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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Recent history hasn't been kind to Nittany Lions in Columbus

What's the biggest story of this college football season so far?

I've been getting that question recently.
The answer is pretty easy: Teams rising from nowhere to national-title contention in a month and a half.
The symmetrical flip side is that three teams pegged for big things (Auburn, West Virginia, and Clemson) have plummeted from the preseason top 10 to oblivion. None of these teams is receiving a single poll point. This sort of complete collapse is unusual, too. Thus, Tommy Bowden has been forced out and Tony Franklin has been sent packing. But let's return to the "good" stories.

"College GameDay"

Set your alarm clock Saturday. Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and the rest of the "College GameDay" crew will be in Columbus for Penn State-Ohio State. Tune in to find out about the Nittany Lions, Buckeyes, all the Week 9 action and everything else in college football.
When: Sat., 10 a.m. ET (ESPN)
Where: Columbus, Ohio
The top three in the first BCS standings had an average preseason AP ranking of 19th (Texas 11th, Alabama 24th and Penn State 22nd). That's amazing actually. The fast, unexpected rise of any one of these traditional powers would have been a pretty big story, but to have all three jockeying for the top positions is historic. In every year since the birth of the BCS, at least one of the top three in the first edition of the standings started in the AP top three. This year, all three were long shots in August.
Throw in No. 6 Oklahoma State, which did not get a single preseason vote, and you've got an even less likely race for the title.
What makes it more interesting is that it's a throwback threesome. The last time the Longhorns, Crimson Tide and Nittany Lions were all in the top five at the same time was 1979. Plus, nobody in this group looks like an impostor. Last season, when USF and Boston College found themselves somehow positioned at No. 2 in the BCS, it felt false. The swoon by both teams bore that out.
I don't see any of these three spitting the bit. I also don't see the order of these three changing until one of them loses. Penn State will not convince enough pollsters it belongs above either Texas or Alabama to overcome a significant edge in the six BCS computers. The Lions' computer average is No. 7, which ranks below three teams with one loss.
The Horns and Tide aren't going to drop if they continue to navigate the two toughest conferences. If Penn State gets out of the Horseshoe with a coveted signature win, the Nittany Lions' fans will have to start pulling hard for a Texas or an Alabama loss. Or else start dreading a repeat of '68, '69, 73 and '94. In those seasons, Penn State teams with perfect records were left out of the championship picture.
Penn State fans have a right to be anxious. Many are blaming Ohio State for the tarnished national image of the Big Ten, after lopsided losses to Florida, LSU and USC on very big stages.
Those fans are missing the point. The Big Ten is viewed as a pretty weak conference, but it has been a team effort. Mediocrity reigns. A key blow is that Wisconsin (with four straight losses) now ranks among the nation's most disappointing teams. The Badgers' meltdown and Michigan's struggles are depriving Penn State of quality wins. Not playing Minnesota, of all teams, removes the chance to face a bowl-bound Big Ten squad. Who'd have thought that?
The Big Ten's 2008 performance could certainly haunt Penn State far more than Ohio State's recent misery against heavyweights. I just disagree with pundits who claim pollsters are somehow biased against the Lions because of the Bucks' flops. Alabama was the first fast riser to gain attention. The win over Clemson has been devalued just a bit, but remember it was the Tide who started the Tigers' tailspin.
Bama's first half at Georgia remains one of the season's most impressive 30 minutes of football. Being the strongest first-half team in the nation (its average lead at half: 21 points) helps perception, too. The Tide have played some close games, but haven't had to rally from behind to win, a fact that also strengthens their image.
Texas' resilience against Oklahoma and dominance of Missouri make the Horns a clear No. 1 for now. Games with the Pokes and Red Raiders (and a road game at Kansas) guarantee they will stay put if they keep winning.
Penn State's one chance at a signature win is Saturday night in the Shoe (ABC, 8 ET). This Nittany Lions group has answered each challenge so far. It certainly seems ready for this one.
In a matchup of gifted QBs who have each crossed state lines and will face their home-state schools Saturday night, Daryll Clark gets the clear edge on Terrelle Pryor. Clark has not started that many more games than the freaky freshman, but he has had significantly more time in college football.
This is Game 9 for Clark as "The Man," but he's been a quick learner. He's been a big upgrade from Anthony Morelli in the red zone so far. Last year's Lions QB would press and make poor decisions in the clutch. Clark has avoided that, although this week brings a heightened challenge, for sure.
Penn State has been in the red zone a staggering 41 times, scoring touchdowns on 32 of those trips. Clark has thrown seven red zone TDs, with just one pick. If the Lions maintain that efficiency this week, I love their chances.
Clark also avoids the negative plays which destroy drives. He is excellent at throwing away the ball and avoiding sacks. Pryor, on other hand, has been trapped a lot. It's totally logical. His decision-making is not as quick as it needs to be, but it's improving. Against Aaron Maybin and the Lions' rushers, Pryor will have to read and react and make the proper throw faster than he has so far. Frequent sacks would kill Ohio State's chances.
The Buckeyes have surrendered a whopping 21 sacks, one for every eight passes attempted. Penn State has allowed just six sacks, one for every 38 attempts!
Running the ball is an obvious priority for both offenses. Ohio State said that Penn State's tackles were mashed by Michigan in the first 20 minutes, before adjustments were made, and the linebackers reshuffled. The changes were dramatic. Until the meaningless final possession, Penn State smothered Michigan's offense on eight straight possessions after the defense's drowsy start.
The Bucks' embattled O-line will try to show that Maybin's transformation from a third-down specialist to an every-down DE is not yet complete. Simply put, Beanie Wells must create a bunch of 5- and 6-yard runs and a long gallop or two. Pryor will have to freelance and make a big throw or two as Brian Robiskie, Ray Small and Brian Hartline work free against the Lions' zone defense.
This year, the bigger concern for Penn State is the defense.
Meanwhile, Lawrence Wilson's knee injury robs the Bucks of their best edge pass-rusher. OSU is not known for creative pressure packages, so it will be interesting to see how (and if) it can get near Clark. Relying on an excellent secondary to cover Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood, Deon Butler and the tight ends all night won't work. Can the Bucks create enough pressure on third downs with power pass rushes?
A nightmarish history of offensive failure in Penn State's visits to Columbus creates an intriguing backdrop Saturday night. In the seven straight losses at the Shoe, the Lions' offense has never topped 10 points! Ohio State has produced a staggering eight nonoffensive TDs in those seven games!
Penn State's brain trust faces an interesting challenge, too. With Joe Paterno seated in the press box, headset tilted forward on his head, he is just a few feet away from the play-calling tandem of his son, Jay, and Galen Hall. In the past, Joe never spent much time on the headset, until he decided to jump on to second-guess the play-calling philosophy.
These days, hearing the communication between Dick Anderson, Hall and JayPa, Paterno has actually pulled back and is doing less second-guessing. The unusual method of collective play-calling is working well. But with Joe so close, it had better be decisive and quick again Saturday night!
To outsiders, Penn State arrives with more at stake. But this feels like a "circle the wagons" game for Ohio State, which found a different gear last week. The Bucks will be a very tough out.

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