By RALPH MANCINI -
CFI SENIOR WRITER
IN A MUCH-ANTIICIPATED showdown that could determine who ultimately wins the Big Ten conference title, the Nittany Lions of Penn State (8-0, 4-0) face off against the Buckeyes of Ohio State (7-1, 4-0) at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. Coach Joe Paterno and his high-flying offense are out to prove that they’re the elite team of their conference, and what better way to accomplish that feat than by ousting the team that’s won two straight undisputed titles? In the year preceding their two-year run as conference champs, the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions actually shared the rights to the coveted honor in 2005. While Penn State may be the more prolific team on paper, the blue and white have yet to beat Ohio State in their seven trips to Columbus since joining the Big Ten in 1993. The Buckeyes lead the series 12-11 going in to their 24th matchup on Saturday.
When the Cats Have the Ball
RUNNING BACK EVAN Royster is the unsung hero of this offense, and has increasingly grown into being the focal point of Penn State’s attack despite the presence of a plethora of playmakers at wide receiver. The sophomore tailback is a disciplined runner who waits for his blockers to set up the play and always keeps his legs churning. The 212-lb. workhorse shows exceptional burst once he gets past the first level of defenders and his second gear has enabled him to record 10 carries of over 20 yards. Penn State’s ability to beat teams in a variety of ways is due in large part to quarterback Darryl Clark. As the ringleader of the team’s new “Spread HD” offense, the Youngstown, Ohio native not only utilizes his athleticism to run the option, but is also quite capable of reading defenses from the pocket. Clark’s weekly improvement as a passer has manifested itself in his ability to spread the ball to a multitude of receiving weapons. Seniors Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood and Deon Butler form a lethal trio of downfield threats. Williams is the most explosive of the three, as evidenced by his quickness off the line and the way he instantly reaches top speed, allowing him to make plays as a runner, receiver and return man. Norwood is Clark’s go-to guy on shorter routes and has tremendous leaping ability, but must avoid dropping catchable passes. Butler is a quick and crafty route runner with soft hands. Center A.Q. Shipley is a force in the running game along with left tackle Gerald Cadogan, who does an excellent job of pulling on counter plays. Kicker Kevin Kelly is a Lou Groza Award candidate, who is three field goals away from becoming the Big Ten’s all-time leader.
WHILE OHIO STATE’S defense faces a tall task in stopping the Nittany Lion running attack, JoePa’s big uglies aren’t as formidable in pass protection. To that end, the scarlet and gray must utilize linebackers James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman to get to the quarterback due to a lack of explosive edge rushers, such as defensive end Lawrence Wilson, who suffered a season-ending injury. Laurinaitis has great instincts, which he puts to good use with his sideline-to-sideline speed. Fellow senior Freeman is a 6’2, 236-lb. strongside linebacker, who’s an athletic open-field tackler and coverage man. Coming off a Michigan State victory in which star runner Javon Ringer was held to 67 rushing yards, defensive tackles Cameron Heyward, Doug Worthington and Nader Abdallah hope to duplicate their success by generating interior pressure to keep Royster in check. Earlier in the season Ironhead’s boy was moved inside to shore up the team’s run defense. Cornerback Malcolm Jenkins headlines a talented secondary. The fourth-year starter usually lines up all over the field to match-up with the opponent’s best receiver. His instincts, speed and quickness make him a natural in man-to-man coverage. Against Penn State’s big three, Jenkins will occasionally be shifted to a center-field position on passing downs with Donald Washington entering the game. The 6’0” Washington is an intelligent player with big-play potential in both man-to-man and zone packages. The 188-lb. Chimdi Chekwa isn’t as physically imposing as Jenkins, but he makes up for that with his sound coverage technique. Chewka suffered an injured shoulder versus the Spartans last week, but is said to be healthy enough to suit up this Saturday. At safety, Kurt Coleman is a heat-seeking torpedo, but is prone to the missed tackle when looking to make the big hit. His partner, Anderson Russell, is a much-more disciplined player with cornerback skills. The energetic safety is typically among the team leaders in tackles, and also has a penchant for forcing the key fumble and notching the important sack.
