This is a pretty big weekend for Big Ten play. Michigan travels to Nebraska in what will likely decide who wins the Legends Division (and let's be honest, probably the whole conference). Michigan State's dying season may have its last gasp in Madison when they take on the suddenly resurgent Badgers, and if you want to watch some non-midwestern football, well, Florida and Georgia are having some kind of party in Jacksonville. That's all fine and dandy, but the Battle Of The Banned is going to be huge, not just this season, but potentially for multiple seasons, even though neither team will be playing in December.
David Jones of the Patriot-News sets the stakes for Penn State quite well. For a squad that is likely going to be fighting for their recruiting life over the next few years, a signature win this season would be critical, and what better place to get it than against Urban's undefeated Buckeyes in your own house. This offseason, many pundits (hell, including some of us) were tripping over ourselves to give the most dire and gloomy prediction of Penn State's future. I thought they would go .500 this year (along with most of our staff), and steadily get worse. Even though their scholarship limits are severe, and the lack of immediate postseason participation is critical, Jones is correct in pointing out the division isn't exactly crawling with juggernauts.
Illinois looks like Dublin Coffman would blow them out, and it isn't clear how quickly they'll rebound. Indiana's offense is formidable, and should be for a while, but the lack of talent on the defensive side of the ball is startling. I'm not sure anybody is willing to bet Danny Hope is sticking around Purdue for the long haul, and while Wisconsin is typically strong, they aren't stocked with 4 star guys from Miami-Dade who can run a 4.4 40. Penn State still sits in a talent-rich area, and if they can show recruits that the program isn't going to hit Indiana levels, and that Bill O'Brien can develop talent, they can retain their current starters, and some of the studs they have in the 2013 class. Getting a big win over a top 10, undefeated Ohio State will go a long way towards that goal.
Even without the sanctions and implications on recruiting, Penn State is always a huge game. Ohio State leads the all-time series 15-10 (you can take away those wins NCAA, but that doesn't mean I have to forget them), but these games are nearly always close, slobbernocker affairs. I still remember the 2001 game, where OSU jumped to a 27-9 lead. Paterno then brought in freshman Zack Mills, who engineered an improbable 29-27 Penn State victory. OSU barely beat the Nitany Lions the next year, 13-7, en route to our ugly-as-hell National Title year, and pulled out a victory the next season thanks to the heroics of Granville's own Scotty McMullen. Ohio State has had the upper hand in the series since then, although Penn State did win 20-14 last season. The Nittany Lions have not beaten Ohio State two times in a row since 1978, and then in the 1980 Fiesta Bowl.
The actual football game should be compelling on its own merits. The hiccup against Purdue not withstanding, Ohio State has been able to ride big plays and a dynamic and multi-faced running attack to their 8-0 ranking. The last time the Buckeyes faced an elite rush defense on the road, they had to out-ugly Michigan State for a 1 point win. While Penn State has benefited from an easier schedule (Temple, Virgina, Illinois and Iowa are all ranked 80 or worse in team rushing), their statistics are just about equal with Michigan State. The Nittany Lions, lead by linebacker Michael Mauti, allow only 3.4 yards per carry and only 110.1 yards per game, meaning OSU is going to have to either do a better job spreading the field with their passing game, or hope that Braxton can simply out-Braxton everybody, even if he isn't totally healthy. In a hostile environment and with a sold out crowd, Urban's offense is going to face their stiffest test yet.
Even if you believe that part of the resurrection of Matt McGloin is partly smoke and mirrors, you can't deny that he's made leaps and bounds this year for the Nittany Lions, and given OSU's well documented personnel problems at linebacker, he could potentially pose another big matchup problem. McGloin is going to get the running backs and tight ends heavily involved in the passing attack, and OSU should expect to see another hearty helping of dump passes and bubble screens that have vexed them all season. McGloin is currently completing 62.5% of his passes (up from only 54% last year), and already has 14 touchdowns to only 2 picks. Penn State has also quietly scored 34 points or more in their last 3 games, and 4 out of the past 5. This isn't the same Penn State team that gave up 500 yards to Ohio, and they seem to be hitting their stride at the right time. It'll be tough for the Buckeyes.
Plus, this is the Penn State game! Some Buckeye fans don't like to acknowledge the idea that it's okay to have a rival outside of Michigan. Since Penn State joined the Big Ten, they have played the Buckeyes every year, and have consistently been one of the league's stronger programs not named Michigan or Ohio State. You don't need to play for a fancy trophy to be considered a rival (really, does anybody get that excited about Illinois? If I didn't have an xbox I would never know that IlliBuck was a thing), you just need history, and the Bucks and the Nittany Lions certainly have that. I'm aware that it's become hip to hate Wisconsin, with the recent heartbreaks and the fact that Bret Bielema looks and acts like a dude that would swallow a goldfish to get into a frat party. I'm not begrudging hating on Wisconsin. I'm just saying it's okay to get amped for this game too.
Given the institutional problems that the Penn State football program is going to be facing, and given the likely recruiting trajectory for Ohio State under Meyer, it is unlikely Penn State is going to be beating OSU many more times in the next few years. This isn't the 2015 season though, its 2012, and its being played with the guys on the rosters right now. How Penn State does on Saturday could go a long way towards determining the kind of player that wears the Blue and White for years to come.