Saturday, Oct. 27
5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Beaver Stadium; State College, Pa
The Nittany Lions
Head coach: Bill O'Brien, 5-2, first year
2011 record: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten Leaders Division, tied for first place)
Series mark: Ohio State leads 14-13-0
School location: State College, Pa.
Colors: Blue and White
Stadium: Beaver Stadium
Fight song: "Fight on State"
Game Notes, including depth chart on page 16
This isn't your father's Penn State team, and it might not even be your older brother's.
After being led by head coach Joe Paterno for 45 years, the Nittany Lions are in the first-year of the Bill O'Brien era. The former New England Patriots offensive coordinator took over after a tumultuous offseason that included the Jerry Sandusky trial and the passing of Paterno of lung cancer.
So far, O'Brien – who celebrated his 43rd birthday on Tuesday – has been a beacon of consistency and stability for a program that needed both. He's kept some Penn State traditions – students are camping out at Nittanyville this week to get the best seats in the house, and the Nittany Lions still play lockdown defense – and added some new wrinkles, like an up-tempo passing offense and names on the backs of the team's iconic blue and white togs.
Next up, though, is perhaps the biggest challenge against Ohio State. The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions have been fierce rivals since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, and with both teams undefeated in the league, this game will go a long way in determining the Big Ten Leaders Division championship.
"I would definitely say that these guys have earned the right to play in this type of game," O'Brien said of his team. "They've put a lot of time in. They've been through a lot. They've done it. Everything that we've asked them to do, they've done – be on time, practice hard, lift hard, run hard, compete. They've done it.
"And so they've definitely earned the right to play in this type of a game in front of 108,000 fans, and I really you know, I obviously expect 108,000 fans there, and I think our fans will be very, very supportive of our team on Saturday night."
In A Nutshell
So how is Penn State doing it? At least in the last few games, the team has been physical, played fundamentally sound football and is avoiding mistakes.
The Nittany Lions are among the best teams in the Big Ten in turnover margin, third- and fourth-down defense, third- and fourth-down conversions and fewest penalties. Factor in a good old-fashioned tough Penn State defense with a feisty offense and you have the makings of a team that is able to win football games.
On offense, Penn State has topped 30 points in four of the last five games, and the team has been letting senior quarterback Matt McGloin run an up-tempo, pro-style, no-huddle offense – known as the NASCAR package – that has resulted in 90-plus plays in each of the last two games. Overall, Penn State is seventh in the league in scoring (28.6) but fourth in yardage. Methodical drives are the way it scores; the team is second-to-last in the league in plays of 20-plus yards but has eight scoring drives of nine or more plays the last two weeks.
McGloin is having an excellent season. The 6-1, 201-pounder leads the Big Ten in passing (255.4 yards per game) and completions (162) and is second in touchdown passes (14). Overall, McGloin is 162 for 259 (62.5 percent) for 1,788 yards and two interceptions while rushing for five touchdowns on the season.
"He's much improved," OSU head coach Urban Meyer said. "He's always been a very accurate passer. The guys around him are playing better as well."
That is true when it comes to pass catchers. Allen Robinson leads the Big Ten with 47 catches and has 563 yards and eight touchdowns. Tight end Kyle Carter has 29 snags in his redshirt freshman campaign, while wideouts Brandon Moseby-Felder (15 catches) and Alex Kenney (12 catches) have been chipping in. The Nittany Lions, much like the Patriots, use their tight ends extensively, as Matt Lehman, Jesse James and Gary Gilliam are also part of the attack.
In the running game, Zach Zwinak leads the way, as the physical back has 84 carries for 369 yards (a 4.4-yard average) and three touchdowns while making 10 catches. Explosive runner Bill Belton missed some time with an ankle injury but had 103 yards vs. Iowa, upping his total to 233 yards on the year, while fullback Michael Zordich and Derek Day are also key runners.
Up front, Penn State has given up only nine sacks in seven games. Center Matt Stankiewitch is one of the best in the league at his position, and Penn State is deep everywhere else. Redshirt freshman Donovan Smith holds down left tackle even as he's battled injuries, while sophomore left guard Miles Dieffenbach is versatile. Junior John Urschel is one of the smartest players on the team, while Mike Farrell and Adam Gress split time at right tackle.
Penn State's defense has earned plaudits from Ohio State coaches and players, and it enters the game second in the Big Ten and 13th in the country allowing 15.7 points per game, while placing fourth in the league with 322.7 yards allowed.
"Defensively, they're every bit what they've been in the past," Meyer said. "The defensive front is very strong, active guys. One is a great player, (Jordan Hill). And Michael Mauti is a great player as well. So we have to be on our game."
Penn State's defensive line is one of the best in the league, led by Hill, a senior tackle who has 37 tackles, four tackles for loss, 2½ sacks, a forced fumble and an interception in the first seven games. DaQuan Jones and James Terry also see time at tackle. Two seniors provide leadership on the edge in Sean Stanley and Pete Massaro, while redshirt freshman Deion Barnes has four sacks and two forced fumbles and classmate Anthony Zettel has three sacks.
