Since the day Bill O’Brien took over as head coach of Penn State’s fractured football program, he’s consistently discussed how great it is to play college football in Beaver Stadium in front of 100,000 fans on national television. To O’Brien, coaching anywhere between six and eight “bowl” games was better than any bowl trip teams might make on an annual basis.
This week, O’Brien will coach his first game with a genuine bowl, as Penn State prepares to take on perhaps their biggest rival.
The Ohio State University.
Ohio State is the only Big Ten program Penn State has played annually since joining the Big Ten in 1993. With the fading rivalries with Pittsburgh and a lopsided series against Temple, Penn State has long been without a true rival. Even though Penn State fans get amped for the Buckeyes every year, the Ohio State faithful recognize Penn State as their second or third best rival. For Ohio State, it is all about beating Michigan. Then, perhaps, Wisconsin or Michigan State. It may be that lacked of mutual animosity that fuels the Penn State side of the rivalry.
The fact is, when Ohio State and Penn State get together there is generally more than simple bragging rights on the line. Since 2005, the winner of the Penn State-Ohio State game has gone on to win the Big Ten’s automatic berth five times. Between the two of them they have played in eight BCS bowl games over that same stretch.
Of course this year things will be slightly different, with both programs serving a postseason ban as part of separate NCAA sanctions. Nonetheless, the Big Ten is allowing Ohio State and Penn State to compete for a Leaders Division championship, and the trophy that goes with it. Try telling these players that does not matter. For Penn State, having anything to play for cannot be overlooked.
So when it comes down to it, who has the upper hand this weekend? Penn State’s offense has shown flashes of brilliance with a new and improved Matt McGloin leading the charge under center. McGloin is putting together a legitimate Big Ten MVP kind of season with improved efficiency, awareness and the decision-making allowing him to tuck and run when needed.
Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller has the ability to make defenses pay for a slight mistake with his own legs. Penn State’s best chance to win might be if they can force Miller to beat them through the air. It was a similar approach they have executed before, against Miller in Columbus last season and the year before against Michigan’s Denard Robinson.
Miller is just a sophomore and will be playing in one of the most raucous environments he has played in thus far. He has lost games at Michigan and at Nebraska, and Saturday night Miller makes his first start at Beaver Stadium. Last week, Miller was taken to the hospital after taking a big hit against Purdue. How will the sophomore handle the pressure and respond after taking a hit this week?
If there is one clear advantage Penn State appears to have this week, it is on defense. The Nittany Lions have been much more consistent on defense this season, especially since blowing two second-half leads in back-to-back weeks to start the season. Ohio State’s defense has played well but has had moments of incompetent tackling and total breakdowns. Penn State has some young playmakers in Bill Belton and Allen Robinson that might be capable of taking advantage of a sloppy Ohio State defense, but McGloin and the offense will have to flex their muscle with the tight ends, which have been playing very well early on for O’Brien.
All week students have camped out for this game, as this is the most important game of the season, and perhaps the most important home game since the 2005 game, when a victory over Ohio State sent a loud message to the college football world that Penn State was back. A win Saturday evening would send another loud message, that Penn State is not going anywhere.
Make no mistake about this weekend’s game. It is a tough battle for Penn State. It is a massive challenge for O’Brien, who must battle coaching wits with one of the best in college football, Urban Meyer. There is plenty of excitement surrounding the program and this game. How do they handle this type of situation? Do they thrive on the buzz or crumble by going overboard on adrenaline? These are the type of concerns O’Brien and his staff must be able to address leading up to the game.
The importance of this game actually goes beyond the typical win or loss. Penn State is expecting at 100 recruits to attend the game, which includes all current commitments. A win could go a long way to showing potential prospects what message O’Brien is trying to send, which is playing in a packed Beaver Stadium is still a worthy experience in itself. Any recruit on the sidelines for this game will also have a chance to play in a bowl game in their senior year.
A bright future is possible for Penn State, regardless of the outcome of this weekend’s game. But without postseason eligibility, this will have to serve as the next best thing.
According to O’Brien, this is the best thing.