While No. 4 Ohio State may hold home-field advantage on Saturday night, Penn State has at least one thing going for it: they have nothing to lose.
As part of the NCAA sanctions currently constricting the Penn State football program the Nittany Lions are ineligible for bowl games for the next three seasons. While pride is still on the operating table for the team, wins and losses matter only in the locker room and on the recruiting trail.
That gives Bill O’Brien and his team a unique advantage against opponents to experiment. Penn State can play like there’s no tomorrow –because- essentially there isn’t. A win over the Buckeyes won’t push the Lions one win closer to bowl eligibility, it will still be a monumental win –but it’d be a different kind of win.
No doubt all those players who suit up against the Buckeyes in the Horseshoe on Saturday for the Nittany Lions want to leave with a win. And with the revenue (and overall positives) of a bowl already taken away from these players, they can play like there’s no tomorrow –and O’Brien can coach like it too.
Combine the Nittany Lions’ new attitude, O’Brien’s aggressiveness and an extra week to prepare and there should be some fireworks late Saturday night.
O’Brien has opened up the passing game despite starting a true freshman quarterback who didn’t even arrive on campus until the late summer. Christian Hackenberg has thrown 226 of the teams’ 230 passes in six games. A highly touted recruit last season, Hackenberg has rewarded the trust with by completing close to 60% of his passes on the season for 1,672 yards and 11 TD’s. The 279 yards per game the Lions average through the air is good for 17th in the now-spread happy college landscape.
Even on the road in a hostile environment with a freshman QB against the No. 4 team in the country, don’t expect O’Brien to be conservative. It’s just not his style.
It was O’Brien who decided to immediately test out his shiny new toy under center in the season opener against Syracuse. O’Brien had Hackenberg throw 31 times in his debut and the freshman from Palmyra, Va. Responded with 22 completions for 278 yards and two TD’s.
Since then, “Hack City” as he’s known around Happy Valley, he’s had at least 28 attempts in five games, throwing for nine TD’s and four INT’s. He’s also recorded back-to-back 300-yard passing games against Indiana and Michigan.
Not bad for a guy who didn’t have the luxury of enrolling early in the Spring like most of college footballs top recruits because his High School didn’t permit early graduation.
Under the circumstances, O’Brien should open up the playbook in effort to pull the upset knowing that his team is uniquely situated to be able to take some chances against the heavily favored Buckeyes.
But even then the team on the other sidelines is scary good.
Ohio State is rolling on a 19-game winning streak, and hasn’t tasted defeat since Urban Meyer came to Columbus. They’ve got the 11th ranked rushing attack in the country at close to 280 yards per game and have a Heisman hopeful under center and back healthy in Braxton Miller.
Oh by the way, Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall average 6.2 yards per carry out of the backfield and have combined for 881 yards and 13 TD’s on the season.
But that’s not all: receivers Philly Brown and Devin Smith have six TD’s apiece when the Buckeyes do decide to take a shot through the air where they still average 217 yards per game.
On paper and in the stat book the Buckeyes sure look like a team that averages 45 points per game. The Nittany Lions’ saving grace might be that Meyer’s Buckeyes have battled through some close calls in recent weeks: holding off Iowa by 10 at home last week and outlasting Northwestern on the road a week prior.
The Nittany Lions will surely need their front seven to play their best game of the season, which they’re certainly capable of. That push starts with senior defensive tackle Da’Quan Jones and continues into the second level of the defense with senior linebackers Mike Hull and Glenn Carson.
Even with all that offensive firepower, the Buckeyes will have to rely on their maligned defense to halt Penn State’s impressive aerial attack. Ohio State will count on All-American cornerback Bradley Roby to bounce back from his ejection last week and check the Nittany Lions’ best offensive threat in Allen Robinson. With Roby and Robinson locked up with each other most of the night, it will be up to other players on both the Ohio State defense and the Penn State offense to step up and make plays.
It should be a fun one this Saturday under the lights in the Horseshoe, just take a look at what ESPN’s Brian Bennett thinks will go down:
Brian Bennett: Yeah, I think this has a chance to be a wild one. So wild that I’m calling for … overtime. With a week off to prepare, I expect Bill O’Brien to throw the kitchen sink at the Buckeyes’ defense, and for Hackenberg to hook up with Allen Robinson for three scores. Ohio State mounts its patented comeback, ties the score on a Braxton Miller heave to Corey Brown, and wins it on a Hyde run in the second OT. … Ohio State 51, Penn State 48
I’m with Bennett, it’s going to be a wild one, but the Buckeyes survive late, 45-38.