When the Big Ten’s top offense is pitted against the conference’s No. 1 defense, home field advantage could go a long way in deciding the outcome of a game.
On paper, that would suggest Penn State (4-2, 1-2) has an edge on No. 13 Ohio State (5-1, 2-0) heading into their Saturday matchup in State College, Pa. But for at least one Buckeye, a road game in a hostile environment is exactly what he wants.
“I’ve been waiting to play in this stadium, because apparently it just erupts and is crazy,” Joey Bosa said Wednesday of the Nittany Lions’ Beaver Stadium. “So I’m super excited.”
The sophomore defensive lineman said the OSU coaching staff has talked to the team so the players “don’t get nervous,” but he said the Buckeyes’ experience playing at Ohio Stadium should keep that from being a problem. Instead, Bosa said he’s simply looking forward to playing in a loud atmosphere on the road.
“I’ve been talking to everybody all year about, ‘Oh, Penn State is supposed to be the craziest environment,’” he said. “We play in front of 108,000 people every weekend, and so it kinda sucks when we go away and they don’t have an environment like that.”
OSU leads the nation in average attendance this season, having set a new Ohio Stadium attendance record on Sept. 6 against Virginia Tech and then broke that record on Sept. 27 against Cincinnati. But white-clad Nittany Lion faithful have kept Beaver Stadium crowds not far behind. In three home games, Penn State has averaged just under 100,000 in the attendance column.
The Buckeyes have played just two games away from home this season — against Navy in Baltimore and Maryland in College Park, Md. — and both games had attendance numbers under 60,000.
Coach Urban Meyer said the atmospheres simply don’t stack up against Beaver Stadium.
“Not like this one,” he said.
Meyer called Penn State’s stadium a top-five atmosphere, and added the team has been practicing with simulated crowd noise — which could be heard from inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center during the latter portions of Wednesday’s night session.
“It’s hard to get ready for this one,” Meyer said. “But we’ve had some good practices and the one thing about our setup out here (is) we can get some noise pumped in pretty good.”
On top of an already hostile environment, Meyer said the Buckeyes are expecting to take on a team that considers them a rival, even if the Nittany Lions don’t compare to Michigan in the eyes of OSU.
“I’ve heard Penn State considers Ohio State their rival,” the third-year OSU coach said. “Obviously we have one (rival).”
But Meyer added that he does consider it a rivalry matchup to an extent, and expects to have a difficult game on his hands when the players step on the field.
“We consider them a great program and it’s going to be a tough game,” he said.
Regardless of whatever sort of rivalry there might or might not be between the two schools, Penn State coach James Franklin said his Nittany Lions have to be ready for one of the best teams they’ll face this season.
“You look at their program, you look at their team doing a tremendous job,” Franklin said during a Tuesday press conference. “Probably the fastest, most athletic team and also tremendous size, probably the best combination that we’ve seen so far this year.”
Franklin added that he’s seen the Buckeyes turn a corner since their week two loss to the Hokies.
“Since then, they have had a lot of success,” he said. “Playing with a lot of confidence, scoring a lot of points and creating a lot of turnovers on defense that are factoring into those points as well.”
In the four games since the loss to Virginia Tech, OSU has posted historic numbers on the offensive side of the ball.
The Buckeyes have scored more than 50 points in each of their past four games — a school record — and they tied an OSU mark with four straight games gaining 500 or more yards on offense. That torrid pace has put OSU on top of the Big Ten standings for total offense per game, but it’s set to face off with a formidable defense as well.
Penn State ranks first in the Big Ten in total defense, giving up just 283.3 yards per game, but it’ll be up against a Buckeye offense averaging 533.8 yards per game this season.
Beyond the Nittany Lions’ ability to disrupt the running game — they are best in the Big Ten, surrendering just 60.8 yards per game on the ground this season — OSU redshirt-sophomore offensive lineman Pat Elflein said Penn State will attack more than other defenses the Buckeyes have faced.
“They like to blitz a lot, this’ll be the heaviest blitz team we’ve played so far,” Elflein said Wednesday.
For the Buckeye offensive line — and the offense in general — matching up with the Penn State defense is a formidable task. Elflein said there has to be even more emphasis on communication since the game is set to be played in such a hostile atmosphere.
“It’s gonna be a hard environment to play in, and communication is key along the offensive line,” he said. “And they like to blitz a lot so we’re gonna have to communicate with (redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett) and everybody and it’s going to be tough.”
On the other side of the ball, the Buckeyes’ defense is set to face a struggling Penn State offense.
Nittany Lion sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg is first in the Big Ten in passing yards per game, but he’s already thrown seven interceptions compared to just five touchdowns. Despite his sophomore slump, OSU senior cornerback Doran Grant said he and the rest of the defensive unit still have respect for Hackenberg.
“I still think he’s … a pretty efficient quarterback,” Grant said Wednesday. “He does his things, you can tell he has control of the team. They respect him. He’s going to be ready to play, especially for this game.”
Regardless of how much control Hackenberg has over his team, recent history has not been kind to Penn State quarterbacks when they take on the Buckeyes.
OSU intercepted the then-freshman Hackenberg twice in a 63-14 win at Ohio Stadium last season. In 2012, then-OSU linebacker Ryan Shazier returned an interception for a touchdown, helping the Buckeyes to a 35-23 win in State College.
But the defensive backs aren’t the only players looking to make a statement for OSU.
Bosa said OSU has recognized that Penn State’s offensive line hasn’t played well this season, but still said he expects them to pose a challenge.
“They have their struggles, they’re young, they have some freshmen in there,” Bosa said. “But they’re going to definitely come out and play their best game against us so we have to prepare just as hard as if it was anyone.”
With a questionable offensive line, an up-and-down quarterback and a stifling defense on the books to go along with the Beaver Stadium atmosphere, Grant said it will be key for the Buckeyes to simply settle into the game in order to have success.
“Basically just don’t let the crowd get to you … you just keep playing,” he said. “Keep playing and as the game rolls along and it starts to go our way, then you’ll see it just like any other game.”
Kickoff between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions is scheduled for 8 p.m.