Think back, if you can, to August of this year. Penn State was ranked 22nd in the preseason AP polls. An ageing JoePa was trying to keep his team out of trouble, and with Wisconsin and Ohio State in the preseason picture, a big ten title was more a hope than a reality.
Now fast forward to today. Who would have thought the Nittany Lions would be ranked third by week eight? Like it or not, Penn State is a national title contender now, and this week faces the biggest game of their season.
There is no question who has the most prolific offense in the big ten. There is no question who has the best QB in the conference. And one could argue that Penn State boasts a three wideout set that is the best in the country.
Tack on the deepest running back committee in the midwest and you have the makings of a potentially historically elite offense. In this writers mind, there is no question at all who will win the battle between Penn State’s offense and Ohio State’s defense. However, the question at large is: who will win on the other side?
That’s right, the most intriguing match-up of this week will be the clash of Penn State’s defense and Ohio State’s offense. And for Penn State, the workload will be substantial.
First and foremost, is the identification of the multiple threats OSU has to offer.
Beanie Wells. Need I say more? The buckeye standout has racked up 619 yards and 4 scores over just five games, for an impressive 123.8 yards a game. Combine that with a 6.1 yards per carry average and you have a dangerous weapon to stifle. A home run hitter with size to boot, Wells will give the Nittany Lions their biggest test on Saturday.
Tyrelle Pryor. The freshman phenom has had an excellent completion percentage at 65.6% and an equally impressive touchdown to interception ratio at 6:2. His QB rating of 144.1 has in all likelihood kept JoePa up all night this week. A dangerous threat both through the air and on the ground, Pryor will be the key to Ohio State’s success in keeping up with both Daryll Clark and Evan Royster.
Throw in a more than capable receiver corps, and it is obvious why the Nittany Lion defense has it’s work cut out for them. There is not one key to victory, but several.
First, and most importantly, the Lions must stop Chris Wells. Wells is the most reliable player on the buck’s offense as well as the most dangerous. If Wells can get 5-6 yards on first down, the Lions can expect a very long day on defense. Moreover, if Wells can prove to be a threat throughout the game, Penn State will have no choice but to commit an extra man to the box, giving Pryor more viable receiver options.
First things first, PSU must stop Wells. Linebackers Josh Hull and Tyrell Sales can ill-afford to start the game like they did last week against Michigan, which led to their benching, albeit briefly. A crucial performance is needed from the two in order to make a two dimensional attack one dimensional.
Second, Aaron Maybin must continue to do what he has done so well thus far this season. The redshirt sophomore has the incredibly important task of pressuring Pryor on passing plays.
Prior to last Saturday, Maybin led the nation in both sacks and tackles for loss, with nine and twelve and a half, respectively. If he can force the freshman Pryor to rush his throws, good things will happen for PSU. And there could not be a scarier threat for the bucks. Ohio State has allowed a whopping 21 sacks this year, a ratio of one for every eight pass attempts. This is a must-win battle for the Nittany Lions.
Third, Anthony Scirrotto has to play the game of his life. As the free safety of the defense, Scirrotto has the unenviable task of both covering OSU’s athletic wideouts while at the same time providing both contain and support to the linebackers when, and there is no question he will, Pryor escapes pressure and gets to the outside.
Scirrotto has, without a doubt has the most difficult task on Penn State’s defense, as he has to cover the most ground in order to fulfill his duties.
Lastly, the defense must work as a team to prevent the homerun plays that could level the playing field for the game. There is no question that PSU has the advantage on offense, with their numerous weapons. However, it might behoove the Penn State defense to employ a bend-but-don’t-break defense, although this may keep their offense off the field.
While Pryor has definitely shown the country he can perform in important games, keep in mind: he is still a freshman. If the Nittany Lions can force long drives of ten or more plays, they will be putting the game in Pryor’s hands. And if this writer had to choose who to put the pressure on, it would have to be Pryor over Wells.
Saturday’s game will have national title implications. If Penn State wants to overcome the depressing results of recent trips to Columbus, it is the defense, not the offense, that must provide the spark. And it will have to be a complete team effort, as is required by any defense facing a duel threat quarterback and an explosive running back.
But make no mistake, this Penn State team has the talent to do so, as they have averaged a stingy 11.7 points per game against. With the buckeyes offensive line giving up a generous 21 sacks through eight games, and Aaron Maybin breaking out as the next Lombardi trophy candidate, Penn State has a chance to put a stranglehold on the Big Ten conference. And of all things: defensively.