Game Preview: No. 3 Penn State

No. 9 Ohio State continues its 2008 football season Saturday by hosting No. 3 Penn State in just the second-ever Big Ten night game in Ohio Stadium. BuckeyeSports.com previews the game with notes on the Nittany Lions' key players to watch and a breakdown of the team's offensive and defensive units.

Penn State (8-0, 4-0)
Saturday, Oct. 25, 8 p.m.
Ohio Stadium (102,329)
TV: ABC
2007 Record: 9-4, 4-4 Big Ten Conference
Head Coach: Joe Paterno, 380-125-3 at Penn State (43rd season)

Series Top OSU Performers
Todd Boeckman had a career night a year ago, completing 19 of 26 passes for 253 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Chris Wells hasn't been too shabby against the Nittany Lions either, rushing for 144 yards on 30 tries. Maurice Wells also has 14 rushes for 59 yards. No Buckeye on the roster has a rushing touchdown against the Blue and White.

Brian Robiskie has two career touchdowns against Penn State – including a highlight reel grab from Troy Smith in 2006 – among his seven catches for 110 yards. Brian Hartline also has a touchdown to go with five catches for 77 yards, and Jake Ballard has a score with two catches for 20 yards. Rory Nicol has caught six passes vs. PSU in his career for 39 yards, while Ray Small has averaged 33.0 yards on his two grabs.

Defensively the best Buckeye has been Marcus Freeman, who has made 20 tackles, two for loss, and forced a fumble against the Nittany Lions. James Laurinaitis has 12 tackles and a pick, while Malcolm Jenkins has eight tackles and two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns. Kurt Coleman and Curtis Terry have forced fumbles, while Donald Washington has a fumble recovery. The lone sack on the team belongs to Cameron Heyward, who notched the 2-yard loss last year.

Nittany Lion Players To Know
QB Daryll Clark: A backup to Anthony Morelli a year ago, Clark has become the undisputed general of the Penn State offense during his first year as a starter. The junior had played in 15 games over the past two years but really got his feet wet in the Alamo Bowl as he helped lead the team to a comeback win over Texas A&M.

This season, he beat Pat Devlin for the starting job before the season and hasn't looked back. Clark has completed 114 of 180 passes for 1,531 yards, 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He's completed 63.3 percent of his passes and is second in the Big Ten in passing efficiency.

On the ground, Clark has rushed 47 times for 190 yards and eight scores. He excels getting into the end zone from in close but has said he prefers to throw the ball when called upon.

"He's got a lot of ability," head coach Joe Paterno said. "He's a big, strong, tough kid. He's smart. He can throw the football. He can run with it. So yeah, he's got confidence and he should have confidence."

RB Evan Royster: Royster also split time last year, sharing the load with Rodney Kinlaw and Austin Scott but still averaging 6.3 yards on his 82 carries. Somehow, he's upped that this year to 7.7 yards per try. Overall, he has 116 carries for 893 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Royster is both quick and tough and has excellent vision.

"Royster's a smooth runner with great vision," PSU safety Anthony Scirrotto said. "He's strong, too, and low to the ground. It's tough to get a hold of him. He's going to be a great running back."

DE Aaron Maybin: Maybin wasn't even really on the radar coming into the season after making just 12 tackles last year and not starting the year at the top of the depth chart, but he's certainly earned his keep this season. He's risen to a starting role and has put up impressive numbers: 33 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and three forced fumbles.

"He's always been a sack master," linemate Josh Gaines said of the 6-4, 245-pound sophomore. "His thing was adjusting to the run. The problem was with him before, we were worried that a team might adjust and run the ball right at him. But now he's playing the run a lot better. He's perfected that."

LB Navorro Bowman: Bowman was a backup a year ago behind Sean Lee, Tyrell Sales and Dan Connor, but the 6-1, 228-pound sophomore has stepped into a starting outside linebacker role and is fifth in the league in tackles with 71, which gives him 25 more than the next Nittany Lion. In addition, he's added 9.5 TFL, three sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception.

