By Jared Trexler
The Phanatic Magazine
In a long distinguished list of sporting events to see before you die, a prime time tilt in Happy Valley must be near the top. Granted, any Saturday at Penn State is chalk full of loyal Lions -- 110,000-plus to be exact -- but there is just something about the national TV, under-the-lights, "White Out" atmosphere that brings the best out of college football.
Just this week, in preparation for his Buckeyes' upcoming night game in Beaver Stadium, Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins revealed he could barely hear when his club last played under the lights in State College (2005). Penn State won that game, 17-10, and a Troy Smith-led offense never gained traction against a hard-charging defense.
This installment of the rivalry has plenty of subtext. Believe it or not, Ohio State is the first top-ranked club to play in Beaver Stadium since 1989. The Buckeyes truly haven't been tested (unless you count games at Purdue and versus Michigan State), and many pigskin prognosticators are skeptical of Ohio State's claim to the top national spot. Penn State is playing its third game without running back Austin Scott, and its offense has looked much better with a more balanced offering and Evan Royster's insertion into the backfield mix.
What do the Nittany Lions have to accomplish to come out on top? Here are The Phanatic Magazine's Top 5 keys to victory.
1. Establish balance early. Easier said than done against an Ohio State defense that is yielding just over a touchdown per game and tops the Big Ten in every major defensive category. However, Penn State needs to come out with the same game plan implemented against Wisconsin and Indiana -- and not the turn-back-the-clock variety we saw at Michigan. Predictability is Penn State's worst nightmare, so The Phanatic Magazine surmises Anthony Morelli must come out throwing on first down, the offensive line must work downhill with quick passes and delayed draws negating a strong upfield rush, and Royster must see plenty of early action to pound a Buckeye defense that hasn't been physically tested all season. The Nittany Lions can't win this game in the first quarter -- nor with their crowd and defense can they likely lose it -- but offensive balance is a huge key early in the game, even if it doesn't equate to points.
2. Stop the Buckeyes ground game. The strength of Penn State's defense (front seven) needs to dictate tempo and play on the opposition's side of the field. Injuries have saddled the four down linemen in recent weeks (season-ending injuries to Jerome Hayes and Jared Odrick), but Maurice Evans is quickly growing into a game-changing pass rusher and the linebacker crew to still strong. Ohio State's passing game is predicated on Chris Wells' success between the tackles. Todd Boeckman loves the play-action pass, and his receivers excel on vertical routes. If Penn State's front seven can stop Wells and company -- 1)it will negate Ohio State's play-action vertical game and 2)it will keep safety Tony Davis in the deep middle instead of up near the line of scrimmage.
3. Play between the hashmarks on defense. If last week's victory over Indiana told us anything, it is that Penn State's defense is at its best between the outside edges. When the Lions lose contain or are spread wide, the unit struggles to stop stretches and tosses, as well as the tight end/slot receiver game in the middle of the field. Sean Lee, Dan Conor and Navarro Bowman are all sound tacklers with great game instincts, but the trio as a whole doesn't have blazing speed and freakish athletic ability (Bowman is still evolving as a player, so evaluating his athletic ability as it pertains to the field of play is still relatively unquantifiable). The Nittany Lions defense plays well with a strong upfield push from inside and well-maintained outside lanes that funnel all activity towards the middle of the field. Keeping Wells inside and forcing any reverses or gadget plays back to the defense's strength (inside linebacker and safety) will help keep the Buckeyes off the scoreboard.
4. The real Derrick Williams stands up. I had a perfect vantage point of Williams' TD run from the shotgun formation in Penn State's 2005 victory. He outran now-NFL star A.J. Hawk to the corner even though the linebacker had the proper angle. As Williams and the Penn State faithful celebrated, Hawk looked back at the coaching staff and threw his hands in the air, basically telling the Sweater Vest "He didn't look that fast on film." The nation's top recruit when he entered Penn State in 2005, Williams has never shown the same game-changing speed since breaking his hand several games after the Ohio State victory against Michigan. Since hands have little to do with speed, one has to guess Williams still plays tentative. That is if you are giving the highly-touted wide receiver the benefit of the doubt. If not, perhaps you feel Williams is a bust, another in a long line of high school stars who just didn't adjust, didn't meet expectations for whatever reason at the next level. Penn State needs at least one -- just one -- game-changing play from Williams Saturday night.
5. Mistake-free football. Morelli has been plagued by mistakes in big football games throughout his two-year stay as starter in Happy Valley. Perhaps that is why the signal-caller is 0-3 against Michigan and Ohio State. However, Morelli has looked more comfortable and precise over the last two weeks as the Penn State offense became less predictable. He still tends to eat the football at times instead of chucking it into Row 20, but he has rarely forced throws and has made his way through progressions much quicker. One of Penn State's strengths is at wide receiver, and Morelli needs to use those weapons to his advantage against the Buckeyes. A line similar to that from last season's Outback Bowl against Tennessee (180 passing, 1 TD, 0 INT) will keep Penn State in the game until the clock strikes zero.
Jared Trexler is the author of the upcoming book "Penn State Football: An Interactive Guide to the World of Sports" The book will be released by Savas Beatie in August 2008.