For Ohio State, this week's game with Penn State has long seemed like a potential land mine in what was going to be a very challenging schedule. Now that Penn State is 5-0 and has made their way back into the national rankings, this weekend's prime-time showdown in Happy Valley will be even more difficult for the Buckeyes as it is shaping up to be the biggest home game in years for the Nittany Lions.
The excitement is obvious as it has been reported that somewhere around 15 or 20 tents are already camped out in front of the student gate at the stadium. Penn State head coach Joe Paterno, however, is trying to stay focused on the task at hand. The longtime coach spoke about his approach while speaking with the media today.
"I imagine it's going to be an exciting town," he said. "It's a big game in a lot of different ways for a lot of different people. I try to approach it with the idea it's another football game for us.... This is not the end of the line for us one way or the other. We've got a lot of football games we've got to play and we've got to play really well against. We've got to just keep our poise and go at this one. I'm sure the town and everybody else will be excited about the whole thing, and that's fine, that's fine. Hopefully you get involved and I'm delighted. For me to tell you I've been downtown checking pulses, no. I have been not downtown checking pulses. I've got to get up in the morning just checking to see if my heart's going."
Paterno was asked what the attitude of the players was this week, and he reaffirmed that he wants to stay focused on the game and not the hype.
"I want the guys to realize this is a game," Paterno said. "We've got six games to play, and this is a game -- one of six games to play. Having said that, I want them to have enough respect for Ohio State to realize we're playing against one of the best football teams we've ever played against. I want them to pay attention to details in practice. I want them to pay attention to the little things that are going to make a difference in the football game if we have a chance to win it, and just go at it that way. Practice hard and practice well, go out and have a little fun.
"To me, I'm excited about the game... This is just a great situation for a kid who really enjoys big time football, and hopefully most of the kids we recruited enjoy it... I'm excited, and I would suppose our kids are excited. Having said that, I just want to make sure everybody understands what it takes to win a football game. Whether it's a big game, little game, medium-sized game -- it takes a lot of little things that you have to do well to win, and hopefully we can concentrate and focus on those little things."
Paterno showed plenty of respect towards his opponent this week, whom he called one of the better opponents they have ever seen come to Penn State.
"They appear to be a little bit stronger than we are physically across the board," Paterno said. "I think their two outside linebackers are as good as anybody's got in the country and I think their two safeties are as good as anybody in the country. In that sense, we're probably comparable. They scheme a little differently; they're a much more blitz team they are. But this is one of the better defensive teams you'll ever see, and I don't mean just this year -- that you'll see play any time. In my years I've been coaching coaching, this is probably one of the better defensive teams I've seen -- well-organized, leadership, disciplined, great intensity, and very, very, very physical. If we're comparable to those, I'd feel very good."
Paterno was asked if he felt this game was the biggest home game that PSU has seen since the 1990's.
"I don't think I'd put it that way, no," he said. "I think we had some big, big games in 2002. We had a couple big games last year early in the year... It's a big game. It's an important game. Whether it's big, important, another game or not, I don't know. All I know is we're playing against one of the better teams we've ever played against. Ohio State is an outstanding football team, extremely well-coached. There isn't a facet of the game that isn't really good. They can run the ball, they can throw the ball, they can play great defense, they have a great kicking game, and they're well-coached. That's a challenge.
"We're facing that challenge every week -- maybe never the quality of the talent that we have to play this week, but we're playing on that level. So I don't know whether if I'd play it in the category I would put it in. Whether it's a category 5 hurricane, category 4 hurricane, category 3 hurricane -- when it hits you, it hits you. You don't look up and say, 'Is that 4 or 5 or 3?' It hits you, and we're going to get hit."
Offensively, Paterno seems to be concerned with the entire package Ohio State brings, especially quarterback Troy Smith.
"You start with the quarterback," Paterno said. "He's a very gifted athlete who can throw and run. Everybody's raving about (Michael or Marcus) Vick, but I don't know that Vick's better than this kid. I've not seen much of Vick, but if he's better than this kid, he's pretty darn good. So I think you start there. I think there's great wideouts. The tailback, (Antonio Pittman) -- he doesn't get quite the ink that everybody else gets on that football team, but he's an excellent, excellent tailback and if you get a little callous, he'll hurt you.
