Will USC offensive line lose some of its sizzle?
Mark Sanchez had all the time in the world.
When USC’s quarterback dropped back to pass in the season opener, Virginia defenders barely touched him. Several times Sanchez stood leisurely in the pocket, double- or triple-pumping before finding receivers.
“It was like we were grilling steaks back there,” Sanchez said.
The 52-7 rout over Virginia might have been a picnic, but USC offensive line coach Pat Ruel isn’t planning to fire up the Weber or make any homemade barbecue sauce with Ohio State coming to the Coliseum on Saturday.
A sluggish victory over Ohio dropped Ohio State from third to fifth in the polls, but the Buckeyes’ experienced front seven was not the issue and presents far different problems than what Virginia offered.
Ruel fully expects the Buckeyes to pressure Sanchez, who passed for 338 yards and three touchdowns in the opener.
“I’m not buying those steaks right now,” Ruel joked. “It’s got to be something you can microwave.”
Trojans linemen, buoyed by their Game 1 performance, say they will be ready for the heat.
The offensive line knows it was USC’s biggest question mark entering the season. Senior left guard Jeff Byers was the only returning starter in a group that includes center Kristofer O’Dowd, right guard Zack Heberer, right tackle Butch Lewis and left tackle Charles Brown.
The unit sparkled in the opener, communicating effectively and not allowing a sack against Virginia’s 3-4 scheme. Linemen also led the way for a 218-yard rushing effort.
“We knew we were going to come together,” Brown said.
Others were less certain.
The performance surprised linebacker Rey Maualuga, one of several USC defenders who dominated the linemen throughout most of training camp.
“I had told [Sanchez], ‘Hey, watch out, you know, you’re going to get sacked a few times,’ ” Maualuga said. “They fooled me; they did a great job.”
The line is being counted on to do the same against a Buckeyes defense that recorded two sacks against Youngstown State and one against Ohio.
Like USC, Ohio State plays a 4-3 defense. The Buckeyes lost end Vernon Gholston, a first-round draft pick by the New York Jets, but they still feature most of the front seven that helped them reach the Bowl Championship Series title game last season for the second year in a row.
Ends Lawrence Wilson (6 feet 4, 274 pounds) and Cameron Heyward (6-6, 287) and tackles Nader Abdallah (6-4, 300) and Todd Denlinger (6-2, 292) present an entirely different look than Virginia, a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Byers anticipates typical Big Ten smash-mouth style from the Buckeyes.
“They get big guys and they pound each other, that’s what they do in the Big Ten,” Byers said.
Like USC, Ohio State features outstanding linebackers. James Laurinaitis is in the middle flanked by Marcus Freeman and Ross Homan.
Ohio State intercepted four passes and recovered a fumble against Ohio. Co-defensive coordinators Jim Heacock and Luke Fickell are expected to turn the defense loose against Sanchez, who only a month ago suffered a dislocated left kneecap in practice.
“They’re not just going to let Mark sit back there and pick them apart,” USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said.
USC linemen say they have studied video of the Buckeyes, picking up on individual and group tendencies. What they see in the film room is not all that different from what they encounter on the practice field.
“You can just tell off their moves and the tempo they play at,” Lewis said. “They’re very similar to our defense.”
With an open date last week, USC coaches spent some of their practice time giving the offensive linemen an early look at what they will encounter against the Buckeyes. The extra workouts also provided developmental snaps for younger players who might be called upon as the season progresses.
At this point, however, no one is prepared to mint the offensive line. Ruel pointed out that the Trojans handled a Virginia defense that had lost several key players, most notably end Chris Long, the second overall pick in the NFL draft.
So, keep the lid on that grill.
“We haven’t proven anything to anybody yet,” Ruel said. “How good are we? We’ll find out in the next four or five weeks.”