Penn State Plays Bowl Substitute Against Also Ineligible Ohio State

Penn State Plays Bowl Substitute Against Also Ineligible Ohio State

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.

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

BOX SCORE

Brett Brown was ready to do it Wednesday night. The matchup against the Kings presented an opportunity to experiment with playing Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together. That pairing had to wait two days, though, after the Kings game was postponed

On Friday, Embiid and Okafor shared the court for just under 13 minutes in the Sixers' 105-88 loss to the Magic (see Instant Replay), who also rolled out a duo of bigs in Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic. 

“I thought we had our moments,” Embiid said. “We shared the ball, we made shots. Obviously we need to play more together and learn how to play with each other.”

Embiid and Okafor first played together for 5:29 in the second quarter. They scored all of the Sixers' 12 points during that time, including a pair of threes by Embiid. They also combined for five boards. The Sixers outscored the Magic, 12-9, with the bigs in together.

The benefits of the floor spacing was apparent. Oftentimes in the game, Okafor could be seen open at the basket with a hand up for the ball while Embiid was also getting looks from long range. 

“I liked our spacing, I liked the high-low stuff we were doing,” Brown said. “I think when you post Joel, that Jahlil is going to play sort of hide-and-seek on the other side of the floor, and work that low zone, and become — I hope — a potent offensive rebounder. When you post Jahlil, Joel has the ability to space to three.”

Brown turned to Embiid and Okafor again in the fourth. At that point, the Magic had a 23-point lead. Their next 7:25 together was a chance to give them a long run in live game action. They combined for another 12 points and four rebounds. All of their buckets were layups, dunks or free throws. Both teams scored 19 points with Embiid and Okafor in that segment.

Both Embiid and Okafor finished the game with double-doubles: 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists for Embiid; 16 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks for Okafor. 

“I thought they played well together,” Vucevic said. “I thought it was tough to guard them because they’re both really good offensively.”

Okafor credited his friendship with Embiid, which dates back to high school, as a key to coexisting well on the court. Both emphasized their off-the-court relationship would help them in a game situation. 

“I think the communication piece went really well,” Okafor said. “He was talking to me, I was talking to him.”

Scoring and communication always seemed to be the easier parts of the pairing to tackle. Defense, though, was the challenge given that one of the centers would have to guard the four spot. Okafor noted their transition D as an area that needs improvement.

“We’re both used to going right to the rim,” Okafor said. “I think I had a couple easy buckets. That’s something we’ll be able to fix.” 

Brown had based his decision of when to play Embiid and Okafor together on the matchups. While the two could boast their own edge on the offensive end, Brown didn’t want to play them in a scenario in which they’d be at a huge defensive disadvantage. 

“It’s not offense to me, it’s defense. That’s the thing that is most challenging,” Brown said. “We want to play fast. We want to put points on the board. You don’t want to play in the 80s. You don’t want to do that, that’s not our sport anymore. So you want to make sure that you're capable of guarding the opposition.”

Vucevic noticed the challenge from an opposing perspective. He understands the necessary changes since playing alongside Biyombo.  

“It takes time for them to get adjusted, especially for the guy that will be playing the four defensively,” Vucevic said. “They’re not used to that because they always back down to the paint guarding the fives. It’s a different look. They have to work on it, communicate, and I think they’ll be fine.” 

On a night with few highlights in a 17-point blowout loss, Brown was able to take away a positive from this anticipated duo.

"I thought Jahlil and Joel did a really good job," he said. 

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Joel Embiid didn’t see four quarters of basketball from the Sixers in their 105-88 loss to the Magic Friday night (see Instant Replay). Their efforts were inconsistent as they fell flat in long stretches and allowed the Magic to build up double-digit leads as high as 29 points.

The Sixers gave up a 16-0 run in the first and shot just 6 for 26 (23.1 percent) in the quarter. The Magic, who had lost a one-point game to the Grizzlies in Memphis the night before, rallied together to seize this opportunity.

“They just made a lot of shots that we didn’t,” Embiid said. “That’s the game, but we didn’t play hard all 48 minutes and we need to do a better job next time.”

The Sixers didn’t break 30 points until 4:33 to go in the second and attempted just two free throws in the first half. By the end of the third, the Magic had a 21-point lead which they held on to with in ease in the fourth. 

The Magic outshot the Sixers on all areas of the floor: 47.4 percent to 37.9 from the field and 50.0 to 28.1 from three. While the teams had nearly equal percentages from the line, the Magic shot 18 for 26 compared to only 7 for 10 from the Sixers. 

“They missed a lot of shots,” Magic forward Jeff Green said. “We got stops, were aggressive, guys just played hard and created for one another and played as a team.”

Covington injured
The Sixers are waiting to learn more news on the extent of Robert Covington’s injury. In the fourth quarter, Covington exited and did not return after suffering a left knee sprain when he collided with T.J. McConnell chasing a loose ball in front of the Sixers’ bench. If the starting small forward has to miss time, Sixers head coach Brett Brown is thinking ahead to possible lineup changes. 

“We'll try to figure out what his next week represents,” Brown said. “If we aren't with him, maybe there's a chance we can look at Dario [Saric] a little bit at the three.”

Covington is averaging 8.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 27.5 minutes per game. Saric has been coming off the bench at power forward behind Ersan Ilyasova. He started 10 games earlier this season at the four spot. 

Embiid honored
The Sixers honored Embiid during a timeout for being named NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month (October and November). Embiid was appreciative of the award and has his sights set on the bigger picture this season.

“All the hard work I’ve put in, it feels great,” Embiid said earlier in the day at shootaround. “Obviously, maybe the bigger picture is Rookie of the Year, that’s what matters. … I don’t have my mind set on that. But if I can get it, that would be nice.”

Brown sees this recent showing as just a glimpse into what Embiid will be able to do over his career. Embiid leads the Sixers with 18.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. 

“This in infant stages, early days for him,” Brown said. “His body of work, given his lack of playing basketball, really is jaw-dropping for what I think he can be. To jump in and get rookie of the month I think is a real, sort of, quick snapshot view of him now. I think what he’s going to be is going to be extremely special.”

Embiid also is shooting 51.4 percent from three, including 3 for 5 against the Magic. When asked if he would like to participate in the three-point contest All-Star weekend, he said "it would be nice" and noted he would have to work on the speed of his release.