While Ohio State football won’t be in position to clinch the Big Ten’s Leaders Division championship, it’s safe to say their path to the title goes through Happy Valley and the Penn State Nittany Lions.
The No. 9-ranked Buckeyes (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten) travel to play Penn State (5-2, 3-0 Big Ten) at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa., where more than 106,000 are expected to attend.
OSU and PSU are undefeated in Big Ten play and enter Saturday’s game after rousing victories this past weekend. OSU fought back in the closing seconds of its game against Purdue to force overtime and eventually win, 29-22, with starting sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller sidelined with an injury. PSU, left for dead by some pundits after beginning the season 0-2, stretched its current winning streak to five games with a 38-14 rout of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, on Saturday. PSU coach Bill O’Brien has returned the program to on-field respectability in the first season following late, former coach Joe Paterno’s firing.
The two programs are banned from postseason play this season, with PSU’s ban continuing for the three seasons to follow due to NCAA sanctions stemming from former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually abusing children in team facilities. Both remain eligible for the Leaders Division crown, though, and the victor on Saturday will be well-positioned to win divisional bragging rights as the 2012 college football season enters its home stretch.
If OSU’s first four Big Ten games are any indicator, both Miller and redshirt junior quarterback Kenny Guiton are going to see action in Saturday’s game against PSU. When Miller’s on the field, he’s simply dominant, having run for 959 yards and 10 scores while throwing for 1,384 yards and 11 touchdowns. The problem is that Miller isn’t always on the field – he’s been forced from each of the Buckeyes’ Big Ten games this season for various amounts of time due to injury. Guiton’s proven himself to be a serviceable back-up, though – he’s completed 12-of-21 attempts this season for 128 yards and a touchdown and an interception. Perhaps most notably, Guiton also proved himself to be cool under pressure, having led the Buckeyes back from a 22-14 deficit with 47 seconds to play against Purdue to an eventual overtime win.
For Penn State’s part, senior quarterback Matt McGloin, a former walk-on, has emerged as one of the elite passers in the conference. What the Nittany Lions lack in a rushing attack – their leading running back, redshirt junior Zach Zwinak, has 369 yards on the season – McGloin makes up for in the passing game. The Scranton, Pa. native has 1,788 yards through the air to go along with 14 passing touchdowns.
For all of OSU’s defensive struggles, the unit showed improvement last week against Purdue, allowing just 13 points to the Boilermakers’ offense (the other Purdue scores came on a 100-yard kickoff return and a safety). OSU senior Zach Boren has provided a spark at the linebacker position for the Buckeyes and has tallied 14 tackles in two games since jumping to defense from the fullback position.
The Nittany Lions’ defense is stout and is the 13th in the nation with only 15.71 points per game allowed. PSU also only allows more than 322.7 yards per game – that’s 22nd best in America. The Nittany Lions also boast a potential all-Big Ten linebacker in redshirt senior Michael Mauti, who has accumulated 65 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three interceptions. Mauti, PSU’s emotional leader, will likely steer the PSU defense on the field and stoke the Beaver Stadium “White Out” crowd as well.
On paper, the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions don’t pose a great threat on kick and punt returns. OSU has the only return for a touchdown between the two squads – a punt return by OSU junior Corey Brown against Nebraska. There’s only marginal separation between the teams when it comes to return yardages as well, though OSU holds the edge in punt and kickoff returns. For perhaps the first time all season, OSU has an edge when it comes to kicking field goals. Buckeyes junior kicker Drew Basil is 3-of-5 on field goal tries this season. Basil’s season-long is 35 yards and he clanked a 50-yard try off the upright in the north end zone at Ohio Stadium last weekend. Through no fault of his own, Basil simply hasn’t had many opportunities this season. PSU sophomore kicker Sam Ficken is a different story.
Ficken is 4-of-11 on field goal tries this season, has a long of 34 yards and missed four attempts during a 17-16 Sept. 8 loss at Virginia. Since that loss, O’Brien has used his kicker sparingly and has trotted Ficken out for only two field goals longer than 40 yards, and the kicker missed both (a 47-yard miss against Illinois and a 43-yarder against Iowa).