It's safe to say that Penn State's match-up with Ohio State (8 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN) tonight is the biggest game yet in the Bill O'Brien era.
The Nittany Lions have a chance to make huge strides for their football program if they can shock the world and take down the Buckeyes in Columbus. It surely won't be easy, especially with Ohio State carrying a nation-best 19-game win streak into their game with PSU. But, one thing is for sure and that is Bill O'Brien and his staff will surely have the Penn State players well prepared for whatever Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes have to offer up later this evening.
"I think it's a great opportunity to play the No. 4 team in the country this week," said O'Brien. "I love these type of games, I think you guys know that by now about me, when you're playing teams like this, I'm not very good at articulating this, but Penn State versus Ohio State, and you think about what that means in the history of college football. These two teams playing each other is great. Obviously the tradition of both schools combined with two great coaching staffs with a lot of good players on both sides of the ball makes for a compelling match-up. You know, it's a lot of fun. Game day, that's the best day of the week for me."
As noted, Penn State certainly has their hands full with this Ohio State squad.
Some might think explosive quarterback Braxton Miller and the Ohio State offense is Penn State's biggest challenge when in all actuality I think it's the Buckeye's defense that presents more obstacles.
Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby are two of the best at their position in the country. Shazier leads the scarlet and gray "D" with 56 tackles and eight tackles for a loss. Roby is the definition of a lockdown corner, collecting 24 tackles, two interceptions, and 6 pass break ups.
It's no secret that the Buckeyes are going to try and apply pressure on PSU's freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg either, which means the Nittany Lions offensive line will be tested. That units been great sometimes this season and then sometimes that unit hasn't been so great, so a lot more consistency will be needed from the "O-line."
It will also be interesting to see if Hackenberg can handle the pressure from a top-tier athletic defense. "Hack" will have to make throws on the run, he'll have to step up in the pocket, and he'll also have to get rid of the ball quickly and accurately.
"This is the most athletic defense that we've played. They have guys on that side of the ball that are well coached," said O'Brien. "I think Luke Fickell, Mike Vrabel, those guys do a real good job of getting those guys lined up in different looks, and it's a very challenging defense. They have a number of guys on that defense that are good players. Shazier is a very athletic guy, very instinctive guy, a guy that can slip blocks very easily. You'd better know where he is in the passing game, whether he's blitzing or in coverage, just a really athletic, good instinctive player. Obviously Bradley Roby, this guy is one of the top defensive backs in the country, a guy that has a very good knack for understanding what type of route is being run against him. You don't get to 7 0 without having a good defense, and they have a very, very good defense."
Next on the agenda is Braxton Miller (71 of 102, 831 yds, 8 TD, 2 INT, RUSH 75-335) and the Ohio State offense.
Luckily, Penn State faced a similar type player in Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner two weeks ago. Gardner passed for 240 yards and ran for 121 yards against the Nittany Lions in their three overtime thriller. Gardner obviously by looking at his numbers had some success, but they managed to pick off Gardner off twice.
Miller is most likely going to have much of the same success, especially on scrambles. He's just too good of a player to totally shutdown. However, if Penn State can get Miller to make some tough throws under duress and perhaps pick off a few of his passes it could definitely keep them in the game.
The key will be to convert those turnovers (if they can get OSU to commit them) into points. When you're playing in front of a hostile crowd on the road there is no better way to steal momentum than to force turnovers.
Still, it will be a tough task to keep the Buckeyes out of the end zone as they average 45 points per game and almost 500 yards of total offense.
"It's a very difficult challenge playing a guy like Braxton Miller, in my opinion one of the top five players in the country," said O'Brien. "He's a really good football player who has improved immensely since he's been in the system. Last year was his first year in the system. Now, I think he's got great grasp of this system. He's throwing the ball well. If he gets outside the pocket he's a really dangerous guy."
Obviously, the plan will be to keep Miller inside the pocket as much as possible. Unfortunately, things don't always go as planned and O'Brien fully understands that.
"Sometimes those things are going to happen," said O'Brien. "We've got to play hard and play with great effort and do the best we can to keep him in there, and when he gets out, we have to make sure that we understand our rules, our scramble rules when he gets out."
There's a lot of things that need to go right for Penn State to pull out this victory and judging by the point spread (15) Las Vegas certainly doesn't think PSU has a shot.
The Buckeyes only beat Iowa by 10 last week at home and I think this game will honestly be back and forth.
My pick is Ohio State 38, Penn State 35.