Over the span of a few years, so many things have changed within both the Penn State and Ohio State football programs, and yet, tomorrow night’s contest at Beaver Stadium will have a similar feel to it.
As recently as two years ago, no one could have predicted the dramatic alterations that would occur. Scandals, coaching changes, sanctions including bowl bans, and new beginnings. The driving forces that prompted this cannot be compared, but the two teams both experienced major upheaval less than a calendar year apart. It was Joe Paterno vs. Jim Tressel for a decade before it briefly gave way to a battle of interim coaches between Tom Bradley and Luke Fickell. Now, it’s Bill O’Brien and Urban Meyer, and while offensive play-calling may be different in this rivalry compared to a few years ago, not everything has changed.
Aside from last season’s debacle, the Buckeyes ran through the Big Ten for much of the past decade with several conference titles and three appearances in the National Championship game. The Nittany Lions were not there quite as often, but they were always one of the Buckeyes’ bigger challengers and usually played them tough.
When Nebraska joined the Big Ten and divisions were split, this was thought to be a highly anticipated Leaders Division matchup each season. Then everything happened and that was no longer expected to be the case, yet tomorrow night, it will be.
Bowl bans and scholarship reductions be dammed. Almost a month’s worth of Big Ten Football indicates that these two squads are the best in the conference, albeit a conference that is rather weak this season. One day from now, this gets settled on the field, like so many matchups prior in this rivalry.
Let’s learn about a few players to watch on the Buckeyes.
Braxton Miller #5 — Everyone likely knows this sophomore quarterback already. He is a threat to make something happening on every play from scrimmage and has accounted for 21 touchdowns so far this season (11 passing, 10 rushing). Miller suffered an injury last Saturday against Purdue that looked ugly initially. Thought to maybe have a concussion, he was taken to the hospital where he would end up being released, and deemed ready to play against the Nittany Lions. He may not be one-hundred percent healthy, but he will start, and he will need to be stopped if the Nittany Lions are to have a chance.
Carlos Hyde #34 — When Miller is not doing damage on the ground, this 6-0 235 lb. junior running back is. Hyde has been running wild since Big Ten play began. In those four games, he is responsible for 8 touchdowns and is averaging 109 rushing yards per contest. Fully recovered from an MCL sprain that kept him out for a few games early on, Hyde will present a challenge to a very solid Nittany Lions front seven Saturday night.
Devin Smith #15 — The sophomore wide receiver does not catch a ton of passes, but when he does, it normally goes for a big play. He has six touchdowns on the season and receptions good for 60, 63, and 72 yards. Smith may also see some action returning kicks and punts throughout the night.
John Simon #54 — A high school teammate of Michael Zordich, Simon has 35 tackles on the season including 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. Named as a First-team All-Big Ten player last year, the senior defensive tackle is once again having a solid season and will attempt to make life hard for the Nittany Lions offense.
Kenny Guiton #13 — The junior quarterback gets mentioned as a wildcard because he will be the guy that sees time if Miller gets hurt again. He started off slow last week and tossed an interception, but ended up leading the Buckeyes on an improbable last minute touchdown drive to force overtime where the Buckeyes ended up victorious.
A few things to look at from the Penn State side:
Bill Belton — Belton played the best game of his career last week, and could be a big factor on Saturday, especially with the Buckeyes having trouble defending screen passes. If there was a game that the offense really needs Belton healthy, it’s this one, and he appears to be so after last week’s breakout performance.
How Tight Ends are Utilized — The Buckeyes linebacking core has been hurt by injuries. The Nittany Lions may be able to exploit that by getting Kyle Carter and Jesse James in space.
Matt McGloin — McGloin beat the Buckeyes in Columbus last year but has tossed three interceptions in this matchup over the last two seasons. He will need to play within himself and take care of the ball as he has been doing. Even one turnover could be costly.
Special Teams — It has been an issue all season. They might do something good like Jesse Della Valle’s kick return last week, but it gets overshadowed by something worse. The Buckeyes have blocked multiple kicks this season, and Meyer’s Florida team blocked one the last time he played against the Nittany Lions.
This one should feature a back and forth offensive style that not many are used to seeing when these teams meet. There is little reason to think that the outcome will not come down to who can make one more big play down the stretch.
By The Numbers: The Nittany Lions have not allowed a first quarter point all season and have scored first in every game. The Buckeyes have failed to score in the first quarter of two games and have been scored on first three times.
Blast from the Past: Before these teams were annual conference rivals, they once played each other in the Fiesta Bowl on December 26, 1980. The Nittany Lions would win 31-19 in Tempe, Arizona.