When the Buckeyes Have the Ball
DYNAMIC FRESHMAN QUARTERBACK Terrelle Pryor adds a new dimension to a run-oriented attack with his ability to run bootlegs out of the pocket or faking oncoming defensive ends to buy himself enough time for his receivers to get open. What’s most impressive in Pryor’s development is his improvement in recognizing defensive alignments. The electric 19 year-old was masterful last week in directing four scoring drives in the game’s first 25 minutes. The Buckeyes hope to get another strong performance out of their offensive line this week that would allow the Buckeyes to establish long, slow drives behind their meal ticket Chris “Beanie” Wells. The immensely gifted back got off to a slow start this season with a well-chronicled toe injury, but has bounced back in grand fashion and shown no visible signs of wearing down. In fact, Wells carried the ball a season-high 31 times last week for 140 yards and two scores. The 6’1” 237-lb. bruiser is a sustaining back, who has the added zip to break free on long runs. The aforementioned offensive line is led by outspoken senior left tackle Alex Boone, who specializes in blowing defenders off the ball on running plays. Jim Tressel’s group hopes to expose Penn State’s back seven in pass coverage by allowing Pryor to buy extra time with his feet and hook up with receivers Brian Robiskie, Brian Hartline and Ray Small. While none of the three is a speed merchant, they certainly have enough in their bag of tricks. Following the return of Wells, the Buckeyes’ passing game has become an afterthought for the most part—leading receiver Robiskie has only two receptions in each of his last three games. Look for the 6’3” senior to be a factor in short-yardage and red zone situations if the home team is forced to pass more than they normally would. Hartline, who leads the team in receiving yards, is more of a deep threat who typically gets open on sideline throws or crossing routes over the middle. Rory Nicol and Jake Ballard are the tight ends who may be used on play action and goal line scenarios.
PENN STATE’S SUCCESS in pass defense can be attributed to their ability to consistently generate a pass rush. No one defender has been more of a difference maker in that department than defensive end Aaron Maybin. Fourth in the nation with 10 sacks, the 6’4, 236-lb. hellraiser has been unstoppable. His tremendous burst and hand skills make him one tough nut to crack. Fellow end Josh Gaines shows good quickness, which helps him gain penetration and stop running backs dead in their tracks, often behind the line of scrimmage. PSU’s defensive line has been fortified by the return of their standout lineman Maurice Evans (previously suspended). The Brooklyn boy is a complete player that can get to the quarterback with his combination of moves, in addition to his pure speed. Against the run, Evans is capable of holding his edge and powerful enough to push tackles back when necessary. Sophomore linebacker Navarro Bowman has led the team in tackles six times this season, and is among the leaders in the Big Ten. Outside linebacker Tyrell Sales has the tools to be tackling machine himself, provided he gets the support of his two defensive tackles Jared Odrick and Ollie Ogbu. Bani Gbadyu and Michael Mauti add speed to the linebacker corps. Safety Anthony Scirrotto is a limited, yet an instinctive competitor who’ll make his share of big plays in pass coverage. Mark Rubin covers the other half of the field, while cornerbacks Tony Davis and A.J. Wallace bring good size to the table.
PENN STATE’S BALANCED attack will be too much for the Buckeyes. Expect Penn State to jump out to an early lead and watch Evan Royster punish Ohio State’s defense on the ground behind the blocking of fullback Dan Lawlor and tight end Mickey Shuler, Jr., who’ll both be called upon to fend off linebackers Laurinaitis and Freeman. On the other side of the ball, Ohio State will put up decent yardage, but be limited to settling for field goals against a Nittany Lion defense giving up a paltry 11.8 points per game.
Prediction: Penn State 35 Ohio State 19
Photo Credit: Collegiate Images
Friday, October 24, 2008
By RALPH MANCINI -