Mauti is the star of the defense, leading a very good group of linebackers. The second-generation Nittany Lion has 65 tackles on the season to go with 2½ sacks, three interceptions and two forced fumbles from his MLB spot. Gerald Hodges has added 54 tackles and been part of three turnovers, while Glenn Carson has 42 stops and Mike Hull has 26 tackles, two sacks, a fumble recovery touchdown and an interception in passing situations.
The secondary was supposed to be an issue but Penn State has allowed only eight touchdowns passes in seven games. Stephon Morris and Adrian Amos start at cornerback, while safety Malcolm Willis joins Morris with 29 tackles to lead the secondary. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Jake Fagnano also play safety.
The special teams have really struggled. Sophomore kicker Sam Ficken is only 4 for 11 with a long of 34 yards, while the punt unit is last in the nation in net punting. Teams have returned kicks for scores in each of Penn State's last two games. Neither return unit is special, with Amos, Kenney and Belton taking kickoffs and Jesse Della Valle and Evan Lewis handling punts.
Possible Ohio State edges: Ohio State's running game will be looking to get back on track, while the Buckeyes could be able to attack Penn State's retooled secondary. The Ohio State defense will have an athleticism edge.
Possible Penn State edges: Penn State's solid defense is physical and could provide a challenge up front for the Buckeye line. The Nittany Lions offense is hard to scheme against and could take advantage of issues OSU has already had.
Sept. 1: vs. Ohio, L 24-14. Penn State took a 14-3 lead early but the Bobcats battled back with a trio of second-half touchdowns. The Nittany Lions allowed 499 yards of offense.
Sept. 8: at Virginia, L 17-16. The Hoos scored the winning touchdown with 1:28 to play, and Penn State kicker Ficken missed four field goals and an extra point.
Sept. 15: vs. Navy, W 34-7. Navy outgained the Nittany Lions but lost four turnovers, while McGloin threw a quarter of touchdown passes, including three to Robinson.
Sept. 22: vs. Temple, W 24-13. McGloin threw for 318 yards and accounted for three touchdowns while the defense kept the Owls to 237 yards.
Sept. 29: at Illinois, W 35-7. The Nittany Lions dominated, as Zach Zwinak and McGloin each ran for two scores and McGloin threw for 211 yards and a score.
Oct. 6: vs. (24) Northwestern, W 39-28. Penn State rallied for the win with three fourth-quarter touchdowns while keeping NU's explosive offense to 247 yards.
Oct. 20: at Iowa, W 38-14: Bill Belton ran for 103 yards and three touchdowns as Penn State built a 31-0 lead after three quarters.
Five Fast Facts
1. It is believed the NCAA considering a television ban but did not slap one on the Nittany Lions. As a result, the game against Ohio State will be Penn State's 223rd TV appearance in its last 225 games.
2. The Nittany Lions have limited their last five opponents to 16 for 66 (24.2 percent) on third-down conversion tries. On the other side of the coin, Penn State has converted 45.7 percent of its third downs and 60.1 percent of its fourth downs this season.
3. Nine of Penn State's players are graduate students. Massaro and Mauti graduated last December; Lewis, McGloin, Urschel and long snapper Ty Howle did so in May; and Terry, Zordich, linebacker Michael Yancick finished undergraduate studies in August. Urschel graduated in three years with a 4.0 grade-point average.
4. In the NCAA's eyes, three of the last four games in this series have been vacated. Penn State had to vacate its 2008 and '11 wins in Ohio Stadium vs. OSU, while Ohio State did so with its 2010 victory. The 2009 OSU win in Beaver Stadium, a 24-7 triumph in OSU's last trip to Happy Valley, still stands.
5. Penn State has three players from Ohio, including Zordich, a former Youngstown Cardinal Mooney star who helped the team to the 2006 Division IV title. Junior OL Nate Cadogan is from Portsmouth while freshman lineman Anthony Stanko went to Warren Howland.
Last Time Out
Ohio State experienced yet another slow start and this time freshman quarterback Braxton Miller fell just short of pulling off another fourth-quarter comeback.
Miller's frenzied 9-yard scramble on fourth down with 1:41 remaining in the game fell a single yard short of a crucial first down and Penn State held on for a 20-14 victory Nov. 19 before a Senior Day crowd of 105,493 at Ohio Stadium.
The Buckeyes had moved out from their 13-yard line with 7:09 left in the game, but they bogged down after Miller improvised his way for a 21-yard run and a first down at the PSU 39. Senior tailback Boom Herron was stopped after a 1-yard gain and then Miller's quick pitch to senior wideout DeVier Posey went for a 3-yard loss.
Miller got 7 yards on a third-down quarterback draw to set up fourth-and-5, but OSU right tackle J.B. Shugarts was flagged for a false start. The penalty yardage was just too much to overcome as Miller scrambled away from two Penn State defenders and then made a desperate dive toward the first-down marker that came up just short.
