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Published: Friday, 9/12/2008

USC, OSU defensive leaders will play key roles

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

LOS ANGELES - A large outdoor amphitheater has long been an ideal place to stage an epic battle between gladiators. It worked for the Roman Empire, and it will work for two of the elite teams in college football tomorrow night.

The Los Angeles Coliseum is where No. 1 Southern California and No. 5 Ohio State will play the most-hyped nonconference game of the season. The winner locks in the first solid nomination for the national championship. The loser will have to bandage its wounds, and then pursue lesser crowns.

The fortunes of both USC and Ohio State will likely hinge on a number of individuals, but none will play a bigger role on the defensive side than the linebackers. Two of the best in all the land will strap on their armor and engage in battle in this historic arena, which has hosted the Pope, Billy Graham, two Olympiads, two Super Bowls, Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones.

Ohio State's James Laurinaitis is a returning All-American, and a recipient of both the Butkus Award and Nagurski Award - the champion's belts of the linebacker division. Southern California's Rey Maualuga is the primary challenger to the status of Laurinaitis as the premium player at the position.

"He plays with all the passion and enthusiasm," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said about Maualuga, using the precise words he has attached to Laurinaitis many times. "He always has his hips flipped the right way. When he brings it, he brings it."

Tressel said Maualuga, a two-time All-Pac-10 first-teamer who is USC's starting middle linebacker for the third season, is a significant presence on the field, and one of those playmakers who continually stands out on game films.

"He'll hit you now, and you'll go backwards," Tressel said. "I guess I don't look at it as scary, because I don't have the ball, but he's a good one."

Tressel said he sees many common traits in Laurinaitis and Maualuga, who both led their teams in tackles in 2007, and both were named to preseason All-American teams this year.

"They're big and strong, and very disciplined. They bring it when they blitz and they bring it when they tackle you, and I think they're both emotional leaders in their own way," Tressel said, adding that the two teams have considerable strength at the position.

"They're not the only good linebackers you're going to see in that game. There's a lot of good players at a lot of positions that we're going to see in that game, but No. 58 [Maualuga] shows up."

That is exactly what Maualuga intends to do - stand out on the game films the USC opposition reviews.

"I want to become the player that the offense game plans around, that the offense fears coming into the game," Maualuga said.

USC coach Pete Carroll put Laurinaitis in that select category among college football's participants.

"Laurinaitis can do anything," Carroll said. "He's an extraordinary player."

Laurinaitis and Maualuga are both strengthened by their primary accomplices - Marcus Freeman at Ohio State and Brian Cushing for USC. Carroll said the Trojans won't overlook Freeman as they prepare to deal with Laurinaitis.

"Ohio State's linebackers are really good - with a little different style than ours," he said. "They're quick, agile, athletic, featured in their scheme. They pressure a lot. They put them in positions a lot to make big things happen, and they do it."

USC's Cushing, like Freeman, has the curse of playing alongside a great one, of being the

No. 2 guy in the rotation behind Kofax, or the guy playing the other forward with LeBron.

Carroll said Maualuga and Cushing are cut from the same mold as previous USC standout linebackers. Maualuga had three sacks and an interception as the Trojans roughed up Illinois in last January's Rose Bowl, earning him the defensive player of the game award. Cushing took the same honor the year before.

"Our guys are really classic linebackers, in their attitude, and their approach," he said. "They're physical, they're tough. They run well. They love the game. They're really good all around athletes that can make plays in space and can make plays in tight areas. They bring it."

Laurinaitis said he had a chance to meet both Maualuga and Cushing earlier this year, and in person they confirmed the regard he had for them as players.

"They're great guys, and I have a lot of respect for them," Laurinaitis said. "I watch them on film see why they are up for those awards. They play with a lot of passion, and a lot of energy, and they always seem to be in the right place to make a play."

Laurinaitis said he didn't want to see the focus of this showdown placed on him and Maualuga, since they are just two of the many players who will figure in the outcome. But a comment from former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz might give OSU fans considerable trepidation about Maualuga, comparing him to an Ohio State All-American who preceded Laurinaitis as the menace in the middle.

"He's the next great Trojans linebacker - very physical,

always lining up big hits," Holtz said about Maualuga. "He

reminds me of A.J. Hawk.

Maualuga's athletic ability is similar to Hawk's, but the infectiousness of his free spirit makes him even more valuable to his team."

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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