Fiesta Bowl Scouting Report: Ohio State

Steve Helwagen, the editor of ESPN Ohio State affiliate, provides for Inside Texas subscribers a breakdown of the Longhorns’ Jan. 5th opponent in the 2009 Fiesta Bowl.

With 18 starters back from the 2007 team that played LSU in the national championship game, Ohio State was ranked No. 3 to start the 2008 season. The Buckeyes opened 2-0 with wins over Division I-AA Youngstown State and Ohio U. The YSU game with a heavy price as junior tailback Chris “Beanie” Wells, a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, went down with a foot injury.

OSU’s national championship hopes went by the boards with a 35-3 loss at then-No. 1 Southern California in Week 3. OSU coach Jim Tressel, going to his sixth BCS bowl in his eighth year with the Buckeyes, opted after that defeat to switch quarterbacks with fifth-year senior and co-captain Todd Boeckman going to the bench in favor of highly-touted freshman Terrelle Pryor.

Pryor took the ball and ran with it, leading OSU to an 8-1 mark as the starter. Wells returned to action and — with the help of one of the country’s top defenses — the Buckeyes finished the regular season ranked 10th nationally at 10-2 overall. OSU tied Penn State for the Big Ten championship at 7-1 in conference play.

The Buckeyes began to hit their stride in October with a heartstopping 20-17 win at Wisconsin, where Pryor guided the team to a late scoring drive. Perhaps their most impressive performance came in a 45-7 rout at then-No. 20 Michigan State. Wells rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns, while Pryor threw for 116 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 72 yards and a score. The defense scored twice in that game.

But the loss to Penn State came next on Oct. 25 at home. OSU was nursing a 6-3 lead in the fourth quarter when Pryor fumbled the ball and PSU recovered. The Lions punched that miscue into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown and added a field goal for a 13-6 lead. Pryor then threw an interception in the closing seconds to seal it.

The Buckeyes had an open week next, giving them two weeks to stew over the loss. They rebounded in a big way by blasting No. 25 Northwestern 45-10 in Evanston, defeating Illinois 30-20 in Champaign and crushing rival Michigan 42-7 at home to end the year.

Wells came up big down the stretch with 417 yards rushing and four touchdowns in those last three wins. When Iowa upset Penn State, it opened the door for the Buckeyes to get a share of their fourth straight Big Ten title. The win over Michigan was OSU’s fifth in a row, marking the first time OSU has ever defeated UM in five straight years.

The postseason awards poured in. Pryor was named the Big Ten freshman of the year, while middle linebacker James Laurinaitis was named the Big Ten defensive player of the year.

Laurinaitis was joined on the All-Big Ten first team by cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and offensive lineman Alex Boone. Laurinaitis and Jenkins were also named first-team All-Americans by the American Football Coaches Association. Laurinaitis, the reigning Butkus Award winner from 2007, is a finalist for the Bednarik Award, the Lombardi Award and the Lott Award. Jenkins is a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.

Pryor ended the year tops in the Big Ten in passing efficiency. He completed 95 of 152 passes (62.5 percent) for 1,245 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. He also rushed for 553 yards and six touchdowns.

The 6-2, 235-pound Wells went over the 1,000-yard mark for the second consecutive year with 1,091 yards with eight touchdowns on 191 carries (5.7 yards per attempt). He stands fourth on the school’s all-time rushing list with 3,279 yards, trailing only Archie Griffin, Eddie George and Tim Spencer.

The leading receivers are senior Brian Robiskie (37 catches, 419 yards, Big Ten-high eight TD catches) and junior Brian Hartline (21 catches, 479 yards, four TDs).

In terms of special team, punter A.J. Trapasso, kickers Ryan Pretorius and Aaron Pettrey and punt returner Ray Small are all among the Big Ten’s best at their positions.

Statiscally, Ohio State has several strong national rankings, including scoring defense (seventh nationally at 13.1 points per game), rushing defense (23rd nationally at 114.9 ypg), pass defense (seventh nationally at 164.3 ypg) and total defense (10th nationally at 279.2 ypg).

The Ohio State seniors, a group of 28 players (including walk-ons), boast a four-year record of 43-7. That ties them for the most wins in school history in a four-year period. They can set a new mark with a win over Texas in the Fiesta Bowl.

Since the 2005 season, OSU’s seven losses have all been to teams that played in BCS bowls in that season. They include Texas and Penn State in 2005, Florida in 2006, Illinois and LSU in 2007 and USC and Penn State this season. Three of those teams won national titles (Texas in 2005 and Florida and LSU the last two years with wins over OSU in the national title game).

The Buckeyes join USC and Oklahoma as the only college programs to appear in seven BCS games in the 11 years of the format. This will also be OSU’s fifth bowl bid to the Phoenix area in seven years.

In terms of how this match-up might go, the Buckeyes have to hope their stingy defense can contain Texas’ explosive offense. If OSU can slow up the Longhorns just a bit, that could give the Buckeyes an opening to steal the win. OSU did not excel at quarterback sacks, ranking seventh in the Big Ten with 24 on the year. If the Buckeyes can’t get pressure on Texas QB Colt McCoy (as they were able to in the teams’ 2006 game, won by OSU 24-7), then he could be poised to pick them apart.

That is precisely what happened at USC, where OSU had more roughing-the-passer penalties (two) than it had sacks (one). QB Mark Sanchez lit them up for 172 yards and four touchdowns in that rout.

Likewise, Ohio State will almost certainly try and pound the battering ram Wells at Texas. He is most effective when he can get close to 25 carries. It may seem like he is only getting 3 or 4 yards a carry, but eventually – as LSU found out in the title game last year – he can and will hit the home run and go for a long score.

Pryor has been strong in a caretaker role with the offense, minimizing mistakes and taking yards where he can find them. He only averaged 15 pass attempts in the nine games he started, though, so it will be interesting to see if Tressel turns him loose against Texas’ secondary. He can also be deadly running the football. He and Wells each eclipsed the 100-yard mark against Illinois.

This should be one heck of a game and Ohio State, certainly, will be motivated to put the embarrassment of its last two BCS bowl losses behind it by upsetting Texas on Jan. 5.

Steve Helwagen is the editor of, ESPN’s Ohio State affiliate website.