Who Needs Warmup? Nation’s Top Two Square Off in Week 2
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College football’s strong early season schedule gets even stronger this weekend with the first no. 1 vs. no. 2 regular-season matchup in a decade and an important test for Notre Dame, plus a chance for Rutgers to prove its season-opening win was no fluke. Here’s a look at Saturday’s key games:
NO. 1 OHIO STATE (1-0) AT NO.2 TEXAS (1-0)
(Saturday, 3:30 p.m., NBC)
If last year’s meeting between these teams in Columbus was highly anticipated, this one is off the charts. It’s the first regular-season game between the top two teams in the AP poll since Florida vs. Florida State in 1996. Texas won a nail-biter last season thanks to some late-game heroics from Vince Young, a fitting prelude to the Longhorns’ Rose Bowl win over USC.
But Young is now wearing a Tennessee Titans jersey. His replacement, Colt McCoy, looked just fine in his debut against North Texas, but that experience won’t necessarily prepare him to face an Ohio State defense that is green (nine new starters) but loaded with NFL-caliber talent.
On defense, Texas has an additional problem. Not only do the Longhorns have to contend with Buckeyes quarterback Troy Smith, who does a pretty passable imitation of Young, but they must do so without suspended cornerback Tarell Brown. Arrested earlier this week on drug and weapons charges, Brown would have drawn the assignment of guarding explosive receiver Ted Ginn. In an evenly matched contest, that absence could prove decisive.
To emerge from Austin with its no. 1 ranking intact, Ohio State will have to overcome not only a raucous environment, but also the heat and humidity of late-summer in Texas, where temperatures could reach the mid-90s Saturday. Whichever team emerges victorious from this contest will likely have a stranglehold on the top spot in the polls and the inside track to the BCS title game in January.
ILLINOIS (1-0) AT RUTGERS (1-0)
(Saturday, 12:00 p.m., ESPN2)
Rutgers ground out a victory — literally — in its opener at North Carolina on the strength of a 201-yard rushing day by sophomore tailback Ray Rice and some opportunistic play by its defense. Now the Scarlet Knights welcome Illinois in their home opener, with a chance to avenge last year’s stunning collapse against the Illini. With Ohio and Howard next on the schedule, opening the season 4–0 is a distinct possibility for Greg Schiano’s team that is trying to build on last year’s bowl season.
Senior fullback Brian Leonard was supposed to be the star in Rutgers’s backfield, but with North Carolina’s defense set up to stop him, Rice seized the opportunity to gash the Tar Heels for three touchdowns. New full-time starting quarterback Mike Teel delivered some timely throws as the Rutgers offense had little trouble moving the ball against a decent North Carolina defense. Illinois’s defense is not that stout, and Rutgers should again be able to put points on the board.
Illinois also ran the ball well in its opener — a rout of Eastern Illinois — but is stepping up in competition this weekend. Rutgers proved against North Carolina that it has playmakers on defense, stuffing the Tar Heels on a fourth-and-goal play and coming up with a game-clinching interception in the final minutes.
NO. 19 PENN STATE (1-0) AT NO. 4 NOTRE DAME (1-0)
(Saturday, 3:30 p.m., NBC)
Coming off a tougher-than-expected 14–10 win at Georgia Tech, Notre Dame is a heavy favorite in its home-opener against Penn State. The Nittany Lions were one of last season’s surprise teams but have been largely written off as a contender this season due to the departure of several key players, such as starting quarterback Michael Robinson. A win in South Bend would put Penn State right back on the list of national-title contenders.
The Irish bore little resemblance to title-contenders in a miserable first half against Georgia Tech. Potential Heisman quarterback Brady Quinn was hit repeatedly as the offensive line struggled with Tech’s aggressive defensive scheme. Notre Dame made some terrific adjustments at halftime, and a better-protected Quinn led the Irish to a come-from-behind win in the second half.
Penn State and linebacker Paul Posluszny were surely taking notes. Expect Posluszny, perhaps the nation’s best at his position, to blitz with regularity as Penn State tries to knock Quinn off his rhythm.
The best news for Notre Dame coming out of their first game was the performance of its defense that shut down Georgia Tech. The unit will get a much sterner test against Penn State, whose highly recruited quarterback, Anthony Morelli, now has a start under his belt. If Morelli is not intimidated by playing in front of Touchdown Jesus — and if his running game contributes more than the 76 yards it managed against Akron — the Nittany Lions have a good chance to go 2–0.
NO. 24 TEXAS TECH (1-0) AT UTEP (1-0)
(Saturday, 9:00 p.m., CSTV)
Texas-Ohio State may be the game in the Lone Star State Saturday night, but it’s not the only one. In El Paso, two of the nation’s most explosive offenses meet in what will likely be a high-scoring shootout.
Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, who has been profiled by “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis for his innovative approach to offensive football, is seeking validation for his wide-open attack. Though such a stamp of approval won’t come until the Red Raiders knock off one of the Big 12 heavyweights, UTEP still presents a formidable foe. Their coach, Mike Price, has his own goal: redemption. Fired by Alabama before ever coaching a game, Price returned as head coach at down-and-out UTEP and quickly built a Conference-USA contender. A win over Texas Tech would pique the interest of BCS-conference schools that will be looking for new coaches in the coming year.
UTEP’s Jordan Palmer, the younger brother of former Heisman-winner Carson, has his brother’s big arm but also a penchant for throwing interceptions. He’ll have to take better care of the ball against the Red Raiders’ aggressive and opportunistic defense, which held SMU to just 189 yards last week. Leach’s newest plug-and-play quarterback is Graham Harrell, who threw five scoring passes in his debut.He is the latest in a long line of signal callers to post eye-popping numbers in Leach’s offense. If Harrell takes care of the ball and Palmer doesn’t, Tech should have little trouble dispatching the Miners.
Mr. Levine is a writer for FootballOutsiders.com.