Ten Pressing Questions: OSU at Penn State

We examine the various factors that could spell the difference as Ohio State prepares to visit Penn State Saturday night (7:45 p.m., ESPN). It is clear that this game could hinge on the play of the respective quarterbacks, Troy Smith of Ohio State and Michael Robinson of Penn State. Click here for more on this game.

As we all count down the minutes until tonight's 7:45 p.m. kickoff (ESPN), I came up with my usual game day theme, Ten Pressing Questions, to think about what we may look for during tonight's big game with Penn State.

As always, I'll come back on Sunday with my thoughts on how each of these questions were answered during my Sunday Morning Quarterback column.

Without any further adieu, here we go:

1. Which Troy Smith is going to show up? -- Will it be the one that had some consistency issues against San Diego State or the one that turned in a pretty nice performance against Iowa?.

If it's the SDSU Troy Smith, the Buckeyes could be in trouble. But if Smith succeeds in completing a high percentage of his throws and also approaches 100 yards rushing, Ohio State should have a great chance to win this game going away.

You have to wonder if the open week may have stymied some of Smith's rhythm. I would also say that OSU will be stepping up in class here – Penn State's defensive front is much better than Iowa's. Will they do a better job of containing Smith? Hmmm.

2. Can Antonio Pittman build on his career day against Iowa? -- Pittman is on the verge of becoming a star at tailback. Against Iowa, he was finishing runs and punishing tacklers. He did not break a big one for a touchdown, but he had enough double-digit gainers to say he had a big impact on the game.

If the conditions are poor, you can bet that OSU will stow the forward pass and ask Pittman to grind out as many yards as he can. He had 28 carries against Iowa and could be asked to do something similar in this game.

Could this be a game where some other backs -- maybe Erik Haw? – get at least a few carries.

3. Will Ohio State get Ted Ginn Jr. involved in the game? -- Perhaps the open week gave the OSU braintrust a chance to put together some plans on how to effectively utilize the immense talents of Ted Ginn Jr. Through four games, Ginn has 18 touches (13 catches, five carries for a net of 2 yards) on offense.

For a guy who some think could be one of the five best play makers in all of college football, Ginn just can't seem to get off. Against Iowa, he did finally break off a punt return for a touchdown – only to see it negated by a block in the back penalty.

It was one year ago this weekend when Ginn scored his first touchdown for the Buckeyes. It came on a punt return in the home loss to Wisconsin. It was only a few weeks after that he did likewise in the home win over Penn State. I don't want to say you can give up on seeing it happen on offense, but maybe a big special teams play is just what Ginn needs to energize himself and the Buckeyes.

The offense reached the coveted 500-yard plateau against Iowa with Ginn as a bystander. Imagine how great this offense could be if they found a way to integrate him? (Did I just use the words great and offense in the same sentence when referencing Ohio State? I think I did.)

4. Can the Ohio State offense produce against Penn State? -- The PSU defense has picked up where it left off last year. This veteran group is strong in all three areas and is coming off a strong performance in a 44-14 rout of Minnesota.

Ohio State defeated Penn State 21-10 last year, but the Buckeyes only got one of their touchdowns in that game on offense. The onus will be on the OSU offense to keep the hammer down, keep the ball away from Penn State and, above all, convert red zone opportunities into points.

5. Will the Buckeyes contain do-it-all quarterback Michael Robinson? -- Robinson is coming off a 112-yard game on the ground against Minnesota. OSU had problems with Texas' ultra mobile Vince Young, though it did much better against Iowa's Drew Tate.

The Buckeyes need to put this game in Robinson's hands and make him try and win it with his arm and not his feet. He has completed just 52 percent of his passes this year with six interceptions. He was just 13 of 32 passing last week against the Gophers. And, Robinson has also fumbled the ball eight times, losing four.

It will be on the OSU front seven to keep him in the pocket, limit his yardage on quarterback draws and sweeps and force him into some mistakes. That's not asking too much, huh?

6. What will give, the OSU run defense or the PSU run offense? -- Penn State trampled Minnesota for 364 yards rushing. The Nittany Lions are averaging 224.6 yards per game rushing. But here comes Ohio State, which is tops in the nation in rushing defense at 41 yards per game allowed.