"Navorro is getting better," defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. "He's a prideful guy. He works awful hard at trying to be a big-time linebacker."

Game Breakdown When Ohio State has the ball: The Buckeyes will be facing a defense that is ranked among the best in the country. The Nittany Lions are fourth in the nation in passing efficiency defense, sixth in scoring defense and eighth in total defense. They lead the Big Ten passing efficiency and total defense and are second in rushing and scoring defense.

"I think they're playing very well, very solid defensively," OSU quarterbacks coach Joe Daniels said. "They know what they're playing and they do it well. Tom Bradley has been there for a long time and he does a great job with the defense."

Then again, Ohio State will have plenty of experience playing against that Penn State defense, and they've had mixed results. Last year, OSU piled up 37 points on the road against the Nittany Lions, but in the two years prior the Buckeyes combined for just 24 points offensively against Bradley's schemes.

Brian Robiskie said that the Nittany Lions aren't doing that much differently from past years.

"Just watching the defensive backs and a lot of different things that they do, they haven't changed what they've been doing for some time now," he said. "So it's just a matter of us kind of continuing to study them and studying the personnel and figuring out what we're going to do."

There is debate on how good the other teams Penn State has faced are. Only Oregon State and Illinois are in the top 50 in Division I-A when it comes to both yardage and points.

A week ago, Michigan's intermittent offense was on during the first half, piling up more than 200 yards as the Wolverines took a 17-14 lead into halftime. The Wolverines ended up with more than 200 yards on the ground, and it was the first time that U-M topped that mark on the year and that Penn State gave up that many yards.

Gaines said there were a variety of factors for the struggle.

"We were lined up in the wrong places," he said. "We got it together. I felt like we were a little flat. We can't do that this week, especially against a team like Ohio State in the Horseshoe. We have to make sure we come out on fire and focused."

It will start up front with Gaines and the defensive linemen, who have helped the team make 52 tackles for loss and 23 sacks. The line has had to deal with adversity in the preseason dismissals of tackles Phil Taylor and Chris Baker, serious leg injuries to tackle Devon Still and end Jerome Hayes, and the ongoing legal troubles of starters Abe Koroma and Maurice Evans.

Others have stepped up to play well, especially Maybin on the end. On the other side, Gaines has 6.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks. Evans has seen just spot time but still has 17 tackles and two sacks. In the middle, Jared Odrick has 4.5 tackles for loss, and Ollie Ogbu and Koroma each have 11 stops.

"Their strength defensively probably is the line," Daniels said. "They have a nice group of defensive ends who are fast. They really put pressure on you. They're good."

At linebacker, the Nittany Lions have struggled at times after losing Connor to the NFL and Lee to a season-ending knee injury. Sales is the only returning starter, but he and middle linebacker Josh Hull found themselves sitting on the bench at times against Michigan because of the Wolverines' success moving the ball.

Hull, a former walk-on, is the starting middle linebacker but he's been criticized for his play despite 41 tackles and 3.5 TFL. He has admitted that he's working on being more physical and shedding blockers.

"I'm aware of some of the criticism," he said. "I'm going to take it as it comes. You're going to experience some good, you're going to experience some bad. You can't let the negative experience affect you in a negative way."

Sales also found the bench against Michigan but has made 46 stops on the year. The most consistent linebacker has been Bowman.

Bani Gbadyu, who started the first three games, and Michael Mauti came in against Michigan and played all right. Gbadyu has 22 tackles while Mauti has 15.

Penn State has intercepted 11 passes this year, two each picked off by Lydell Sargeant and nickel back Drew Astorino. The Nittany Lions' senior-laden secondary is among the best in the league when it comes to the stats.

Three senior starters in safeties Mark Rubin and Anthony Scirrotto and cornerback Tony Davis are helping Penn State achieve their lofty marks. Scirrotto, who says he'll play after suffering a concussion against Michigan, has 41 stops, while Rubin has 32 and Davis has 24 with four pass breakups.

Sargeant also is a senior, but he's shared time with one-time highly touted recruit A.J. Wallace. The latter has 11 tackles and has broken up a pass.

