Ohio State is the #9 team in all the land, going into a game with Penn State, a team with losses to Virginia and Ohio University. Should be a no-brainer Buckeye win, right? What a difference five games makes.
There are two Ohio State-Penn State games in the recent past that always stand out for me. The first is in 2005, when the Buckeyes brought to State College a team of almost immeasurable talent, as Chip mentioned yesterday. The result was a 17-10 loss that I (and the rest of the college football punditry thought) would be a 20+ point win. The second game, however, was in 2009, which again saw Ohio State go into Beaver Stadium to play Joe Pa's last great squad. In a game that also defied most fans and pundits, Ohio State this time came out the victors in a runaway 24-7 slug-fest that was never that close.
This game feels similar to those two games for a number of reasons. For starters, it's a night game, and Ohio State has to compete not only with the Nitanny Lions, but also with 110,000 screaming PSU fans. As far as rankings go, one team is ranked higher than the other. And like both those past games, both teams are looking to prove wrong the doubters and haters alike.
Ohio State isn't playing in a bowl game this year, and Penn State will be on the sidelines in December, too. While the Buckeyes still have Wisconsin and Michigan to look forward to, this is probably as big a game as Penn State will play all year.
Put it simply: in a game of teams with little to play for, there is certainly a lot on the line.
When Silas Redd packed up his things and headed for the Pacific Ocean this summer, a lot of people were more than ready to not only bury Penn State this year, but for the remainder of their bowl ban, and probably the decade(s?) that followed. What was coming back to play in Beaver Stadium every Saturday now? The team's best player was gone. After two losses to OU and Virginia, most probably felt justified in that assumption. But then the PSU signal caller started taking over.
Matt McGloin shouldn't be as good as he is in any way, shape, or form. But somehow, for some reason, he has asserted himself as the best true quarterback in the Big Ten. There really isn't anyway around it. McGloin leads an offense that ranks in the top-50 nationally in passing, and has had to in order to overcome their less vaunted running game. And he's looked good doing it. Given Ohio State's issues in the secondary, it is more than feasible to assume McGloin will throw for over 212 yards, which would put him over the 2,000 yard mark for the season. Yards are one thing, but the more important numbers for McGloin are his 14 touchdowns to just two interceptions. McGloin struggled with turnovers in the past; that problem seems to be under control now.
McGloin has been judicious with his spreading of the wealth to a very capable corps of receivers and tight ends. His favorite target is sophomore Allen Robinson, who broke out with three scores against Navy, and continues to be a go-to guy for McGloin. Robinson will be the primary concern for the Buckeye secondary, but McGloin has hit 14 different receiving targets this year, so the focus can't just be on Robinson. McGloin has excelled at finding targets and extending drives, so sharp play on the corners and by the safeties will be key.
When McGloin isn't tossing the rock, he's giving it off to a group of capable running backs who have stepped up in place of the transferred Redd, and the graduated Derek Moye. All in all, Head Coach (and Offensive Coordinator) Bill O'Brien has been able to make due with what he has lined up behind his quarterback. Bill Belton is listed as the starter, and is coming off a 103-yard, three TD performance against Iowa, but expect to see Zach Zwinak, with two 100+ yard performances of his own, from time to time. As if the Buckeye defense needed any other players to contend with on the ground, they must also be cognizant of that pesky McGloin, who leads the team with five rushing scores.
Where the Nittany Lions may be most vulnerable is on the offensive line, a unit that began the year with 15 starts combined. That inexperience has put McGloin on the ground a career high seven times through seven games. As noted, McGloin is doing just fine, thanks, despite the line play. The Buckeyes' front four has underwhelmed at times this year, but have been aggressive in key situations. Taking advantage of of sophomore LT Donovan Smith and inexperienced senior RT Mike Farrell could be the difference in neutralizing the Penn State offense.
Even with the news that Jordan Hall will likely don a redshirt instead of a scarlet one, Ohio State's running game has been the stalwart of the offense, particularly against Nebraska and Indiana. Penn State will have their work cut out for them stopping the likes of Carlos Hyde and whatever version of Braxton Miller takes the field on Saturday evening. The Penn State defensive line started the season with question marks, and against a stout running game like Ohio State's, they will be tested. Redshirt freshman Deion Barnes will have to grow up in a hurry on one end, and senior Sean Stanley will have to hold down the fort on the other side and try to contain El Guapo and Miller.
The other question mark on the defensive side of the ball is in the secondary, another old, but inexperienced unit for Defensive Coordinator Ted Roof. But to say they have grown up since giving up 324 yards to Ohio University is an understatement. The unit held pass-happy Northwestern to just 135 yards and no scores through the air two weeks ago, and kept Iowa under 200 yards last week, in a game that was well in hand by the fourth quarter. But Penn State hasn't seen as capable a QB-WR tandem as Miller and Devin Smith all year. If Smith can get one-on-one with sophomore Adrian Amos, that could spell yards and points for the Buckeyes.
Where there is no question about this Penn State team is the Linebacker corps. The title of "Linebacker U" has been edging closer to Columbus over the last few years, but in 2012, it is the strength of the Penn State defense. Seniors Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti have been studs all year, earning spots as 2012 Butkis Award semifinalists. They more than make up for the iffy line play, and can bail out the secondary when necessary. While Penn State hasn't seen an offense like Ohio State's, Ohio State hasn't seen a linebacker tandem like Penn State's all year.
This game poses match up issues for both teams. Ohio State has an offense that can run off the rails (Nebraska) or run into the ground (Purdue), but when they're firing on all cylinders, that dog will hunt. Penn State's LBs are as good as it gets, but they'll have their hands full, along with the rest of their compatriots. Switching things around, there's no telling what iteration of the Buckeye defense shows up, but Penn State has, consistently over the last five games, played mostly error-free ball behind a decent running game and a healthy dose of moxie behind center. Predictions around the blogosphere seem to have Penn State winning this game, while Vegas won't touch it with a ten-foot clown pole.
Like I said before, this game has a similar feel to the 2005 and 2009 OSU/PSU games, and I'm expecting a similar atmosphere tomorrow night. Penn State is trying to prove that the program can grow past the disgusting scandal that was Summer, 2012. Ohio State is trying to figure out who in the hell they are when their best player is on the sidelines waiting to get the ball back. In the end, I think it comes down to quarterback play against questionable defenses. And despite the improvements from McGloin, the Buckeyes have the better signal caller.
Holy War. In a big game, in a big stadium, on a national stage, the Buckeyes do more with Miller than the Nittany Lions do with McGloin.
Ohio State 24 - Penn State 20