The storylines are thick for Ohio State's first-ever meeting with Youngstown State. Head coach Jim Tressel faces the school he coached to four national Division I-AA titles in 15 years, while the brothers Heacock – Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock and brother Jon, YSU's head coach – will square off, as will Shaun and Ben Lane, an OSU cornerback and Penguin cornerback, respectively.
Youngstown State enters with a reputation as a Division I-AA power, a reputation forged mostly under Tressel. Jon Heacock hasn't quite been able to keep the Penguins at the heights they enjoyed under Tressel. While Tressel averaged nine wins per season, Heacock checks in at just above seven, and has had two losing seasons in the six years in which he has compiled a 43-27 record.
Last year might have been his best year coaching the Red and White, as Youngstown State captured a Gateway Football Conference title, went 11-3 and lost in the semifinals of the playoffs. Heacock will have a hard time duplicating that feat in '07, though, as the Penguins lost a number of outstanding players.
The tailback position will have to be retooled, as no back returns with more than 100 yards rushing a year ago, while conference offensive player of the year Marcus Mason's 153.9 yards per game and 23 touchdowns will have to be replaced. Junior Brandon Nicholson is the top returning rusher with 83 yards on 22 carries in 2006. He'll battle sophomore Jabari Scott for playing time.
At wideout, Rory Berry pulled in passes totaling 366 yards in '06 and will need to increase that total dramatically, as he is the only returning wideout to reach triple digits in receiving yards. The losses continue at the offensive line, where first-team All-Gateway performers Ryan Jewell and Patrick Walker graduated.
The biggest hole to fill on defense will be the cornerback spot, where Jason Perry and Codera Jackson each earned first-team conference laurels in 2006. Expected to start are two players in De'Angelo Wilson and Lenny Wicks who combined for zero tackles a year ago.
In addition, injuries have forced the Penguins into moving some things around. Junior tailback transfer Kevin Smith has impressed but might miss the game with a hamstring injury, Berry has had to fight off a camp injury, and starting left tackle Tyler Booth will likely be held out after offseason knee surgery. Also, tight end Derrick Bush has been banged up.
Savage Nation: The Penguins top player might be defensive tackle Mychal Savage. He's just a junior, but Savage has turned in some impressive performances. Last season, the 6-2, 290-pounder earned first-team All-Gateway honors with 54 tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. This year, he's a preseason first-team All-American, and Tressel is well aware of the big man in the middle.
"I look at number 96 playing against Penn State and he was incredible," Tressel said of Savage's performance in 2006 against the Nittany Lions. "He was first-team all-conference for them."
The Expert's Opinion: "They're a group of guys that are aggressive hitters. I think they are guys that you better bend your knees and move your feet because they're going to be flying around trying to make plays and create a loose ball and try to strip at the ball and put their hat right on the football when someone is carrying it. It's a team that's going to play ferocious with great intensity." –Ohio State tight ends coach John Peterson.
With Some Zetts: When you think Penguins quarterback Tom Zetts, think Craig Krenzel. The senior quarterback manages the game well, doesn't turn the ball over, can pull down the ball and run when necessary, but most of all, he just wins. Zetts, who curiously wears No. 24 as a signal caller, will be starting his 37th consecutive game Saturday.
"I think he's a guy that has some experience," OSU cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. "He throws a pretty good ball. He's accurate, he can throw in the run. I think last year he had a pretty good season."
Jenkins was referring to a 2006 in which he completed 171 of 301 passes (56.8 percent) for 2,086 yards, 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. In his career he has just 25 picks in 36 games. In addition, Zetts ran for 334 yards and four touchdowns in '07, mobility that might come in handy Saturday.
The Franchise: Zetts referred during the preseason to the tight end duo of Louis Irizarry and Derrick Bush as "the franchise." That isn't hard to understand given the pair's talents. Most Buckeye fans know Irizarry's fall from grace in Columbus, and his 304 yards and two touchdowns helped the offense significantly. The lesser-known player in the group is Bush, but he's a good one. The Circleville, Ohio, native was a second-team all-conference nod in 2006 because of his blocking skills.