When Penn State has the ball: A year ago, Penn State's offense was in the middle of the conference, placing fifth in scoring and seventh in yardage.

This year, the personnel are much the same except for the man directing the show, Clark, who has breathed life into a scheme called the "Spread HD." Though there's a debate just how much spread is involved, there's no way anyone could dispute the effectiveness.

Penn State sits atop the league in both rushing and scoring offense while placing second in yardage and third in passing yards.

"I feel like the guys trust me now," Clark said. "The offensive line thinks that I can get it done if need be and our wideouts believe I can get the ball to them. It's a relationship that you develop as the season goes on and I feel like it's really getting there now. They're responding to me and I'm responding to them and everything is clicking. It's just a gut feeling you get that you have the offense's trust."

That trust has helped the Nittany Lions compile more than 45 points per game this year, and only twice have they been held under 40. In the red zone, Penn State has been efficient, scoring 32 touchdowns and nine field goals in 44 attempts. Just about every position group in the offense has performed well, starting with Clark, who has moved the team nearly at will while taking care of the ball.

"He's made great decisions," Royster said. "He hasn't had a whole lot of picks or anything like that. Everybody makes mistakes every now and then, but he's really minimized them."

Clark has done just about everything well. He's averaging 8.5 yards per pass attempt, which shows he has the ability to get the ball downfield, and the Nittany Lions have 51 plays of 20 yards or more during the season.

"He's on target right now," OSU defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said. "What I see is he's on target. He's picking it up, getting it to the right receiver and getting the ball to the right receiver. The ball's on the money. You very seldom see a bad throw."

At running back, Royster has combined with Stephfon Green to form the best one-two combination in the Big Ten. While Royster is the starter and has proven to be very difficult to bring down, Green's speed has made him a contributor who must be watched. He's reported a 40-yard dash time below 4.3 seconds and has 70 carries for 411 yards and seven catches for 142 yards. Penn State's longest rush and pass of the year each have gone to Green.

Still, Royster is the star, combining both quickness and vision to go along with the strength that allowed him to plow through arm tackles and bust some big runs against Michigan. Lee says he has sneaky speed, while PSU offensive coordinator Galen Hall has added that Royster is a good zone runner.

"I like to run between thee tackles," Royster said. "I don't like running outside as much, but I feel like I need to do it to be a complete back. I'm not quite a complete back, but I'm trying to make myself one."

Out wide, the senior wideouts known as the "Big Three" have lived up to that hype this year. Leading the way is Deon Butler, who has 30 grabs for 486 yards and three touchdowns. Jordan Norwood actually has more catches per game but missed a couple because of injury; he still has 25 catches for 405 yards and a team-leading 5 scores. Then there's Derrick Williams, perhaps the most talented of the group with his 25 catches, 17 carries, 12 punt returns, 11 kick returns and five total touchdowns.

The unit has added some depth in sophomore Ben Brackett, a big target who has eight catches, and former walk-on Graham Zug, who has seven. The tight ends also chip in with Andrew Quarless having nine catches and Mickey Shuler five.

Then there's an offensive line that has paved the way for all of the rushing yards and has allowed just six sacks in eight games. Starting from left to right are Gerald Cadogan, Rich Ohrnberger, A.Q. Shipley, Stefen Wisniewski and Dennis Landolt, and that quintet has a total of 120 career starts.

Not only are it good at pass-blocking, but the group excels at getting to the second level of defenders to help spring players like Royster and Green on long runs.

"They're as good as I've seen," Heacock said. "They're work well together. It starts with their center. Shipley's a really good athlete. He's got great quickness off the ball. They do a good job of getting to the second level, and they know what they're doing. They've worked together for a while now. They're really good at what they do."

Ohio State will hope to continue the strong line play that has marked recent wins over Purdue and Michigan State.

"The key to penetration is we have to play low, and we have to make sure we get off blocks," tackle Nader Abdallah said. "We have to play low, explode off the ball and get off blocks. We have to be a lot more active. I think we're doing that. You can tell watching film that we're getting a lot better."


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