"I think offensively you've got to start with their quarterback and I think you've got to understand how good he is... He's a great athlete. He runs the ball, he throws the ball, and it's not a question of -- he's a runner who throws. If he never ran the ball, he'd be an excellent passer. He's got a nice, quick wrist release, knows where he wants to throw it, careful with the football, and then they've got the excellent wideouts... This is going to be a very challenging situation for our defense."
Penn State's coaches traveled to the University of Texas in the offseason to pick up some coaching feedback, but Paterno said the staff has not talked with Texas about Ohio State.
"No, we've not touched base with Texas," Paterno said. "Mack Brown's a good friend of mine and somebody I admire very much... He was gracious enough to allow me to send some coaches down there, and they went down there and they visited. The Texas coach was very open about everything, and we came back with some thoughts. I'm always reluctant, because I think you take some things away from (offensive coordinators) Galen Hall and Jay (Paterno)... they've been coaches and know what's going on. I think they've adjusted to the people we we have and the opportunities that these people give us, and they've done a really good job."
Last year at Ohio State, Penn State had problems with the kicking game, which will be another aspect of this week's matchup that the Nittany Lions will be working on.
"The kicking game is part of the fact that we got licked. It didn't necessarily cost us the game," Paterno said. "We've got to do a good job in the kicking game. We had to do a good job against Minnesota. Obviously, we didn't do as well as we would like to do on kickoff returns. They did an excellent job early in the game; we just had to adjust. We've just got to work on it.
"There's nothing we can do specifically... because you don't know what they're going to do. They may change their whole return scheme. We're just going to have to be alert, play with the better people, get our kids aware of the fact that Ginn... he's a great, great football player... a one-play guy that can turn the game around... We're going to try and do a good job, making sure he can't hurt us, but whether we can do that or not, we'll have to see."
Another concern that Paterno has is the fact that Ohio State is coming off a bye week. As a result, Penn State may not be going all-out at practice this week.
"I do think we have to understand that the team's going to come in rested, no bumps and bruises, and had a week to look over what we've been doing," Paterno said. "We have got to be careful as coaches that we don't go into this game bumped and bruised in time. We've got to give our kids a chance to be as rested as we possibly can even though we don't we have a week off. We've got to be intelligent in the way we coach this week. We can't over-coach them."
Traditionally, Paterno had been known for his reluctance to play true freshmen, but this year, the Nittany Lions have received a big boost from the freshmen, particularly wide receiver Derrick Williams. Paterno was asked about his experiences with the freshmen and said that the freshmen and the team as a whole have been fun to coach so far.
"Sometimes that's fun and sometimes not so fun," he said of coaching the freshmen. "Sometimes they don't do some things in practice that you'd like them to do, and you're tempted to practice a little longer. It's been a good experience for me. I've enjoyed this whole football team. Right now, the focus is on the freshman wideouts. It's been a good football team to be around. I have a lot of fun with them. I can tease them and they can tease me back, and I think we have a pretty good rapport. But the freshmen have obviously caught the imagination of everybody, and they should. They've done some things that have been exciting. But in a lot of ways, that's the biggest problem I have is the fact that I'm scared to death that we're letting them get too far ahead of where they ought to be and we're working them in a way in where we're expecting more and more of them so you spend more and more time with them, and then pretty soon we're going to have a bunch of tired freshman receivers."
Penn State's program and staff have received more than their share of criticism over the past few years as the team has struggled on the field. Despite the results, however, Paterno feels the team was never in a state of desperation.
"I've always sat back and chuckled a little bit about the people who have been critical of our program," he said. "Last year, we were 4-7, but we could have been 7-4... I maybe don't quite feel the same way other people feel.
"We've never been very far away... never been very far away. So I've never felt that we're desperate or anything like that. I've always been comfortable. We've had good, solid kids; we may not have had one or two kids who could change the game around for us. We've had some bad luck... If you're around the game long enough as I have been, there's ups and downs. Some days, we've won games that we never should have won when things are going our way, and then we've lost games the past few years. I've never really felt we've been out of it. I'm not surprised we're a little bit better. We're not great, but we're a little bit better... We're okay. We're not there yet. We're not great, but we're okay."
Paterno was also asked if he would visit the students who are already camping out for the game.
