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Showdown At The Shoe
Showdown At The Shoe
This is The Big One. There are important games still on the OSU schedule, and of course Michigan is still "The Game", but Saturday's contest against unbeaten and 3rd-ranked Penn State is arguably for the 2008 Big Ten title, and with it a chance for Ohio State to make history by being the first team ever to win three straight outright Big Ten championships. Buckeye Dan previes tonight's epic tilt with the Nittany Lions.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Penn State vs. Ohio State
Ohio Stadium, Columbus, OH
Kickoff 8:00 p.m. (EDT)
Showdown at The Shoe
This is The Big One.
There are important games still on the OSU schedule, and of course Michigan is still "The Game", but Saturday's contest against unbeaten and 3rd-ranked Penn State is arguably for the 2008 Big Ten title, and with it a chance for Ohio State to make history by being the first team ever to win three straight outright Big Ten championships. The Buckeyes can't clinch that title by winning on Saturday, but if they fall to the Nittany Lions, they might look back on this game as the night it got away from them.
For now though, first place in the conference is at stake, not to mention some national prestige, and some bragging rights for the recruiting wars. As it stands, an Ohio kid will be starting at quarterback for the Pennsylvania team, and a Pennsylvanian will be starting at QB for the Ohio school. Think the emotions might be running a little high in that matchup?
Winning a game at the Horseshoe, however, will be no small task for Joe Paterno and his Lions. Penn State has never won a game in Columbus as a member of the Big Ten Conference, and they haven't tasted victory at Ohio Stadium at all since 1978, when they won the season opener over the Buckeyes 19-0, in Art Schlicter's first game as a true freshman quarterback. For those of you keeping score at home, that's
thirty years ago!
The task will be made all the more difficult by facing a Buckeye team that appeared to finally peak last week, and doing it in front of 105,000 in Ohio Stadium, at night, on national TV.
(No, now is not the time to take stock of the Bucks' recent record in important night games on national TV...that's later)
But if Penn State can overcome tradition, OSU's home field advantage, and a Buckeye team with a lot of motivation of their own, and pull off a win, they will have earned the respect of any remaining doubters.
The Bucks lead the overall series with Penn State 12-11, by virtue of last year's 37-17 win in State College, and they are 10-5 since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten. Ohio State has won five of the last six meetings between the teams, and they are 6-1 in their last seven night games in Ohio Stadium.
Ohio State (7-1, 4-0) comes into the game ranked 9th in the BCS standings and 10th in both the USA Today Coaches Poll and the AP poll. Penn State (8-0, 4-0) is 3rd in all three rankings. Penn State is a two-point favorite in the game.
Getting to 8-0
It's reasonable to point to Penn State's non-conference opponents and say they had a bit of a cakewalk into the conference schedule. Coastal Carolina, Syracuse, and Temple are three bad teams after all, and although Oregon State upset USC, they have three losses already, and could have three more before it's over. But Penn State did what they're supposed to do against bad teams. They killed them.
The Lions beat those four teams by an average margin of 42 points. Only Illinois (38-24) and Purdue (20-6) have come within 14 points of Penn State, and although Michigan led them at the half last week, the Nittany Lions scored 32 unanswered second half points to win going away, 46-17. Much was made by OSU fans of their streak-shattering 20-17 win at Wisconsin on a last-minute TD drive. But Penn State went into Madison the following week and put a 48-7 whipping on those same Badgers.
The win at The Big House last week broke a long string of Penn State losses to UM, and if 110,000 partisans didn't faze them in Ann Arbor, 105,000 probably won't intimidate them in Columbus either. Besides, these guys play in front of more people than that at every home game. They are a well-disciplined team on both sides of the ball, and they have been relentless this season, especially in the second half of their games, when they have completely dominated their opponents.
If there's a positive for Buckeye fans in there somewhere, perhaps it's that this Penn State team has no experience playing in a game that's close at the end, though I'm not sure that's something OSU fans should be hoping to see.
Balance on Offense for PSU
The Penn State offense has put up some gaudy statistics all season long, starting with their scoring average of 45.4 points per game. Only Purdue (20-6) has held them to a total under 38 points, and they have been explosive as well, with 51 plays of 20 yards or more, in just eight games.
Teams with first-year starters at quarterback are supposed to struggle on offense, but Penn State has thrived with Youngstown Ursuline product
under center. Clark is a junior who won the job over Pennsylvania high school legend Pat Devlin in the spring, and has made the coaches look smart ever since. He has the ability to make big plays with the run and the pass, and has been relatively mistake-free so far, with just two interceptions in 180 pass attempts. Clark has completed 63.3% of those attempts for 1531 yards and 11 TD's.
