Instant Analysis: Ohio State-USC

Staff Columnist
Posted Sep 13, 2008

The biggest game of the 2008 college football season looked and felt a lot like the last game of the 2007 college football season. It won't take much effort to connect the dots, just as it didn't take USC much effort to stroll past Ohio State on Saturday night in Los Angeles.

Go back to the Louisiana Superdome, and remember the 2008 BCS title game between the Buckeyes and the LSU Tigers in early January. A series of events in the second quarter told the tale in that tilt. Allow yourself to travel back in time, and remember how one big game got away from Jim Tressel's team.

Recall how, on that night in New Orleans, OSU quarterback Todd Boeckman threw a beautiful ball to the left side of the end zone, a pass that should have resulted in a touchdown. Recall how OSU receiver Brian Robiskie dropped the pass. Recall how LSU blocked an Ohio State field goal on the very next play. Recall how the Tigers established a psychological chokehold on the contest at that point in time. Recall how LSU dominated after that turning-point moment when the Buckeyes blew a great chance for a momentum-shifting stack of seven points. Ohio State was well prepared against LSU. Jim Tressel had a solid plan that bore fruit early on, and his players came out of the box with considerable emotion, despite the worries of the Ohio State fan base.

Now, leave the time traveling behind and come back to this Saturday night in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Pray tell, how did this game turn so sharply in USC's favor?

Sure enough, Ohio State's death-dealing dose of déjà vu came in the second quarter, just like the LSU game. Boeckman threw a beautiful ball to the left side of the end zone, just like the LSU game. The Buckeyes should have had a momentum-shifting touchdown, just like the LSU game. But because of a mistake—this time a holding penalty and not a dropped pass—Ohio State failed to slap an extra seven on the scoreboard, just like the LSU game. And right after that nullified score, another Buckeye field goal attempt went awry… yes, just like the LSU game. Instead of feeling good about themselves in a close contest in which they were the underdog, the Buckeyes—being human and youthful, as college athletes unavoidably are—let down their guard emotionally… yes, just like the LSU game.

Jim Tressel had his team prepared to play USC (yes, just like the LSU game). Mister Sweater Vest had a plan that bore fruit early (yes, just like the LSU game). A rotation system in which Boeckman and Terrell Pryor alternated snaps (no, not like the LSU game, for once) clearly kept USC's defense off balance in the game's first 20 minutes. Had the Bucks been able to get that touchdown they missed in the second quarter, a 14-10 tally would have given Ohio State ample reason to believe it could compete with the Trojans, who were evidently rusty and still settling into their season on Saturday. The defending Big Ten champions came out of the gate with a boatload of emotion (yes, just like the LSU game), but when they encountered a moment of crushing disappointment in that significant second stanza, they lost the will needed to stay with the Trojans for four full quarters (yep, just like the LSU game).

And so it went: In yet another big game, one short but devastating sequence took a sky-high Ohio State team and sent it into a severe downward spiral from which it could never emotionally recover. This is the nature of big games in any sport, but especially in the psychologically fragile world of big-time college football.

USC, truth be told, didn't play an incredible game, but one needs to remember that in mid-September showdowns such as this one, merely being solid—avoiding the huge mistake or the untimely loss of nerve—is usually enough to succeed and prevail. While the Buckeyes made mistakes they absolutely couldn't afford to make, the Trojan Empire of College Football committed penalties and coughed up turnovers when it had already established a double-digit lead. USC had the bigger margin for error in this game, so when Ohio State short-circuited in that pivotal second quarter, the Trojans only had to play hard—without gimmicks, gadgets or exotics—to close the deal. Being the best program in college football over the past six seasons, the Trojans, naturally, were up to that kind of task.

More will be learned about each of these teams as they progress through the 2008 season, but for now, simply remember that Ohio State has to watch out for the second quarters of heavily-hyped ballgames in which Todd Boeckman throws a beautiful pass to the left side of the end zone. Against LSU in January and against USC on Saturday night, the Buckeyes lost control of a tight tussle after blowing a golden opportunity for a crucial game-changing touchdown… and then biffing the field goal afterwards.

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