The problem for Bill O’Brien and Penn State is that Ohio State is the more talented team. The problem for Urban Meyer and Ohio State is that O’Brien and Penn State are playing with house money.
The home team has much more at stake. As the No. 4 team in college football and holding the longest winning streak in the nation (19), Ohio State is also playing for style points (read: keeping its national title hopes alive). Because college football’s championship is, at least partially, decided by humans instead of a playoff (which still won’t be fixed when the new “playoff” system is implemented next year), how a win is attained is nearly as important as the victory itself.
If in early December when the pair is chosen to play for the BCS title there are more than two unbeaten teams at the top, Saturday night’s game will matter (if Ohio State is victorious in this one and then wins out, of course) in regards to that decision. When push comes to shove, the human poll portion of that ridiculous formula – the Harris Poll and the one voted on by a select group of coaches (laugh/cough) – will come into play as far as the positional ranking of the potential undefeated squads at that time. And inside of that decision is how said teams fared against both ranked and rivalry/power opponents.
So for Meyer, this how is as important as this “the.”
Penn State has produced spurts of strong play (mostly due to Tom Bradley) at The Horseshoe through the years despite its dismal record in it. In the 2002 defensive slugfest (against those eventual national champion Buckeyes), Bradley’s unit excelled in a six-point loss. The ’06 meeting in Ohio saw PSU’s defense stand tall and give the offense possession with a chance to tie the score (with a touchdown and a two-point conversion) inside the final four minutes of regulation until Anthony Morelli’s weekly meltdown turned into a pair of OSU defensive touchdowns that sealed the contest.
This trip will be different, most obviously because it is State’s first under O’Brien, and an important factor that could help the Nittany Lions is Craig Fitzgerald. With the exception of 2008 (2011 is left alone – offense intended, Luke), one of the reasons that Penn State was never able to finish in Columbus is because the starters were worn down in the fourth quarter. Under John Thomas’ regime, players were gassed and out-muscled in the second half of the toughest game(s) (which was/is annually Ohio State). Fitzgerald has brought new life to the strength program and it will be interesting to watch both lines of scrimmage in the second half.
But in order to keep it close into the second half, Penn State will need to contain one of the best all-around players – at any position – in the country. Braxton Miller has been in and out of the Buckeyes’ lineup this season due to injuries but when active, he’s been quite good. Miller is completing passes at a 70-percent rate with eight touchdown passes and two interceptions. The hardest part of scouting and preparing a plan to defend this kid is that he does everything well; there aren’t holes in his game to penetrate. He is without vulnerability. Home, road, day, night, conference, non-conference; it doesn’t matter. Miller is unrelentingly effective.
Against Michigan, John Butler’s gang fantastically defended the run and also produced two interceptions, but when Devin Gardner left the pocket to run, it was ugly. While Miller is neither as fast nor elusive as Gardner, he is 15 pounds heavier and much more seasoned, so even if State’s defense is able to “catch” Miller when he does scramble, the key is tackling him.
“Anybody can just take a reservation; it’s the holding of the reservation. That’s really the most important part of the reservation.”
So true, Jerry, and those words to the car rental cashier apply equally here. It doesn’t matter if Butler devises the best scheme in the history of football to contain Miller when he leaves the pocket – if his defenders can’t tackle him when they arrive in ill-humor, it’s useless. The hope for Penn State fans is that practice, repetitive technique training and a whole slew of yelling has generated improvement since the tackling debacle against UCF.
On paper, the Buckeyes should win this game. They are more talented at key positions, playing at home and have no significant injuries. For Penn State to pull out a victory it will need to score early to calm the crowd and give Christian Hackenberg a chance to breathe. As much as this rivalry is usually a defensive-minded battle, O’Brien needs to go into “shootout” mode and put the onus on OSU to consistently play catch-up. Miller’s offense is going to score points – that’s a certainty. If that fact is accepted and worked into the game plan, Penn State can stick with this team into the fourth quarter.
As far as the bye week is concerned, it appears that Billy Belton has drawn equal to Zach Zwinak. And that’s not merely according to the publicly-released depth chart. It’s been learned from a source that Belton has shined in practice and will get not only the start but a significant number of the carries on Saturday night. The offensive coaching staff is still miffed at Zwinak’s recurring case of The Fumbles. He’ll definitely see action, but Belton, at least for this week, is the starter.
A different source close to the program also told this space that in all likelihood, one of the wide receivers (not Allen Robinson) will not be on the travel roster.