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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In an unlikely marquee matchup in the Big Ten this season, No. 9 Ohio State (8-0) will head to State College, Pa. to take on Penn State (5-2), with first place in the Big Ten Leaders Division on the line. In order to get a better understanding of the Nittany Lions before this Saturday's game, I chatted with Nate Bauer of Blue White Illustrated to get his thoughts on this Saturday's game.
BA: After an 0-2 start and everything that transpired in the offseason, Penn State has to be considered one of college football's biggest surprises at 5-2. How did the Nittany Lions manage to put their slow start in the past and turn things around this year?
NB: I'm not sure I would characterize the start to the season as slow as much as I would just say that yes, there were definitely some kinks that needed to be worked out the first couple of games, but with a competent placekicker, Penn State wins easily at Virginia and is even more surprising at 6-1.
That said, with Bill O'Brien installing a versatile, compelling offense in the spring, and Ted Roof needing to change things around on defense with a severely gashed secondary, there were bound to be some issues early in the season that needed to be worked out. Third downs were a key concern on both sides of the ball, and on this five-game winning streak, that's been one of the major improvements that Penn State has made.
In fact, O'Brien specifically pointed to spending more time in practice and emphasizing third downs on both sides of the ball as a key contributor to the turnaround and if you look at the numbers, he's right. They check in at No. 29 in third-down conversions offensively at nearly 46 percent (and, key point here, have gone for it 23 times on fourth down - only Navy has more attempts there) and defensively, after starting the season near the bottom, have climbed up to No. 52 nationally in third down defense at a rate of 37.25 percent.
BA: Throughout the season, the Buckeyes have had trouble containing skill players in space. Does Penn State have any offensive threats that you could see presenting similar issues to Ohio State, and if so, who?
NB: I don't consider any of Penn State's offensive players to be superstars, but many of them are more than capable of picking up big chunks of yardage at a time, even if it's not probable that they'll take it to the house.
Start with the tight ends. They're always open, and quarterback Matt McGloin always knows where they are, so it's not a surprise that they have a combined 51 receptions for 616 yards and four touchdowns. Kyle Carter is the prime target, but Garry Gilliam, Matt Lehman and Jesse James have all caught balls as well.
Bill Belton showed last week against the Hawkeyes that he's capable of putting together a complete performance out of the backfield, and wideout Allen Robinson is No. 19 in the country with 6.71 receptions per game that have helped him already haul in eight touchdowns.
BA: With what O'Brien's been able to do through eight games this year, is the sense in State College that the worst is behind Penn State (football-wise)? Or do you think it will take time before the sanctions really begin to hit the program?
NB: Even with the success that the team is currently enjoying, the sense is very much that the worst of Penn State's troubles on the football field are still ahead.
Certainly, I think that many of the doomsday predictions were way overblown and over the top, but the sanctions really haven't even started to kick in (aside from losing more than a dozen players due to unrestricted transfers). Once recruiting is limited to 15 scholarships a year and a 65-scholarship max, and once all of the transfers have played themselves out (the rule makes them eligible to transfer out even after this season up until next training camp), then we'll have a better idea of what this program is going to be capable of with the players that remain.
If O'Brien and the staff can manage to keep many if not all of the key pieces that still have eligibility after this season, they've got a good opportunity to continue to win. The issue is that much of this team's success can be attributed to a strong senior class with real leadership and a few sophomores that are going to be highly-sought after the seasons they're having.
BA: I get this question all the time, and I'm sure you have too, but with no bowl game waiting at the end of the season, what exactly is it that the Nittany Lions are playing for or using as motivation this season?
NB: In some respects, I think that what these guys are thinking about each and every time they step onto the field is much more powerful than trying to position yourself for a trip to the Capital One Bowl toward the end of the season. Let's be honest here, do any of these guys really care about bowls that don't have a BCS in front of them?
Instead of that, they're playing like they have a vendetta to settle. Whether you agree with them or not, guys like Michael Mauti don't believe that they had anything to do with Jerry Sandusky's sick perversions and abuse. They don't believe the sanctions are fair, they don't believe the Big Ten piling on was fair, and they particularly loathe the coaches that attempted to poach players in the immediate aftermath of the sanctions (and if you believe some rumors, are still trying to poach players now).
Hate is too strong of a word, but Penn State's team has collectively been very, very scorned and angry about the predicament they find themselves in, again, through no fault of their own. Whether they finish with a win at the end of each game or not, you're seeing it translate to the field and certainly, both Illinois and Iowa can attest to the challenges of playing this ticked off Penn State team.
BA: Vegas lines and predictions for this game seem to be all over the place. What is your forecast for the game, and how do you see it playing out?
NB: For this game, I have a lot of empathy for Vegas when it comes to picking a winner.
I think that when you're looking at this one objectively, there are plenty of reasons for both sides to feel confident and capable of earning a win.
Certainly, if you're Penn State, you have to feel confident about playing at home in front of what is sure to be an out of control crowd. That alone is going to have these guys, who are already playing at an extremely high intensity level, flying maybe even a little bit higher.
On the field, I think the matchups become very interesting. Namely, can Penn State force Braxton Miller to beat them through the air? With the Buckeyes putting up 250 yards per game on the ground and the Buckeyes scoring nearly 40 points a game, it doesn't seem like the passing game has really been much of a necessity, though it's clear Miller is capable.
Against a Penn State defense that still has very real concerns against the pass, it's going to be interesting to see whether or not the Buckeyes can exploit that weakness, or, again, if they'll even have to. I think that this Penn State front seven is one of the best in the country, but when it comes to effective dual-threat quarterbacks, so is Miller.
What about Penn State's revamped, hurry-up offense against an Ohio State defense that has given up 109 points in the past three games? No doubt I think there's success to be had there for Penn State, though it really is going to have to capitalize when the opportunities arise. Settling for field goals and then missing them is not going to be an option in this game.
In short, I see a lot of toss-ups in this game, which is why I really think it's going to come down to who controls the ball and limits turnovers. Penn State has been outstanding at racking up plays and time of possession in recent weeks, and if the Nittany Lions want to please this bloodthirsty crowd, they're going to have to do the same thing against Ohio State.
For the sake of making a pick, I'm going to give Penn State the slight advantage in this one at home, with so much emotion attached, but no doubt, I'm expecting a highly-competitive toss-up type game.
Penn State 31
Ohio State 28
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