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Ohio State hosts the Aggies of New Mexico State on Saturday in Columbus in the first ever meeting between the two schools, and it's a game that should be just slightly tougher than a bye week for the Buckeyes (6-2, 4-1) as they look toward the coming Big Ten stretch run in November. OSU will be hoping just to stay (get?) healthy and build some momentum for the trip to Penn State a week from now, and Aggie head coach DeWayne Walker has to be wondering what he did to deserve this little scheduling quirk in his first season at the helm.
Two weeks ago Purdue taught these young Bucks not to look past any team on their schedule, but Jim Tressel might still be excused if he put in a little preparation for Penn State in practice this week. The Aggies are 3-5 on the season, and 1-3 in the WAC, but that record is a bit deceiving. Their three wins have all come by 3-point margins over the likes of Prairie View A&M, Utah State (2-5), and in-state rival New Mexico, a Mountain West team currently 0-7. The last two weeks have seen the Aggies planted by Louisiana Tech (45-7) and Fresno State (34-3).
New Mexico Stateis 0-2 in games against Big Ten teams, losing those games by a combined score of 111-13. The only drama on Saturday may be watching to see if the Buckeyes can record their third shutout of the season. It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that the Buckeyes' second team would probably handle NMSU, and in the second half we may get a chance to find out.
Ohio State has some injury problems plaguing them going into the game, but Coach Tressel has no plans to rest the guys who are physically ready to go...at least until after the game is in hand. In fact, he may well be wishing the opponent this week were a little more competitive than the Aggies appear to be. With Penn State, Iowa and Michigan on the slate for the next three weeks, a walkover game is not the ideal way to prepare. Still, it might help the team get a bit healthier.
Among the walking wounded for OSU are starting guard Justin Boren, who is out for this one with a foot injury, and offensive tackle Mike Adams, who has a knee injury and has reportedly undergone a procedure on it, putting him out for at least two more games. Still questionable for this week are tailback Dan Herron, who is still trying to come back from a severe ankle sprain, and starting defensive tackle Dexter Larimore, who did practice a little bit this week after missing three games, and could be a game-time decision. Tailback Brandon Saine had a mild concussion, sustained in the Minnesota game, but has been cleared to play this week.
Andrew Moses is slated to start at left guard for Boren, and once again this week Jim Cordle and Andrew Miller will share snaps at left tackle, where Adams had been playing. Freshman Jordan Hall and redshirt freshman Jermil Martin, the 3rd and 4th string tailbacks, will probably carry most of the rushing load, depending on how much the coaches allow Saine to play. Hall and Martin had a touchdown each against Minnesota, and combined for 113 yards on 17 carries. At defensive tackle, John Simon has filled in admirably for Larimore for several games, and it's hard to envision the coaches allowing Larimore more than token playing time in this one, if he plays at all.
A Match-up Problem for NMSU Offense
Coach Walker is trying to transition the Aggies' offense to a more traditional set from the spread offense left behind by Hal Mumme after three undistinguished seasons in Las Cruces. Walker's background is primarily on the defensive side of the ball (he was defensive coordinator at UCLA for three years before taking the NMSU position) and the Aggies' offense has struggled mightily so far in 2009.
No OSU opponent has had much success running the ball against the Buckeyes, so a competent passing attack is a must if a team hopes to move the chains consistently against this stingy defense. The Aggies don't have one. In fact, their average passing yardage (103.9 ypg) ranks them 117th out of 120 FBS teams, positioning them only slightly ahead of the service academies, three programs barely even trying to use the forward pass as an offensive weapon. Last week, NMSU managed 45 yards passing on 15 attempts against Fresno St. Think they might struggle against Thad Gibson, Cam Heyward, Kurt Coleman and friends?
The Aggies have two quarterbacks who have each started four games in 2009, and both should be expected to play some on Saturday. Trevor Walls, a 6' 5", 221 lb. freshman from Waverly, Ohio, has started the last three games, and is completing 51.7% of his passes, for 339 yards, with two touchdowns and five interceptions. Sophomore Jeff Fleming began the season as the starter, and his numbers are similar, with a 52.5 completion percentage (52 of 99), for 492 yards, two TD's and six interceptions.
