Expect the Buckeyes‘ backfield to define the Collision at the Coliseum.
When No. 5 Ohio State and top-ranked Southern California meet Saturday night in Los Angeles, an otherwise evenly matched contest is likely to turn on Ohio State’s health and mobility at quarterback.
The first question mark facing the Buckeyes (2-0) concerns the injury status of star tailback Chris “Beanie” Wells. A 6-foot-1, 240-pound bruiser with unusual speed and agility for his frame, Wells left Ohio State’s season-opening victory over Youngstown State with an injured right foot and didn’t play in last week’s game against Ohio.
Without their feature back, the Buckeyes struggled to find an offensive identity against the Bobcats, trailing 14-12 through three quarters before rallying to a 26-14 victory.
And Thursday, Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel said it was doubtful Wells would play against the Trojans because of lingering soreness in Wells’ foot after he worked out Wednesday night.
Though the Buckeyes’ return 19 starters from the team that reached last season’s BCS title game, Ohio State’s roster lacks the collection of talent USC has. Ohio State is more blue-collar than blue-chip, more Bulldozer than Bentley.
But Wells is the exception to that rule. Last season as a sophomore, Wells gained 1,609 yards and averaged nearly 6 yards a carry. If Wells were at full speed, the Buckeyes likely would attempt the same bullish offensive strategy against the Trojans (1-0). USC features an outstanding back seven but doesn’t match up particularly well up front against the massive and experienced Ohio State offensive line.
Unfortunately for Ohio State, Wells’ hyperextended big toe may not heal in time for him to make an impact - or play at all - Saturday.
If Wells can’t carry the bulk of the Ohio State offense, who will shoulder the load?
If the Ohio game is any indication, Wells’ backups at tailback personify pedestrian. The Buckeyes feature a handful of veteran wide receivers in Brian Hartline, Brian Robiskie and Ray Small. But getting them the ball could be a problem. The Trojans counter with arguably the nation’s best secondary and pocket-crippling pressure. That’s bad news for Ohio State senior quarterback Todd Boeckman, a solid technician who barely could outrun a dumpster.
The obvious answer to Ohio State’s backfield dilemma is also perhaps the most risky: true freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor. The nation’s consensus No. 1 prep recruit has appeared in both games for the Buckeyes, logging 124 yards of total offense. And given Ohio State’s near-desperate search for playmakers in Wells’ absence, Tressel expects the 6-6, 235-pound freshman to see some action against the Trojans.
“We’ve been trying to bring him along and have him thoroughly understand the concepts of our offense,” Tressel said. “I think he’s done a great job, and we won’t hesitate at all in the right situation to bring him in. He found out quickly that the speed he learned in training camp was much different than what he experienced in high school. And the speed that he’ll see Saturday night will be much different than he’s seen in training camp. But he’s a very talented young man.”
Is Pryor talented enough to lead the Buckeyes to an upset of top-ranked USC in the first road game of his college career? With Beanie banged up, Ohio State could be about to find out.