October 24, 2008

Big Ten title on the line in Columbus

MORE: Penn State-Ohio State video preview

Divisions? The Big Ten don't need no stinkin' divisions.

NCAA rules require that conferences have at least 12 teams and two divisions in order to stage a football championship game, but the 11-member Big Ten gets around regulations Saturday night with a de facto championship game between Penn State and Ohio State, which are unbeaten in conference play.

Of course, one-loss teams Michigan State, Northwestern and Minnesota won't concede anything, especially with Penn State and Ohio State having three games remaining after this weekend. But barring an unforeseeable collapse, the team that prevails in Columbus should end up in the Rose Bowl, if not the national championship game.

"We realize how big this game is for us and what lies ahead," Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark said. "But you know, Ohio State is a real good team and we're preparing for a really good battle. If we get this win, it would be real big for our program."

Even though Ohio State has won 26 of its past 27 Big Ten games, the Buckeyes recently have wilted in the spotlight. Ohio State foundered in the past two national championship games, and earlier this season was blasted 35-3 by USC.

"We know that our performances of late haven't been the best in big games," Ohio State All-America linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "It's all about the here and now. We can't dwell on stuff in the past. You just have to keep looking forward."

Ironically, that's the same approach Penn State is taking.

"That team (Ohio State) has a lot of tradition, a lot of success, and that's obvious," Penn State safety Anthony Scirrotto said. "We're not worried about where a team's been. We're worried about getting ourselves prepared and being as ready as we can to go up against a team like Ohio State."

Clark and Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor have drawn the attention, but the most important element to the outcome may be how well Ohio State's defense matches up with Penn State along the line of scrimmage.

Nittany Lions running back Evan Royster has rushed for 893 yards behind one of the best lines in the country. Penn State averages 234.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks 10th in the nation. But the Buckeyes allow just 97.1 rushing yards per game. Last week, they held Michigan State's Javon Ringer, the nation's second-leading rusher, to 67 yards.

Ohio State can run, too. Chris Wells entered the season as a leading Heisman Trophy candidate, but missed three games with a foot injury. He has come on strong since returning and has rushed for 508 yards in the past four games, including 140 in last week's rout of Michigan State.

But even with his return to form, Wells said he thinks most observers still doubt the Buckeyes. "I definitely feel we're underdogs," he said. "A lot of people are thinking we're not a great football team."

A win for either team should put that issue to rest. It also would put the winner within reach of the Big Ten championship and maybe more.

Penn State rush offense vs. Ohio State rush defense

Penn State sophomore RB Evan Royster is having a big season with 893 yards, including 174 in last week's victory over Michigan. He has five 100-yard games this season. QB Daryll Clark also is a threat to run, and the Nittany Lions have averaged 234.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks 10th in the nation. But there is some question about the quality of defenses they have faced. There is little question about Ohio State's run defense. The Buckeyes allow just 97.1 yards per game and only USC's Joe McKnight reached 100 yards against them. In fact, the Buckeyes have held five opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards. Last week, they limited Michigan State's Javon Ringer to 67 yards. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis leads Ohio State with 78 tackles.
Edge: Ohio State

Penn State pass offense vs. Ohio State pass defense

Nittany Lions WRs Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Derrick Williams always have been dangerous; they just needed someone who could get them the ball consistently. Clark has done that. Each has at least 25 catches and they've combined for nine touchdown grabs. Clark has thrown 11 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. He's also getting great protection from a line that has allowed just six sacks. The Buckeyes have managed just 14 sacks, with LB Marcus Freeman leading with 3.5. CB Malcolm Jenkins and SS Kurt Coleman each have three interceptions. The Buckeyes have allowed eight touchdown passes, and four came in the 35-3 loss to USC. But the Buckeyes' secondary still is the best that Clark has faced.
Edge: Penn State

Ohio State rush offense vs. Penn State rush defense

Since Chris Wells returned from injury four games ago, he has gained 508 yards and the Buckeyes' running game has averaged 200.8 yards per outing. That's exceptional by any standards. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor has run for 411 yards and five touchdowns. Penn State is solid against the run but has shown some vulnerability, as Michigan ran for 202 yards and Illinois 189. Linebacker Navorro Bowman leads the Nittany Lions with 71 tackles.
Edge: Ohio State

Ohio State passing offense vs. Penn State passing defense

Although Pryor may be improving as a passer, he's still by no means an accomplished one. He threw for 144 yards against Wisconsin in his most productive game of the season, and he's thrown just two touchdown passes in the past four games combined. Brian Robiskie leads the Buckeyes with 26 receptions, but has had only two in each of the past three games. Penn State ranks 11th in the country in passing defense and has almost three times as many interceptions (11) as touchdown passes allowed (four). The pass rush might be the Nittany Lions' greatest weapon against the pass. Penn State has 23 sacks, including 10 by DE Aaron Maybin. That's not good news for Ohio State, which has had problems protecting the quarterback.
Edge: Penn State

Penn State special teams vs. Ohio State special teams

Both teams are good in coverage and are dangerous on returns. Penn State's Williams already has returned three kicks two kickoffs and a punt for touchdowns. Penn State K Kevin Kelly is 12-of-14 on field-goal attempts, with the longest covering 52 yards, and P Jeremy Boone averages 41.8 yards per attempt. Ohio State K Ryan Pretorius has hit 13 of his 17 attempts, with a long of 50, and P A.J. Trapasso averages 42.9 yards per boot.
Edge: Penn State

X-factor: How will Pryor handle the pressure that the Maybin-led Penn State pass rush applies? Ohio State's tackles have been vulnerable to speed rushers in the past, and Maybin certainly fits the description. The elusive Pryor figures to be boom-or-bust against the rush. Whether he gets rattled and forced into mistakes or scrambles and make big plays may determine the outcome.

Penn State will win if: The Nittany Lions need to prevent Pryor from making big plays via the run. Last week, they had trouble containing Michigan QB Steven Threet in the first half, and Pryor is much more of a running threat than Threet. The Lions also would be well-served to get an early lead and try to take the crowd out of the game. Penn State is trying for its first win in Columbus since 1978.

Ohio State will win if: The Buckeyes need to contain Royster, keep him from breaking big plays, force the Lions to be one-dimensional and get Clark in obvious passing situations. The Buckeyes' secondary is good enough have a chance against Penn State's receivers in man coverage. In addition, Ohio State has to prevent Williams from making big plays on kick returns.

Expert picks

Olin Buchanan: Ohio State 27, Penn State 24
Tom Dienhart: Penn State 24, Ohio State 21
David Fox: Penn State 28, Ohio State 21
Mike Huguenin: Ohio State 20, Penn State 17
Steve Megargee: Ohio State 24, Penn State 23

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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