"I think it's great to have the students out there (but) honest to goodness, I'm trying to concentrate on our football team," he said. "I was up most of the night last night looking at Ohio State tapes. Last week, I really appreciate the great job the staff did. I was a little under the weather and I had a little trouble staying up, but I'm having more fun this week. I feel good, I feel healthy and the whole bit. So I'm trying to zero in on whatever contribution I can make to help the staff get ourselves ready to play."
Brown, Posluszny Excited
For most of Penn State's players, Saturday's game will be the biggest college game of their careers so far. Junior offensive lineman Levi Brown says he's ready to go.
"I got to see one when we played Nebraska," Brown said. "I didn't get to play in that one, but I think I'll finally get to play in one. I'm just excited. I'm ready to show everybody what we can do and just ready for the competition."
Brown also looks at the chance to go against Ohio State's linebackers as a measuring stick for where he stands as a player.
"Whenever you go against who the media says is the best, you get to measure yourself against them and see how much progress you've made and how much you have to make in the future in order to make that next step to the next level," he said.
Junior linebacker Paul Posluszny is on his way to an all-Big Ten season as he has won Big Ten defensive player of the week honors two weeks in a row. He talked about being on the same field with the much-publicized Ohio State linebackers.
"I wouldn't say I use them as a measuring stick," Posluszny said. "It's definitely a form of motivation. Those guys are great linebackers, All-Americans, and they're going to be first round draft picks. You can't take anything away from them. The situation they're in right now, that's where we want to be at. Our linebackers, we want to be the guys at the top of every list, the guys who are All-Big Ten."
Posluszny was asked about OSU quarterback Troy Smith.
"Really, he's an exceptional athlete," he said. "Anytime you have a guy like that who can run and throw, it's always that much more of a threat and that much more difficult for a defense to contain him. We're going to have our hands full with him. He's a great athlete, and he can throw the ball down the field, so it's going to be a challenge for us, but we're really looking forward to it.
"After looking at film, I think he made a lot of plays with his legs. There's some times when it was third-and-short, third-and-four or five or six, and he ran for the first down, just tucked the ball and go, so that's one thing we're really going to have to look for to stop to control him and try to keep him contained."
Posluszny added that the experience the team has going against mobile quarterbacks, particularly going up against Michael Robinson in practice, should make them ready for what Smith brings.
"We've seen mobile quarterbacks before, so we should be really prepared for this guy because it's not like the first time seeing this type of quarterback," he said. "We've practiced against this all the time and we've played against it in a game, so we should really be prepared for this game."
Posluszny stated that the spread looks that Ohio State will bring are among his biggest concerns.
"When they get into some of their more spread formations and you have three or more receivers on the field, they have a really good set of receivers," he said. "That's going to be one of the more challenging things, to deal with all those guys. We feel pretty confident when they're lining up and they want to run the ball, we know what's coming and we just know that it's going to be whoever is more physical is going to be able to stop them, but when they get more into some of their spread sets and start throwing the ball downfield, that's what's really going to give us our biggest challenge."
He was also asked about if the long wait for the evening kickoff would cause problems in keeping focused.
"That's a great question," Posluszny said. "It's going to be a long day at the hotel on Saturday. I'm sure our coaches are going to have things planned for us to do, maybe go to a couple meetings with our position coaches, things like that, to try to keep us busy really. Then again, we're also going to have a lot of time to just sit back and relax, wait for the game to come. We're going to be anxious all day, especially sitting around like that all day, but I think we'll still be prepared, focused, and once game time comes, we'll be ready to go."
Posluszny acknowledged that this weekend's game has been one that the players have had their eye on for a long time.
"I think looking at our schedule at the beginning of the year, we knew we could get to this point, and we knew this was going to be a big game for us," he said. "We knew we'd be able to get past the first three teams and we'd have two tough Big Ten games, and we were able to be successful at those. In looking at that, I think we all knew that Ohio State here at night in front of a prime time audience, that was going to be one of our biggest games and one of our biggest challenges. I think we've all been looking forward to this game.
"We're all just really excited. It hasn't been like this at Penn State for a long time. We haven't been 5-0 for a while, so we're really excited, excited to go to practice, to work out, and everyone's just really focused. We know this is a new week, we have new challenges and new things to face this week, and we're just really focused on getting prepared for them."