BY PAUL ASPAN
PENN ST. INSIDER
The game Penn State fans have had circled since the summer has finally arrived. No. 1 Ohio State comes into Happy Valley Saturday night to defend its top ranking on national television against the No. 24 Lions and a rockin’ Beaver Stadium. The Buckeyes have won 26 straight regular season games, but their last loss came at State College, a 17-10 victory for the Lions.
Saturday night’s game sets up to be a good old fashioned Big Ten defensive showdown. Both teams rank in the top ten in defense, personified by a pair of All-American linebackers, James Laurinaitis (OSU) and Dan Connor (PSU). Laurinaitis and the Buckeyes are best in the nation, holding teams to under 210 yards per game and less than eight points per game. Connor and the Lions are almost as stingy, allowing only 15 points per game. Penn State also leads the nation in sacks (4.38/game).
As good as the Ohio State defense has been, it hasn’t faced any sort of challenge. The Buckeyes are 117th in strength of schedule and they haven’t faced any of the other top teams in the Big Ten. Not only does this suggest the relative weakness of the Big Ten, but also hints at the fact that Ohio State is not the best team in the nation. Much like Penn State’s early season No. 10 ranking was a mirage, so too is the Buckeyes’ No. 1 ranking.
The Lions are, by far, the Buckeyes’ toughest test to date. Looking at last week’s games, turnovers could play a significant role in deciding the outcome of this game. Ohio State almost came from ahead to lose to Michigan State thanks to two consecutive turnovers, which resulted in touchdowns, and nearly a third. All of a sudden -- a 24-0 lead was 24-14, but Ohio State held on for a 24-17 win. If the Buckeyes are careless with the ball this week, Penn State has to capitalize. The Lions forced three fumbles (and a fourth to end the game) against Indiana last week and only managed three field goals as a result. Penn State has to turn those opportunities into touchdowns if they want to drop Ohio State from the top slot.
The key to this game for Penn State is quarterback Anthony Morelli. The senior play-caller has been good – not great – the last few weeks, but if the Lions want to win, he’ll have to play very well. Morelli has averaged 215 yards per game to go with four touchdowns and three interceptions over the last three Penn State wins. He has done a solid job of managing these games. But, to beat Ohio State, Morelli will have to win this game as opposed to manage it. This isn’t exactly a warm thought to the Nittany Lion faithful as Morelli has struggled in big games. However, if there’s one thing to take hope from, it is last week’s 9-play 77-yard drive Morelli led against Indiana to answer a Hoosier touchdown and put Penn State back on top by two touchdowns with four minutes left. That’s as close as the Nittany Lion quarterback has gotten to winning a game this year. If he builds on that experience this weekend, the Lions could very well pull the upset.
The running games will have a tough time against two tough running defenses. Penn State is battle hardened with tough road losses at Michigan and Illinois, and a good road win against Indiana. The Nittany Lions “White-Out” the Buckeyes’ national title hopes 16-13.
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