COLUMBUS – Dan “Boom” Herron can’t remember much about his first career start at tailback for Ohio State in the huge showdown at Southern California last year.
He can’t recall specific plays, touchdowns or tackles, but he does remember the score: a 35-3 bruise on the Buckeyes’ national reputation.
“The score was ugly and that’s something that we need to fix this year,” he said.
A year of waiting for the rematch concludes tonight when the third-ranked Trojans visit the No. 8 Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium before what surely will be a rocking, revenge-minded crowd of more than 106,000.
The Trojans have beaten the Buckeyes six times in a row, including three times in Rose Bowls. With a true freshman quarterback and several starters who have never played such a pivotal role in a big game, one of USC coach Pete Carroll’s concerns is the crowd.
“The difference in this game is really the noise,” he said. “We have to keep it in the right perspective and make sure we take our ability to play well into the setting. If we do that, like we’ve done in other years, then we’ll have a chance to win. If we don’t, we’ll get hammered.”
The Trojans, a touchdown favorite, have a talented offensive line, a dizzying array of quality running backs, receivers who seemingly can leap buildings in a single bound – and 19-year-old Matt Barkley at quarterback. Months removed from his senior prom, Barkley acknowledged he was a little shell-shocked at the outset of last week’s opener against San Jose State. But he got comfortable in a hurry and had a big day in a 56-3 rout.
The noise, the rabid fans, a national television audience and a Buckeyes team still smarting from last year’s pasting should combine to help Ohio State. At least that’s what coach Jim Tressel is hoping.
“We need all the help we can get from the folks being nice and loud,” he said. “We were thinking about imposing a curfew for all the fans all week long so they come with a lot of energy and be louder than they’ve ever been in their entire lives.”
It’s not so much last year’s loss that haunts the Buckeyes, it’s the margin. To them, it’s as if every newspaper columnist, TV analyst, blogger, Web site and Twitter account in the land has taken shots at the Ohio State program for failures in big games over the past three years.
Their best chance to stop all that snickering? Beat USC.
“I don’t think there are any guys who were on the team last year who don’t think about that every once in a while, going to Southern Cal and getting your butts whipped,” tight end Jake Ballard said. “It’s definitely one of the most embarrassing things that have happened to me. Now it’s taking that and saying, ‘OK, I’m going to do my best and not let that happen this year.”‘
USC had last year’s game in hand by halftime, leading 21-3 after linebacker Rey Maualuga returned an interception 48 yards for a score. But he’s in the NFL, along with quarterback Mark Sanchez – who tossed four TD passes. The Trojans still have plenty of big-play guys around, including tailback Joe McKnight, wide receiver Damian Williams and fullback Stanley Havili.
“They have an excellent knack of coming up with what we call explosive gains,” Tressel said. “They might go a couple plays and it’s business as usual and then, boom, all of a sudden it’s a 17-yarder.”
The USC defense lost most of its big names from a year ago – something that also can be said of Ohio State – but no one is feeling sorry for the Trojans. There’s no dearth of talent with stars such as Taylor Mays at safety.
A lot depends on whether McKnight and Co. gobble up yards like they did the last time the teams met, thus giving Barkley the time and room to pick and choose his receivers.
Ohio State’s hopes hinge on a young quarterback as well. Terrelle Pryor saw limited playing time a year ago against USC as a freshman backing up Todd Boeckman. Now he’s the acknowledged leader of Ohio State’s offense, being handed the job the week after the USC debacle. At 6-foot-6, he is big enough to bowl over a tackler, but he has tantalizing speed for someone who weighs 235 pounds.
The Buckeyes are hoping his ability to escape the pocket can keep the USC defense honest and limit blitzes. Pryor has yet to have a big passing game, so if the Buckeyes should fall behind early it’s likely the Trojans will come after him when he looks to throw.
“I don’t feel the pressure,” Pryor said after the Buckeyes’ narrow 31-27 win over Navy last week. “Coming into (the USC game) we’re looking forward to the chance to show what we can do.”
High-profile losses in national title games after the 2006 (Florida) and 2007 (LSU) seasons, and defeats to USC, Penn State and Texas a year ago have led many to rank Ohio State’s program a notch or two below the elite teams in the nation.
“No one thinks that Ohio State can win the big one right now,” Herron said.
Ballard said all the negativity was motivated the Buckeyes the past 12 months.
“This could determine who’s going to the national championship and who doesn’t. If you lose this game you have no chance,” he said. “It’s do or die right here.”
• WHO: No. 8 Ohio State vs. No. 3 USC
• TIME: 8 o’clock
• WHERE: Ohio Stadium, Columbus
• TV/RADIO: ESPN; WEOL 930-AM, WKNR 850-AM