With Clark providing a somewhat unexpected performance at quarterback, the Penn State offense took off, because the rest of the lineup was already loaded with talent and experience. The receiving corps for the Nittany Lions is probably the best in the conference, with
, who has become a feared return man, with three touchdowns on kick returns already in 2008.
has proven to be one of the conference's better running backs, with 893 yards rushing on just 116 carries, for an impressive 7.7 yard average, plus 10 TD's. The Lions have also introduced the other half of their one-two rushing punch for the next two years in redshirt freshman
, who has 411 yards on 70 carries, for a 5.9 yard average, with 4 TD's. Together they have led the Lions to a team rushing average of 234 yards per game. That number is perfectly complemented by the 247.5 passing yards per game for the Lions, and that balance gives you some idea why this team is 8-0.
Making it all go for the PSU offense is an offensive line that is also arguably the best unit in the conference. It starts with
at center, and features standouts
at guard and
Helping make the assembled offensive talent all the more effective are the creativity and variety that Penn State offensive coordinator Jay Paterno has woven into the Nittany Lions' offensive scheme. They use the whole field, and they stay unpredictable, with a willingness to run any play at any time, out of both the spread set and the traditional pro set offense. Clark has a strong arm, and the receivers can stretch the field. That threat will often open up the running game for draws, screens and misdirection running plays, all of which are parts of the Penn State offensive arsenal.
This will be by far the sternest test yet for the Buckeye defense. And yes, that includes USC. But the Lions have yet to play a team with a defense as big, fast and talented as the Buckeyes.
, the two OSU senior defensive captains, have been playing in peak form the last few weeks, and the Buckeyes' defensive line had their best game of the season last week in East Lansing against the Spartans. The run defense that made Javon Ringer look like an ordinary running back last week will be trying to rise to the challenge of doing the same to Evan Royster of Penn State. Another key for the OSU defense will be the pressure that the front four can put on the quarterback Clark, without letting him escape to make big gains scrambling from the pocket.
Rounding out a very complete offensive team for the Nittany Lions is their outstanding placekicker Kevin Kelly, who is 12 of 14 on field goal attempts this year, with a long of 52 yards.
Doubts on 'D'
Penn State has been able to dominate every game they have played this season, largely by winning the battle on the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. They lost projected defensive line starters
and pre-season All-American
to suspensions early in the season, but have still been able to stay solid on defense, in part due to the outstanding play of end
(11 sacks) and tackle
It is in the back seven for Penn State where the major questions still reside for the defense. They lost outstanding linebacker Sean Lee for the season to an off-season knee injury, and they are fairly inexperienced in the linebacker corps with
still learning the ropes. And the secondary will start four seniors, including the tough, heady safety
, but it remains to be seen if they are physical enough to slow down and consistently tackle
in the running game.
Michigan rushed for 202 yards last week in their loss to PSU, helping the Wolverines to grab a 17-7 lead early in that game, so the Buckeyes will try to establish the run early in this one, and attempt to grab the early lead.
will be making his sixth start for OSU this week, and in the first five he has completed 65% of his passes, throwing nine touchdowns and only three interceptions. The Buckeyes have only thrown the ball an average of 16 times in Pryor's starts though, and the Penn State defense figures to force him to go to the air considerably more than that on Saturday night.
Coach Tressel has brought the freshman along slowly and steadily over five games, gradually giving him more to do in the offense, while always stressing the priority of protecting the football above all else. As witnessed in the Purdue game two weeks ago, that strategy doesn't always make for the most exciting brand of football from a fan's perspective, but Tressel isn't in the entertainment business, after all.
So far, Pryor has responded to every challenge with competitiveness and confidence, let alone the jaw-dropping athletic ability he brings to every game. And each week Tressel seems ready and willing to unveil some new wrinkle in his offense, as the situation requires, to give the defense something they haven't yet seen on film.
Keys to a Buckeye Win
The Bucks have to continue to progress from last week's win over Michigan State, their most complete and dominant victory of the season. In large part that win was keyed by an aggressive and opportunistic defense that forced five turnovers in the game, including two fumble recoveries that swung the momentum 180 degrees in OSU's favor. That same defense has to show up Saturday night, and prove that their performance the last two weeks was part of a trend.
I think it's crucial for the Buckeyes to get an early lead, and take command of the pace of the game. Penn State is an outstanding second half team, and the Buckeyes offensive scheme doesn't lend itself to coming from behind. If the Bucks are down at the half, look out.
Equally important will be Pryor's ability to convert on some third downs in the passing game, early in the contest. Even the semblance of a downfield passing attack should do wonders to loosen up the defense for the OSU read-option running game. Until the Bucks establish that threat though, Penn State will crowd the box and concentrate on stopping Pryor and Wells.
One of the interesting story lines in the game will be the matchup between the Buckeyes' defense, which is geared to prevent the big play, and the Penn State offense, which averages more than six plays per game on which they gain 20 yards or more. OSU may have to cut that average at least in half to come out on top in this one.
I look for a tight game, with the Buckeyes probably needing at least 24 points to win it. I think they'll have enough offense to accomplish that, and the Buckeye defense will cool off the red-hot Nittany Lions enough to pull it out.
OSU Athletic Dept. Game Notes (pdf)
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