Lions-Buckeyes Border War is on
Over the past four years, the Penn State-Ohio State winner has won or shared the Big Ten crown.
Today's meeting, with a 3:30 p.m. kickoff in front of a capacity Beaver Stadium crowd and a national television audience (ABC/ESPN2) is essentially an elimination game as far as the conference is concerned.
That's due to Iowa, which is currently unbeaten, despite a series of close calls (including the fourth quarter dramatics at Happy Valley in the Hawkeyes' 21-10 win over PSU on Sept. 26).
Last week it looked like Indiana was going to snap Iowa's streak, but the Hawkeyes once again rallied for the victory and remain the lone Big Ten unbeaten at 5-0 (9-0 conference).
This week Iowa hosts Northwestern, which led the Nittany Lions 13-10 at halftime last week, but PSU survived that scare with a big second half, scoring three touchdowns in less than four minutes to pull out a 34-13 victory to improve to 8-1 overall with their fifth straight win.
Since the Lions have already lost to Iowa, for them to have a shot at defending their Big Ten crown, they will need help with the Hawkeyes and must get past the Buckeyes today. Both PSU and OSU are 4-1 in the conference, and the loser's chances of catching Iowa will be severely damaged.
Ohio State (7-2) hosts the Hawkeyes next week before finishing up at Michigan, while the Lions will host Indiana next Saturday before wrapping things up at Michigan State the following week.
For the Lions to claim the Big Ten title outright, they need to win out and hope the Hawkeyes drop two of three (Iowa finishes with Minnesota after taking on the Wildcats and Buckeyes).
The Lions enter today's renewal of the Border War ranked 10th by the USA Today Coaches and Harris Interactive Polls and 11th by the Bowl Championship Series and Associated Press writers' polls. Ohio State is ranked 12th bu USA Today (15th by the AP), so this could be PSU's best chance to move back into the Top Ten for the first time since the Iowa loss.
There's bragging rights on the line every time the Lions and Buckeyes bang heads. Seven Lions hail from Ohio, including quarterback Daryll Clark, who despite leading PSU to the Rose Bowl last year still was in the shadow of OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor in the eyes of some preseason pundits.
Pryor, of course, was highly recruited coming out of Jeannette, Pa., which he led to PIAA State titles in football and basketball. Penn State was one of the suitors, but Pryor elected to go to Columbus, which still rankles the Lion faithful.
Pryor has had his ups and downs this season, completing 113 of 207 passes for 1,543 yards with 13 TDs and 9 interceptions. His athletic ability makes him a double threat, as he is also the Buckeyes' leading rusher with 554 yards and 6 TDs.
By contrast, Clark is more of a pocket passer, completing 166 of 263 passes for 2,158 yards and 18 TDs against 7 interceptions, although he can also be a talented scrambler and has picked up some big first downs and TDs on the ground for the Lions. He has thrown for 9 TDs and run for 5 during the current PSU win streak.
"I think they've done some things a little differently in the offense to take advantage of his (Pryor's) tremendous ability," said Joe Paterno at his press conference. "He started a little slow, to be frank with you, but in the last few games he has been very, very overpowering, realy. He's running well, he's throwing the ball well deep.
"He has improved, but he was pretty darn good as a freshman, he's better as a sophomore and will continue to get better, because they do a good job."
As Pryor goes, so do the Buckeyes. OSU's wins this season have come against Navy (31-27), Toledo (38-0), Illinois (30-0), Indiana (33-14), Wisconsin (31-13), Minnesota (38-7) and New Mexico State (45-0). Meanwhile, the Buckeyes have lost to Southern Cal (18-15) and Purdue (26-18).
The Lions' defense has risen to the occasion all season and will be challenged to keep Pryor under wraps.
"It's not necessarily keeping Pryor in the pocket but it's a question of having some kind of control so that we can play some decent defense," stressed Paterno. "Because if you don't do something to at least slow him down, you're never going to be in the ballgame."
While Pryor will be the focus, the Lions will have to watch out for running backs Brandon Saine (88-439 rushing, 1 TD) and Dan Herron (72-307, 6 TDs). When the Buckeyes go to the air, the top receivers are sophomore DeVier Posey (43 receptions, 595 yards, 6 TDs), junior Dane Sanzenbacher (23-460, 6 TDs) and Duron Carter (12-164, 1 TD).
Statistically, the two squads are close. Offensively, PSU averages 429.1 yards and 30.7 points per game while Ohio State averages 376.1 yards and 31 points. Defensively, these are the top two ranked teams in the Big Ten, with the Lions holding opponents to 254.8 yards and 9.3 points per game and the Buckeyes giving up 260 yards and 11.7 points per game.
Defensively, the Buckeyes are led by linebackers Brian Rolle with 68 tackles and Ross Homan with 66 stops and string safety Kurt Coleman with 53 hits. Junior cornerback Chimi Chekwa has broken up six passes and the defensive line of ends Thaddeus Gibson and Nathan Williams and tackles Cameron Heyward and Doug Worthington are a tough front four.
"It's one of the better defensive teams in the country," said Paterno. "They run really well, they're disciplined, and they hit hard and strong, so you just have a balanced attack and take advantage of any opportunities that you may get, but don't think we're going to go in there and dominate the ball game offensively. Nobody has done that really yet."
Buckeyes kicker Aaron Pettrey, who was 13 of 19 on field goal attempts, was injured last week against New Mexico State. Devin Barclay, a former pro soccer player, is in reserve if needed.
The Lions' special teams have been inconsistent all season, a trend they will need to reverse if they are to come out on top today.
The series between the teams is tied 12-12. Penn State won last year in Columbus 13-6. The home team has won 12 of 16 meetings since PSU joined the Big Ten in 1993, but the visitoring team has taken the last two encounters. The team that has been ranked higher has won 17 of the last 18 meetings.
NITTANY NOTES - Today's game is the 300th in the 50 year history of Beaver Stadium ... 1973 Penn State Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti is making an appearance on Penn State's campus today as part of the "Sports Illustrated Heisman Tour." The event, which also features SI's Dan Patrick, will be at East Halls on campus. The event is scheduled to run from 10 a.m. to the 3:30 p.m. kickoff. Cappelletti is supposed to sign autograghs from 1:30-2:30 p.m. ... PSU students have declared the game a "white out" and will be wearing white ... PSU alum Matt Millen is scheduled as the color analyst for today's telecast ... Sean Lee made his first start since the Temple game last week against Northwestern and had a game-high 12 tackles, 10 of them solo. The Lions also registered six sacks against the Wildcats, including one by DT Jared Odrick, who had five solo tackles and also blocked a field goal ... Lions' running back Stephfon Green is listed as possible for today with an ankle injury. Evan Royster leads PSU in rushing with 759 yards and 5 TDs, including 118 yards on just 15 carries against Northwestern, thanks to a 69 yard TD run ... Derek Moye leads PSU with 39 receptions for 648 yards and 5 TDs, a 16.6 per catch average ... after committing 10 turnovers in their first four games, the Lions have turned it over just twice since then and haven't committed a turnover in the past three games ... OSU coach Jim Tressel is now 90-21 in his ninth year at the helm, winning five of eight meetings with the Lions ... both schools are members of the 800-win club, with OSU at 815 and PSU at 808 ... next week's Indiana game is a 12 noon kick-off.