Penn State gave Joe Paterno his 400th career victory the hard way last week.
The Nittany Lions trailed Northwestern, with Bethlehem Liberty quarterback Dan Persa directing the Wildcats' attack, 21-0, only to rally for a 35-21 triumph at Beaver Stadium.
The win was the third in a row for Penn State, and at 6-3 (3-2 Big Ten), the Lions are once again bowl-eligible for the 37th time under Paterno's tutelage. There are seven Big Ten teams now bowl-eligible, so how the Lions fare the next three weeks will determine where they will be bowling.
In fact, this afternoon's clash in Columbus with Ohio State can be considered the Border War Bowl, so to speak. The game has a 3:36 p.m. kickoff and will be televised by ABC/ESPN. The ESPN College GameDay show will be originating from OSU today.
Paterno didn't take much time to bask in the limelight of becoming the first NCAA Division I (BCS) coach to reach the 400 level plateau. He deflected the attention immediately afterward with his "let's go beat Ohio State" remark.
Beating the Buckeyes, ranked eighth in the Associated Press writers poll and seventh in the USA Today coaches poll, will be easier said than done, but the Lions enter the contest in much better position than they were last month.
PSU was 3-3 following the loss to Illinois, with injuries mounting, particularly on defense. The bye week of Oct. 16 gave the Lions a chance to heal somewhat and catch a second wind that has carried them to wins over Minnesota, Michigan and Northwestern.
The big difference has been at quarterback, where redshirt sophomore Matt McGloin has stepped in and brought life to what had been a dormant Lions attack. McGloin, the former walk-on from West Scranton, replaced freshman Rob Bolden in the Minnesota and Northwestern games and started against Michigan. He has been named the starter against the Buckeyes.
McGloin has completed 41 of 70 passes for 551 yards and 7 TDs, against one interception. The Lions have certainly rallied around his leadership.
Bolden, who has obvious talent but has been characterized as more soft-spoken at this point of his career, has played well at times, despite not getting much help from the Lions' ground game. Bolden has hit on 110 of 188 passes for 1,350 yards with 5 TDs, although he has been picked off seven times.
Bolden started against the Wildcats before giving way to McGloin, who directed the two-minute drill to march the Lions 91 yards in 47 seconds for their first TD, then continued the momentum in the second half. He ended up completing 18 of 29 passes for 250 yards as the Lions piled up a season high 528 yards of offense.
"Obviously, McGloin had a hot hand and I wasn't about to change at that stage," said Paterno at his weekly press conference (www.gopsusports.com).
The rejuvenated Lion rushing attack has also played its part. Against Northwestern, Evan Royster rushed for 134 yards and flashy feshman Silas Redd added 131, marking the fourth time two PSU runners topped the 130-yard mark; the last time came in 1971, when Lydell Mitchell (211) and Franco Harris (145) did it at Iowa.
While McGloin's success is undeniable, he hasn't faced a defense like the Buckeyes, which tops the Big Ten in all major categories. Ohio State allows just 84 yards rushing per game, limiting its opponents to an average of 234.2 yards of total offense and 13.6 points per game.
Combine that with a dynamic offense which averages 42 points per game and is led by dual threat QB Terrelle Pryor, the Jeannette Pa. product, and it's easy to understand why the Buckeyes were ranked number one last month before running into Wisconsin and dropping a 31-18 decision at Madison for their only loss in nine outings.
"We're playing a team, I think, last year was the best team in the country, and I think is as good as anybody around this year, and we're on the road," said Paterno, laying out the challenge facing the Lions.
With no unbeaten teams left in the Big Ten, Ohio State is one of four one-loss teams remaining in the conference, with Michigan State at 5-1 and the Buckeyes, Iowa and Wisconsin all at 4-1 entering this weekend.
It was pointed out this week that today's game pits the two winningest coaches in the BCS, as OSU's Jim Tressel has 237 wins to rank second behind Paterno. In his 10th year at the Buckeye helm, Tressel is 102-22 and has a 6-3 mark against PSU. Paterno is 8-13 against Ohio State.
Much of the focus in the Border War falls on Pryor, who spurned PSU for OSU. Pryor has completed 152 of 225 passes for 1,997 yards and 20 TDs against 7 interceptions. He is also the Buckeyes' second leading rusher behind junior Dan Herron (129-634, 12 TDs), gaining 463 yards on 84 carries and scoring 4 TDs. His running ability makes him doubly dangerous, much like Michigan's Denard Robinson and Persa.
"We tried everything we could to try and get him to come to Penn State," admitted Paterno. "I think he's got a bit more maturity. He understands his role a bit more. He bides his time. He doesn't get caught with the ball as much, maybe. He's a little tougher to get in tough situations.
"He's all business. He's not out there trying to out-do anybody. He's just out there trying to get his football team. He's the kind of guy a coach likes to see have success," although Paterno added, "I don't want him to have too much this week."
When Pryor goes to the air, his top targets are senior Dane Sanzenbacher (42-658, 8 TDs), junior DeVier Posey (40-601, 5 TDs) and senior running back Brandon Saine (17-182, 5 TDs).
The Buckeye defense is led by senior linebackers Brian Rolle (47 tackles) and Ross Homan (41 stops) and senior Jermale Hines (38 hits). Cornerback Chimdi Chekwa has three interceptions. The defensive front features junior Nathan Williams and senior Cameron Heyward at the ends.
Ohio State leads the series 13-12, and while the home team has won 12 of the 17 meetings since Penn State entered the Big Ten, the visitor has won the last three years. The Lions won on their last visit to the Horseshoe, 13-6 in 2008. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes won 24-7 in Happy Valley last year.
When the Big Ten goes to divisions next season, Penn State and Ohio State will be in the same, yet unnamed division. However, next year's schedule has the Lions returning to Columbus, saving Pryor a visit to a hostile Beaver Stadium for his senior season.
The Lions have struggled in their two road tests against ranked opponents (24-3 losses at Alabama and Iowa), so it'll be a tall order this afternoon. The oddsmakers have the Buckeyes as 18 point favorites, so this will be a good indication as to how far PSU has progressed.
NITTANY LINES - Sophomore linebacker Michael Mauti had a career-high 11 tackles, including three for losses, against Northwestern to earn Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors. Mauti is second on the Lions in tackles with 60. Linebacker Chris Colasanti has 83 stops and Drew Astorino has 50 ... this is the 15th meeting between coaches with 200 wins, and Paterno has been part of nine of them ... PSU is 9-3 on the road the past three seasons, including 8-2 in the Big Ten ... converted tackle Nate Cadogen, now at tight end, caught his first pass last week, a TD connection with McGloin ... Ohio State had its bye week last week. OSU is 12-9 all-time after an open date, and Tressel's record following a bye is 2-4 ... OSU kicker Devin Barclay, like PSU's Collin Wagner, is a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award ... Stefen Wisniewski has earned his fourth honor this season for his athletic, academic and community service leadership, being named one of 10 finalists for the Wuerffel Trophy. He is the Nittany Lions' first Wuerffel Trophy finalist. The Wuerffel Trophy is named for former Florida QB Danny Wuerffel, winner of the 1996 Heisman Trophy. It is presented to the college football player who best combines exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement ...next Saturday's Indiana game at FedEx Stadium in Washington, DC will have a 12 noon kickoff.