The Buckeyes managed to stop the Nittany Lions and force a punt, but with only 0:39 showing on the clock and no timeouts, not to mention 65 yards between them and the end zone, there was simply not enough time for any last-second heroics.
Penn State won for only the second time in 10 games in Columbus as members of the Big Ten – though the win would eventually be vacated because of NCAA sanctions – and its 20 points represented the most scored by the Nittany Lions in Ohio Stadium since a 27-0 victory in November 1964.
It also marked only their third victory in the Horseshoe in 12 tries since 1975. Each of the other wins were achieved against Ohio State freshman quarterbacks – 19-0 against Art Schlichter in 1978 and 13-6 vs. Terrelle Pryor in 2008.
"Well, another slow start is certainly not what we wanted," OSU head coach Luke Fickell told reporters after the game. "We have to do a better job coming out of the gate. Falling behind 10-0 for the third week in a row, that put us in a bind. … All in all, to fall behind 10-0 again like we have for three games now – not that the guys didn't keep fighting because they did – but we have to do better."
Tom Bradley kept Penn State alive in its attempt to capture a Big Ten Leaders Division title even after the team's recent firing of Joe Paterno.
Miller did about all he could for the Buckeyes, rushing for a career-high 105 yards and a touchdown while completing 7 of 17 passes for 83 yards and a score. Herron added 76 yards rushing on 18 carries as Ohio State totaled 206 yards on the ground.
The Buckeyes totaled 289 yards while Penn State nearly had that many in the first half. The Nittany Lions piled up 254 in the first and second quarters, finishing with 327 total. They rushed for 239, including 93 and two touchdowns from running back Stephfon Green. Backfield mates Silas Redd and Curtis Drake combined for 113 yards on 11 carries, a tidy average of 10.3 yards per attempt.
Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin was efficient if unspectacular, completing 10 of 18 passes for 88 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.
The Nittany Lions got rolling early when Green sliced between two defenders just past the line of scrimmage and then outraced OSU safeties Orhian Johnson and Tyler Moeller to the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown romp. It capped a quick-strike opening possession that took only 2:33 and covered 80 yards on only five plays.
It gave the Nittany Lions a 7-0 lead at the 12:27 mark of the first quarter, and they increased their advantage to 10-0 when kicker Anthony Fera booted a 43-yard field goal with 1:59 to go in The Opening period. It was a career-long three-pointer for Fera.
OSU finally got its offense untracked early in the second quarter, thanks in part to an 18-yard, one-handed sideline catch Posey made to convert a third-and-11 play. Posey finished the game with a team-high four catches for 66 yards.
Three plays later, Miller bobbed and weaved his way for a 24-yard touchdown run that capped a 10-play, 77-yard drive and cut the Buckeyes' deficit to 10-7 with 12:32 to go until halftime.
The Nittany Lions immediately answered with an 81-yard march that took only 2:20. Penn State gashed the OSU defense repeatedly on the drive, getting a 42-yard run from Redd, a 20-yard pass from McGloin to receiver Derek Moye, and a 12-yard scamper from freshman receiver Bill Belton off a direct snap.
Green handled the touchdown honors, blowing through a huge hole for a 4-yard run that gave Penn State a 17-7 lead with 10:05 left until halftime.
But the Buckeyes took advantage of a turnover when Johnson intercepted a tipped pass, giving OSU a short field at the Penn State 37. Five plays later, Miller found tight end Jake Stoneburner all alone in the end zone, making it 17-14 with 5:22 remaining in the half.
Fera bettered his career-long field goal with a 46-yarder on the final play of the first half to give the Nittany Lions a 20-14 lead at the break.
The first half was punctuated by a handful of big plays by Penn State. The Nittany Lions ran 33 plays from scrimmage and eight of them were good for 12 yards or more. Three were rushes for 38, 39 and 42 yards. The big chunks allowed the Nittany Lions to hold a decided 254-145 first-half edge in total yardage.
OSU's defense was able to close ranks in the second half, including a stirring goal-line stand that stopped Penn State four times from the 1-yard line.
But the offense couldn't help out. The goal-line stand was necessitated by a bungled exchange between tailback Jordan Hall and Herron, and tailback Carlos Hyde fumbled another possession away at the OSU 46 just when it looked like the Buckeyes were putting together a sustained drive.
Ohio State watched another potential threat go by the boards early in the fourth quarter when receiver Philly Brown failed to come down with a long third-down pass from Miller that would have covered about 50 yards and given the Buckeyes the ball at the Penn State 15.
That came at the 11:30 mark of the fourth quarter, but OSU got another chance 4½ minutes later when Miller rallied the team from his own 13 before the drive ended at the 1:41 mark on the quarterback's desperation dive at the Penn State 32.
The Buckeyes had one final chance when they got the ball back with 36 seconds left, but when Miller tried to avoid a sack on the first play and throw the ball away, he was penalized for intentional grounding. That was a spot play that resulted in a loss of 7 yards, a loss of down and a 10-second runoff of the clock since it occurred in the final two minutes of a half.
That took the game clock down to 20 seconds and three incomplete passes later, the game was over.