We could go through the litany of opposing running backs who have not lived up to expectation against Ohio State. That would include names like West Virginia's Amos Zereoue (I know that's going back a ways), UCLA's DeShawn Foster, Northwestern's Damian Anderson, Miami's Willis McGahee, N.C. State's T.A. McLendon, Michigan's Michael Hart, Oklahoma State's Vernand Morency and so on.

You get the picture. These backs came into games against Ohio State with big numbers. At the end of the game, their line looked about the same – 20 carries, 60 yards (or thereabouts).

This is probably the key to the game. OSU needs to keep Robinson and tailback Tony Hunt under the 100-yard mark. If they can do that, everything should be good for the Buckeyes.

Moreover, Penn State has only faced one defense rated better than 66th nationally and that was South Florida. Central Michigan and Northwestern are each in the 100s. This is Ohio State. That should be ‘nuff said.

7. Can PSU's youthful receiving corps get loose against Ohio State? -- They are young and maybe a tad undersized. Derrick Williams is the largest at 6-0, 196 pounds. Jordan Norwood is 5-10, 162. Deon Butler is 5-10, 167. I think I understand now why there was some brash talk from the OSU secondary this week.

They see the speed, and that's about it. These receivers can not be considered as strong blockers at these sizes. They will not be fighting through press coverage. They won't be winning any jump balls for errant passes.

Don't get me wrong. They are exceptional talents across the board. But they are about to understand what Big Ten football is all about. OSU has had a penchant for botching some zone coverages (see Texas, Northwestern last year and so on). If OSU can avoid those kind of letdowns and take these guys away, Robinson may have no choice but to try and win the game by scrambling.

8. What impact will the predicted rain have on the game? -- This is the wild card and perhaps a great neutralizer. Will a slippery football or a wet field – and there have already been complaints about the Beaver Stadium playing surface this year – could be a deciding factor in this game.

It is impossible to predict what we'll see Saturday night in State College. I'm told the Buckeyes are preparing for 45 degrees and precipitation. What makes it worse is up until Wednesday of this week, it has been 80 or hotter just about every day since May. Of course, that cuts both ways because Penn State has been practicing under the same conditions.

This is also where the special teams come in. A shanked or fumbled punt because of a wet ball could be a killer.

9. Can the Buckeyes get the road Big Ten night game bugaboo off their back? -- Anyway you cut it, the past performance doesn't rate well for OSU. The Buckeyes are 1-3 off open weeks under Jim Tressel. They were 1-3 in Big Ten road games last year. And they are 0-2 the last two years in Big Ten nighttime road games off open weeks.

But, just as OSU had never lost a home night game until Texas prevailed, OSU's futility in road Big Ten night games must come to an end sometime soon. The Buckeyes are just a 3-point favorite, meaning this game is a virtual tossup. It could come down to one play. Will Ohio State be the team that makes that play?

And, even worse, this is a game that Penn State and its long suffering fans are pointing to as The One that puts them back on the national map. The Lions can brand themselves as legitimate Big Ten contenders with a home win over the sixth-ranked Buckeyes. The students were camped out for the best tickets on Monday at Paternoville outside the stadium. They have already vowed to take the goal posts down to College Avenue.

Is this game the ultimate set-up and just more of the same for Ohio State? Or will the Buckeyes buck the trend?

10. Is Ohio State a Big Ten championship caliber team? -- It is just the second conference game for OSU, but the Buckeyes find themselves in a tough spot against the surging Lions.

A loss would end OSU's outside chance at a national championship and also put a damper on the Buckeyes' hopes of getting a Bowl Championship Series bid.

We have been down this road before. We have seen OSU teams that everybody thought should be "great" and they've simply come up short. It happened in 1993 at Michigan, 1994 at Penn State, 1995 at Michigan, 1997 at Penn State, 2000 against Minnesota, 2003 against Wisconsin and 2004 against Northwestern.

Will this game be added to the list of those games that helped drop OSU out of serious contention for some great things?

Or, with the entire nation watching Ohio State once again, will the Buckeyes put their best foot forward and turn back the ever-determined Nittany Lions? We shall see.

Hey, enjoy the game and we'll see you on the other side.

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