Fleming is more of the dual-threat guy, with 140 rushing yards and two rushing TD's to his credit this year, while Walls is more of a pro-style passing quarterback. Neither, by all accounts, will remind you of Drew Brees slinging the ball around the Horseshoe on Saturday
Running the ball has been more fruitful for the Aggies this year, with junior Seth Smith (5' 9", 198) averaging 87.9 yards per game, to rank him 5th in the WAC. As a team, New Mexico St. is rushing for 150.4 yards per game, 56th in the nation. Those are respectable numbers, even when you consider they were compiled against Idaho, UTEP and Prairie View. But without a passing game to distract the Buckeyes' defense, the Aggies don't figure to make a living on the ground either.
There are a couple of talented receivers on this team in senior Marcus Anderson and sophomore Todd Lee, each of whom has 18 catches on the season. What they don't have is the kind of size that would help assure their continued well-being on Saturday. Anderson (5' 8", 166) and Lee (5' 9", 155) are holdovers from the spread offense, and they can be expected to run a lot of quick hitters and screens, even under the new system. But absorbing blows from Homan, Rolle, Hines and Coleman all afternoon could make for a long day, considering thatcombinedthey weigh about as much as your average nose tackle. There is some size on the wide receiver depth chart though, with juniors Kyle Nelson (6' 4", 232) and Marcus Allen (6' 0", 190) backing up the starters.
A Day to Fine Tune the OSU Offense
Getting through a dozen paragraphs of an OSU preview without typing the words 'Terrelle Pryor' tells you something about how much the OSU quarterback rehabilitated his 'rep' against Minnesota. A short week ago, Terrelle's Trials werethestory of Ohio State football. But the OSU offense put up 509 total yards against the Gophers, and Pryor had a solid day rushing (104 yards) and passing (239 yards, 2 TD's) to tamp down at least temporarily the calls from numbskull OSU fans to move him to tight end...or whatever.
The New Mexico State defense is better than their offense, but this week's game should still serve as an opportunity for the Buckeyes to work out some offensive kinks before the games against the other conference contenders. That project is complicated by the offensive line injuries and a banged up corps of running backs, but one hopes the pressure will be minimal as the game goes along, and the coaches should be able to do some experimenting with formations and play-calling.
The Aggie defense is led by a pair of smallish but fast defensive ends in Pierre Fils (6' 3", 230) and Donte Savage (6' 1", 229) and they could cause some problems for the Buckeye tackles with the outside pass rush. The two have combined for 12.5 tackles for loss, including ten sacks. The defense allows an average of 186 yards per game rushing, a statistic likely to increase this week.
The linebacking corps is experienced, with senior Ross Conner the leading tackler on the team with 70 stops this season. What is striking in looking at the NMSU linebackers is their overall size. Conner is 5' 10", 212 lbs, and the starter in the middle is Jason Scott at 5' 10", 207 lbs. Jamar Cotton (6' 0", 218) is the third starter at linebacker, but not one of them is even as big as the starting OSU tailback Brandon Saine. That may or may not be a factor in the game, but you have to think there will be some gross physical mismatches when the OSU offensive linemen get to the second level on running plays.
The Aggie defensive backs are...you guessed it...small, especially at safety where Stephon Hatchett (5' 8", 170) and Alphonso Powell (5' 9", 182) will be the last line of defense against Pryor and the Buckeyes. As a unit they have been statistically better against the pass than the run, but they have just five interceptions as a group and big plays of any kind have been in short supply. Unless the Bucks conspire to beat themselves with mistakes and turnovers, they should overpower this undersized defense, making the Aggies anxious to get back to playing WAC football after Saturday.
If you're wondering why this game is even on the schedule, and why this late in the season, remember that the NCAA mandated a 12-game regular season for all teams about three or four years ago. Since most teams schedule non-conference opponents at least seven or eight years out, there was a scramble to locate and schedule that 12th opponent for the '07-'09 seasons, and finding FBS schools that shared an open date on the calendar wasn't easy, and limited the possibilities. Hence games like Kent State in '07 and Troy in '08 popped up on what would otherwise have been open dates. Same deal with New Mexico State this year.
There are 120 FBS football programs in the country, sosomebodyhas to be ranked 120th in total offense....and the New Mexico State Aggies are that somebody. That's really about all you need to know to size up the challenge for Ohio State in this Halloween gathering at the Horseshoe. The Aggies have the WAC's best punt returner in Marcus Anderson, and the field goal kicker is fairly solid, so there may be a couple of opportunities for them to dent the scoreboard, but this team simply doesn't have the talent to score enough points to make it close.
The combination of wet weather and Tresselball may hold the score down somewhat, and if the Bucks have a big lead at the half, the reserves will probably see action sooner instead of later. Shutouts are hard to pull off regardless of the opponent, so I'm guessing this one at 38-3, but it could easily get uglier than that.