Ten this Saturday. The league has taken a PR beating the past three seasons and further struggles this past weekend only heightened those. Even fans of Big Ten football, like this writer, find it impossible to argue the league is in a class with the Big 12 or SEC right now, and the Pac-10 may be passing them in the night as well. But Michigan and Ohio State have a chance to start fixing those problems on Saturday in the day’s two focal point games.
It starts at 3:30 ET on ABC, when Notre Dame goes into the Big House at Ann Arbor. In looking at these two programs, I honestly can’t remember the last time either one of them played really good defense in a truly big game. It’s not that they haven’t had their moments over the past few years—Notre Dame’s near-miss against USC in 2005, when only Reggie Bush’ s illegal push near the goal line got the Trojans out of South Bend alive. Or Michigan’s big win in the Capital One Bowl over Florida in the finale of Lloyd Carr’s career in 2007. But even the high points these programs have had lately have been in shootouts.
Jimmy Clausen gives Notre Dame the advantage if this turns into a fastbreak affair. Michigan got good play out of its freshman quarterbacks last week, but I don’t see either one of them being prepared to win a 41-38 kind of game. Clausen has the talent to win that kind of game and his supporting cast is also up to the task. He’s got a veteran offensive line, he’s got Armando Allen to give him some help in the running game and Michael Floyd stepped up with a big game at receiver. Tate Forcier doesn’t have comparable weapons.
But that only applies if this becomes a wild game. What if it’s a game that’s in the 27-24 range? This becomes much more doable for Michigan, particularly if picking up key first downs on the ground becomes a factor. I think ND’s running game is fine as support, but if Clausen gets slowed down, I don’t think the Irish can do it on the ground. Michigan, on the other hand is a different story. They established the running attack against Western Michigan, and given ND’s weak performance in the trenches the past few years, I’m not ready to buy that this is a huge step up in class for the Wolverine’s vet offensive line and talented senior back Brandon Minor.
What I think this game ultimately comes down to is whether Forcier can avoid turning the ball over. And I believe his inexperience does him in this one, and Clausen pulls it out for ND. Whatever way it falls, this should be a very close game.
Nowhere is the Big Ten’s test more severe than in ABC’s prime-time showcase of USC-Ohio State at the Shoe. The Buckeyes have become a symbol of conference incompetence against the nation’s elite, and USC’s now ritual trashings of Big Ten teams in the Rose Bowl has only buttressed that notion. When the Bucks struggled to get past Navy last week, it gave rise to the question of exactly how bad the Trojans would beat them. There were some, such as ESPN’s Lou Holtz, who argued that Ohio State would improve, given the propensity of teams to make their biggest improvement in their second game. But that cuts both ways, and USC is also playing its second game.
That doesn’t mean all is lost for OSU. As I argued in the postmortem on their Navy escape (two posts down), it’s risky to read too much into a game like that. Because Navy runs the wishbone and the difficulty it is to prepare for that, a struggle with them doesn’t automatically translate into a bigger struggle against a better team that runs a completely different system. Further tack on that I’m sure Jim Tressel’s team couldn’t help but look ahead. I expect a much better Buckeye team to be on the field Saturday night. This will represent a significant test for an inexperienced USC defense. They have to be sure and keep Terrelle Pryor in the pocket. And they have to stop Daniel Herron in the running game. Keep in mind that Pryor and Herron both played well in last year’s narrow Fiesta Bowl loss to Texas, and that was a defense better than the one they will face on Saturday night.
Pete Carroll’s freshman quarterback Matt Barkley will also face a big test. Barkley did a good job in his debut against San Jose State, letting his teammates carry the load in a 56-3 coasting. How will he react if Ohio State can get an early lead and force him to throw? The key question in this game is if the Buckeyes can get him in precisely that spot. Can they get out to an early lead and force the freshman into mistakes? The betting here says that buoyed by the strong crowd and motivated by the media bashing they’ve rather unjustly taken over the past few years, Ohio State comes out ready and wins a game in the 27-17 kind of neighborhood.
There’s one other game that deserves showcase treatment. For those that don’t want to watch USC-Ohio State at night, you can flip over to ESPN2 and catch a big SEC East showdown game between South Carolina and Georgia. The Gamecocks certainly caught my attention with their defensive shutdown of N.C. State on Opening Night last Thursday. The Bulldogs lost at Oklahoma State, but I thought senior quarterback Joe Cox played pretty well. Can the South Carolina defense turn in another gem and force Cox into some turnovers? If not, they have problems, because the Dawg offensive line is good enough to control this game on the ground. Neither team has the weapons to run with Florida in the Eastern Division, but Georgia is a team with BCS hopes and beating South Carolina is an absolute must. The call here is that they force sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia into mistakes, get a lead and pull away easily, as Cox manages the game and the ground attack controls it.
We’ll see you back here on Sunday night when the post-mortems on Week 2 will begin